“It was to have been a film; it has turned out to be an epic instead, comparable to the chansons de geste, the mediaeval verse-chronicles of the heroic deeds of gallant knights; a book of the hours illuminated in the Olympic colours; a sumptuous illustration – aided by all the latest technical refinements available to the cinema – of the heights to which men are capable of rising when they are not engaged in war, politics or petty rivalries, but inspired rather by an authentic ideal,” wrote Claude Morgat in the November 1965 edition of the Olympic Review. “It was to have been a report, an account of Tokyo’s most glorious hours; it has turned out to be a paean of praise extolling man in the act of surpassing himself.”
Iconic Mont Fuji backdrop
Ichikawa’s now classic film opens with a close-up of a blazing sun, followed by images showing the demolition of old Tokyo buildings. These are then replaced by images of modern Tokyo and the Olympic venues built for the 1964 Games, while a voice-over lists all the editions of the Games of the Olympiad one by one, starting with Athens 1896, before coming to: “The 17th in Rome, Italy, in 1960. And now, in 1964, the 18th, in Tokyo, Japan.”
The entire remainder of the film is devoted to the people and athletes who made the Games, through wide shots and close-ups, in real time and slow motion. We see crowds welcoming the Olympic torch in several major cities throughout Asia and then, in what would become an iconic sequence, the torchbearer passing in front of Mount Fuji. Ichikawa chose to shoot this sequence from afar, from the other side of the Tōkaidō road and Shinkansen high-speed railway line that connect Tokyo and Osaka; a plume of smoke emerges from the torch as it moves across the screen, against the backdrop of the imposing volcano with its snow-capped peak. “This scene was acknowledged as a great symbol of Japan,” wrote Naofumi Masumoto in 1996 in the Third Symposium for Olympic Research.
The Opening Ceremony footage largely focuses on the faces of the athletes, who gather in ordered groups in the centre of the grass in the Olympic Stadium before dispersing and heading to the edge of the cinder track to form a guard of honour for Yoshinori Sakai, the final torchbearer; and on the faces of the crowd watching the final spectacle – Japanese jet planes forming the Olympic rings in the sky – with admiration.
Rubbing elbows with the likes of Bob Hayes, Věra Čáslavská and Anton Geesink
Ichikawa then immediately takes us to the heart of the action, following Bob Hayes’ progress in the 100m heats, showing him in the starting blocks before the final, with an intense look of concentration on his face before the starting pistol, and then, in slow motion, his sprint to gold-medal glory.
The tone is set, and the rest of the film stays as close as possible to the athletes, homing in on the movements of pole vaulters and shot-putters, on the faces of the 800m runners as they line up for the race, on the long jumpers competing in the pouring rain. The competition results are not important; what counts is the technical beauty of sport, the effort, the athletes’ determination to excel themselves.
Ichikawa also shines a spotlight on the technical grace of Czechoslovakian gymnast Věra Čáslavská, who won three gold medals at Tokyo 1964.
Her performances in the vault and balance beam seem tailor-made for this film; she appears alone, against a black background, and her routine is shown in slow motion, with each second of movement frozen momentarily on screen. Other athletes then appear, at times moving so quickly that all that can be seen is a flurry of bodies performing cartwheels and other acrobatic moves, before the camera settles on the floor exercise event.
One of the most striking sequences is when Dutchman Anton Geesink shocks the home crowd by winning the final of the judo open competition against Japanese champion Akio Kamnaga, in the sport’s debut appearance on the Olympic programme.
This moment of Olympic history is shot at ground level from the tatami; the sequence captures the very end of the bout as Geesink pins his rival down with a kesa-getame hold and is declared the winner. The film goes through each and every sport in turn, focusing on the facial expressions, physical efforts and technical brilliance of the athletes in a spectacular procession of images set to stirring music.
Abebe Bikila’s stride to victory
The film’s final sequences follow the progress of Abebe Bikila – wearing white shoes, having won gold at Rome 1960 running barefoot – in the marathon. The camera zooms in on an impassive Bikila as he heads for a second consecutive title and shows him entering the stadium in slow motion, roared on by the crowd. It also lingers on the expressions of the other competitors, capturing the physical toll of their exertions.
The film concludes with the Closing Ceremony and the athletes cheerfully waving to the crowd, calling out that they will see their fans again at Mexico City 1968. The scoreboard displays the message: “Sayonara! Night, and the fire returns to the sun: for humans dream thus only once in four years. Is it then enough for us – this infrequent, created peace?”
“It was to have been a film,” concludes Morgat. “It turned out to be a living fresco of contemporary humanity, depersonalising the star in order to personalise the individual. The report, the film, the documentary remain only in so far as news contains an eternal truth. In the final analyses, man alone appears to be an end in himself. That is why this film will remain deeply engraved in our memory for a long time to come: through the beauty of its forms and colours, beyond appearances and motives, it gives us a marvellous lesson in humanity. Out of this film, man emerges the winner… That is to say, a better individual.”