Like many Hollywood blockbusters delayed by the pandemic, the Tokyo Olympics open this week with the expectation of greatly diminished returns.
Delayed for a year by the COVID-19 outbreak but still bearing the label Tokyo 2020 — how else will they unload all that merchandise? — the Games of the XXXII Olympiad face unprecedented challenges with athletes dropping out after testing positive for the coronavirus, no fans allowed to attend, residents resentful that their calls to cancel the Games were dismissed and the opening ceremony composer stepping down after past bullying behavior surfaced.
But when it comes to waiting, the city had a much longer haul the last time it hosted the Games in 1964. Tokyo had been granted the right to host the 1940 Olympics but forfeited what would have been its first Games after Japan invaded China in 1937 — the event was eventually canceled entirely due to World War II. In 1959, following the devastation of the war and a long recovery, Tokyo was given a second chance to be the first Asian host city when it was awarded the 1964 Games.
In five films set during the Games of the XVIII Olympiad, we can gain insights into the host nation and its citizens, as well as the athletes and spectators who experienced the event. The films, released over the last 57 years, include a much-heralded documentary by one of Japan’s foremost directors, a largely forgotten crime melodrama, a romantic comedy that marked a golden age star’s swan song, an anime film from one of the Japan’s most famous studios and a brand-new documentary that looks back on an extraordinary group of women.
“Tokyo Olympiad” (1965), the official documentary commissioned by the organizing committee and the Japanese government, opens with the words, “The Olympics are a symbol of human aspiration.” This is followed by an impossibly bright sun against a red sky and then a wrecking ball demolishing old buildings in anticipation of the Games and Japan’s future.
Directed by Kon Ichikawa, who is placed by some critics on the highest echelon of Japanese cinema, the film offers a human-scale portrait of the Games, an artist’s interpretation of the athletes and spectators. It is part of the Criterion Collection’s archival restoration project “100 Years of Olympic Films: 1912-2012,” currently streaming on the Criterion Channel and HBO Max.
Though now considered one of the great sports films of all time, Ichikawa’s original, nearly three-hours-long submission — which dispensed with many traditional tropes of the form — was not accepted by the organizing committee. Expecting an exaltation of victors and an aggrandizement of the host country’s preparations and successes, the committee requested that Ichikawa cut the film to the essential elements. That 93-minute version was released in the U.S., but Ichikawa’s vision persisted and the longer cut was critically acclaimed and won two BAFTA Awards.
Ichikawa utilized the tools of his craft — multiple cameras, slow-motion, still photography, state-of-art technology and a phalanx of editors — to view the athletic competition as an art form. An eclectic use of music, featuring Toshirô Mayuzumi’s score, allowed the filmmaker to constantly shift gears, moving fluidly between expressionistic and impressionistic forms.
On the track, “Tokyo Olympiad” grants time to both the communal celebration of victory and the quiet solitude of defeat. It captures the explosiveness of future Dallas Cowboys star Bob Hayes in winning the 100 meters, the astounding come-from-behind victory by American Billy Mills in the 10,000 meters as well as the disappointment of Japan’s Ikuko Yoda, who finished fifth in the women’s 80-meters hurdles. “She did her best,” says the stoic broadcaster.
The film’s one off-the-field, up-close-and-personal portrait is of 800-meter runner Ahmed Issa, representing the African nation of Chad in its first Olympics. The cameras follow Issa as he trains, roams the Olympic village and visits Tokyo before being eliminated in the second round of his event, a tiny window into what the Games are like for the majority of the athletes.
Gymnastics are given a balletic treatment, a panorama of twisting, turning bodies in motion, while swimming stars such as Don Schollander of the U.S. and Australia’s Dawn Fraser are lighted like Greek gods as they launch themselves from their starting blocks toward Olympic gold.
Less concerned with presenting results than revealing the grace, power and skill of the athletes, Ichikawa takes a kaleidoscopic approach, grouping similar sports such as wrestling, boxing and fencing, or canoeing, rowing and yachting in variably styled, sometimes abstract montages.
Japan’s success in judo, winning three weight classes, is undercut when Anton Geesink of the Netherlands defeats the host country’s Akio Kaminaga in the open division. Ichikawa immediately follows that loss with the Games’ other debut sport, volleyball, where the elite Japanese women’s team scores a straight-sets, if hard-fought, win over the Soviet Union, a moment we will revisit more than 50 years later in another documentary.
“Olympiad” ventures out into metropolitan Tokyo when the athletes hit the streets in the cycling road race in Hachiōji, the 50-kilometer race walk (Ichikawa comically focuses on the walkers waddling lower torsos) and the men’s marathon (it would be 20 years before women were allowed to compete at that most romantic and grueling of distances), both passing through the city of Fuchū.
As the great Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila, who famously traversed the streets of Rome barefoot to claim the gold medal four years earlier, defends his marathon title (this time wearing Pumas), the camera lingers on new construction, something to replace what that earlier wrecking ball had erased. Japan’s athletes get a final spotlight as Kōkichi Tsuburaya, though outkicked by Great Britain’s Basil Heatley in the final 200 meters for second place, wins the bronze.
Exuberance and the film’s sole purely sentimental moment occur during the closing ceremonies, when an announcer modestly boasts that they are “the most exciting in Olympic history” as “Auld Lang Syne” plays the athletes off the world stage.
Despite calls to cancel the Tokyo Olympics due to coronavirus cases, the city is opening its borders to tens of thousands of people because it’s too expensive to halt the Games.
In “Escape From Japan,” we get a cynical view of the Olympics from the demimonde. Written and directed by Kijū Yoshida (also known as Yoshishige Yoshida), his last film before departing the Shochiku studio to work independently, this B-movie thriller was released two months before the opening of the 1964 Games to capitalize on the fervor surrounding them.
Yasushi Suzuki stars as Tatsuo, a frenetic jazz club gopher with dreams of being a singer in the U.S. He gets hoodwinked by heroin-addicted drummer Takashi (Kyosuke Machida) into participating in a heist at a Turkish bath. When the job goes awry and a cop is killed, Tatsuo attempts to flee the country with the help of Yasue (Miyuki Kuwano), a disillusioned bathhouse worker equally deceived by Takashi.
Never released in the U.S. (an intrepid cinephile may be able to find it on DVD), it’s a fairly underwhelming noir steeped in paranoia and claustrophobia, primarily of interest because of the setting. Early in the film, when Tatsuo visits a neighbor, he notices she’s redecorated. “The Olympics are soon,” she replies. “I want to please the tourists. I should be an ambassador of charm!” That Yoshida puts these words in the mouth of a prostitute speaks volumes about the filmmaker’s opinion of his country’s push to ingratiate the West.
Later, as the authorities close in on Tatsuo, with his hopes of escape fading and his American fantasy collapsing, he stumbles into the Olympic torch relay. The film shifts to tragic farce, the big international event merely an absurd spectacle obscuring the country’s real problems.
Cary Grant’s farewell
Two years after the Olympics came the Columbia Pictures romantic comedy “Walk, Don’t Run,” starring Cary Grant, Samantha Eggar and Jim Hutton (available for rental on most digital platforms). A remake of the 1943 Jean Arthur-Joel McCrea-Charles Coburn romp “The More the Merrier” and written by Sol Saks, it’s notable for being the final feature film for both Grant and veteran director Charles Walters (“Lili,” “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”) with a score by none other than Quincy Jones.
Reset in Tokyo during the height of the Olympic housing crisis, “Walk” turns on career girl Christine Easton (Eggar) reluctantly subletting half of her flat to Grant’s British industrialist, Sir William Rutland, who in turn sublets half of his half to Steve Davis (Hutton), an American athlete-architect who won’t reveal which event he is competing in. Romantic entanglement ensues with a young, pre-Sulu George Takei playing a police captain intent on untangling an espionage operation that exists entirely in the overheated imagination of a gullible KGB agent.
“Walk” provides a lightweight Western perspective on Japan, reinforcing the idea of the nation as an emerging economic force — Rutland is there to buy transistors for his factory in the U.K. — and the obliging nature of the people. Though an early scene at the hotel where Rutland has arrived two days early to find there are no rooms available appears to mock the hosts’ subservience, the Japanese characters are generally portrayed as more capable and knowing than their frivolous visitors.
Studio Ghibli games
The wrecking ball of “Tokyo Olympiad” makes an indirect appearance in the 2011 Studio Ghibli anime “From Up on Poppy Hill” (streaming on HBO Max in subtitled Japanese- and English-language versions), based on a manga of the same name. Directed by Gorō Miyazaki and scripted by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, the romantic drama depicts a group of high school kids attempting to save a beloved structure from demolition in 1963 Yokohama.
Umi and Shun are serious-minded teens with a star-crossed attraction as they rally their classmates to renovate an old building the school’s male students use as a clubhouse and convince the board of education not to tear it down. The impassioned student debates leading to the renovation reflect the divided sentiment of the Japanese people before the Games. As political forces pushed to embrace modernization and bury the past, a large contingent believed in maintaining a connection to their ancestors and history.
A sequence late in the film where Umi, Shun and another student take a train into Tokyo to meet with the school board chairman offers a vivid, animated view of the city, highlighting some of the same landmarks seen in the live-action films. Giant posters promoting the Olympics and a metropolis in transition reflect the inevitability of the change, while the film maintains its nostalgia-soaked vision of the past.
The 2021 documentary “The Witches of the Orient,” playing the Laemmle Royal through July 22 and Laemmle Virtual Cinema until July 29, is a portrait of the early 1960s Japanese women’s volleyball team and its dominance of the sport. Like Ichikawa, French director Julian Faraut eschews sports documentary clichés in favor of a more experimental treatment, deploying audio interviews with the surviving members who are now in their late 70s, accompanied by contemporary footage, 16-millimeter film of practice sessions and even anime to create a vivid contrast of their lives today and their experiences six decades earlier.
The “Witches” nickname was coined by Soviet journalists after the team seemingly appeared out of nowhere with unworldly skills. In reality, Kinuko Tanida, Yoshiko Matsumura, Katsumi Matsumura, Yoko Shinozaki and their teammates were simply hard-working textile factory employees who emerged as Japan’s national team under the fierce direction of coach Hirofumi Daimatsu, an army veteran. Many critics have called his tactics abusive, but the women themselves credit the training for their achievements and making their later lives easier by comparison.
As the film builds to the 1964 Olympic final showdown with the Soviet Union, it establishes the importance of the outcome to Japan and the pressure the women felt to succeed — to the point where they contemplated what country they might move to if they lost. With its uniquely long-term perspective, the film offers a rare dive into the psyches and memories of elite athletes during perhaps the most intense period of their lives.
While the 1964 Games were not without controversy, it’s hard to deny that the organizers achieved their goal of reintroducing Japan to the world as a modern, peaceful nation and help set the path for remarkable economic growth. It will be years before we know how many movies the Games of the XXXII Olympiad may inspire, but let’s hope that they are this eclectic and not of the true-life disaster genre.