Friday A/V Club: The Fascist, the Humanist, and the Olympics

How Kon Ichikawa outdid Leni Riefenstahl


The most famous documentary ever made about the Olympics is Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia, which does double duty as a record of the 1936 games in Germany and as a much-cited specimen of fascist aesthetics. The second most famous documentary ever made about the Olympics is probably Kon Ichikawa's Tokyo Olympiad, which covered the 1964 games in Japan and to my taste is a much better movie. Both are heavily stylized, but otherwise their approaches are radically different. "In my film," Ichikawa later said, "rather than focusing on physical beauty and strength, I wanted to explore the internal dimensions of the athletes. I wanted my film to be sort of the antithesis of Riefenstahl's Olympia."

While Riefenstahl's work was in line with her Nazi benefactors' vision, the Japanese government wasn't exactly blown away by the humanist documentary that Ichikawa turned in. ("They even asked whether I could reshoot some of it," the filmmaker later claimed, "but I was able to reply truthfully that circumstances prevented it as the entire cast had left Japan.") The director had been more interested in individual athletes than national glory, and at times was more interested in the losers than the winners. (At one moment, after we watch a runner win a race, the movie jumps ahead to show us the last man to cross the finish line.) Shooting the marathon, Ichikawa's chief concern seems to be the sheer physical pain of completing it—or, for some runners, failing to complete it. With the gymnastics and bicycling events, Ichikawa loses virtually all interest in the competition itself and focuses on filming the gymnasts and cyclists in the most interesting ways possible. Sometimes his attention alights on something seemingly peripheral to the action, like the rain falling on the field and crowd; for a few seconds, he is distracted by a lemon.

Toho Company

The film isn't entirely devoid of Big Visions, though. The first 25 minutes, devoted to the torch relay and the opening ceremonies, are a concentrated dose of earnest U Thant–era internationalism. But even here there are a couple of moments that feel like wry, dark jokes, though I'm not sure Ichikawa meant them that way. Like when the Soviet and American athletes march adjacent to each other and an announcer exults in "the friendship that is prevailing between East and West"—and then, immediately afterward, we see a shot of the squad from South Vietnam.

The Olympic Channel has posted Tokyo Olympiad on YouTube; it's set so it can't be embedded in a blog post, but you can see it here. You can watch it in one sitting or, if you want to keep an eye on the games that begin today in Rio, you can split it up, interspersing Ichikawa's segments with the more straightforward sports journalism unfolding on TV.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. To see me grousing about the Olympics as an institution, go here.)