Enthralled for all three hours of Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad, I was astonished to find it ranked with but two and half stars in Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide.  Maltin rarely errs about ANYthing.  Reading further, I found the following:  “If you’re lucky enough to see the superb original version of this documentary about the 1964 Olympics, shoot this rating to ***1/2.  This one was cut down for U.S. release and virtually destroyed by insipid narration…” (2007 Movie Guide.)

Readers may recall my earlier blog of October 31, 2011 titled “Up at Carnegie Hall” in which I discuss the penchant of American documentary film for narration, aiming not so much for film as for illustrated lecture. ( See also response by reader BEC ,December 21, 2011, and my further response to that, March 16, 2012.)  One of the features of Tokyo Olympiad which so impresses me is its absence of voice-over.  There is occasional narration to supply information not visually expressible.  But Ichikawa’s film is made up of moving pictures of moving athletes.

It is an artful selection of the summer events of 1964.  Ichikawa likes banners and pigeons and binoculars, tense throats and bleeding feet, the comical twitching butts of speed walkers  —  and the enthusiasm of unknown spectators rather than today’s coverage of celebrity parents.  The ’64 games are a sharp contrast to today’s Olympics which have become a television show.  Here the parade of nations is still important as are national anthems.  Winners are moved enough to sing and weep.  Losers are covered, respectfully, even tenderly.  The opening and closing ceremonies are eloquently simple.  Ichikawa’s art makes the most of them and of everything else.  Especially memorable is the second consecutive gold medal run by Ethiopia’s champion Abebe Bikila.

The Criterion DVD includes a splendid interview with the great Ichikawa in which, among other topics, he offers comparison of his film with Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympiad of the 1936 games.

N.B.:  The Variety Guide mentions “English commentary supervised by Donald Richie.”  I wrote earlier of the unlikelihood of Leonard Maltin in error; but I have a hard time imagining Japanese cinema expert Richie supervising an insipid commentary.  But I am now writing about a version I never saw and should not discuss.

Tokyo Olympiad
Kon Ichikawa


See you at the movies,


  1. I love the connection Rick makes between this documentary and the increasingly insipid and almost jingoistic coverage that American Olympic viewers endure. While I confess I haven’t seen the documentary, it sounds as if it reflects the Olympic motto in its chosen focus–the beauty that can be found in the effort and dedication of Olympians. It would be a fascinating lesson in the study of film and journalism to compare this film with current Olympics coverage. And also, given our on-going conversation about narration in American documentaries, to try to track when excessive narration enters American film. I wonder how much, if at all, it coincides with the explosion in popularity of television.

    In what I’ll hope you’ll find are interesting connections among the Olympics, film, and the American penchant for misguided narration, one of the Tokyo Olympics best-known moments is American Lakota Indian Billy Mills winning the 10,000 meters; he is still the only American to win the event. The two American sportscasters reporting the event failed to see Mills make his historic sprint to the front on the final straightaway, and thus their spotter began shouting “look at Mills! Look at Mills!” It is considered one of the greatest calls in Olympic history, but the spotter was fired for interrupting the placid narration of the oblivious headlining sportscasters. Interesting to thinking about in the context of our narration conversation.

    On a related note, I’m reminded of the best feature film about the Olympics, 1982 best picture winner Chariots of Fire. Some of the film’s most compelling moments are conveyed through narration, as we hear characters’ voices at great remove from their physical bodies or read newspaper headlines. It is a reminder of how beautifully narration can advance, or, in the case of Chariots, close a film–who can forget Aubrey telling us that Harold Abrahams “ran them off their feet.”

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