A spectacle of magnificent proportions and remarkable intimacy, Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad remains one of the greatest films ever made about sports. Supervising a team of hundreds of technicians using more than a thousand cameras, Ichikawa captured the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo in glorious widescreen images, using cutting-edge telephoto lenses and exquisite slow motion to create lyrical, idiosyncratic poetry from the athletic drama surging all around him. Drawn equally to the psychology of losers and winners—including legendary Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila, who receives the film’s most exalted tribute—Ichikawa captures the triumph, passion, and suffering of competition with a singular humanistic vision, and in doing so effects a transformative influence on the art of documentary filmmaking.
Years after their original DVD edition went out-of-print, The Criterion Collection reissues Kon Ichikawa’s film covering the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, Tokyo Olympiad, on Blu-ray. The film is again presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on this dual-layer with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. It has been sourced from the same 4K restoration that was used for the film in Criterion’s enormous 100 Years of Olympic Films box set. According to the notes a variety of materials were scanned to get the best looking image possible: the 35mm original negative of the other 1964 Olympics film, Sensation of the Century (which used the same footage that was shot by Ichikawa, even using footage not in Tokyo Olympiad), negatives of four compilation sports films, and then the 35mm interpositive and internegative for Tokyo Olympiad, where the original negatives for the footage could not be found/used.
I was thrilled with how the restoration turned out for the film in Criterion’s Olympics set and am still pleased with it here—though not without one caveat that I will get into later. Upon first viewing the new 4K restoration and final high-definition presentation on the other disc I was quite sunned how much of a clear night-and-day difference the presentation offered over the Criterion DVD, which was strong in its own right. Like the other disc this presentation presents better colours, more detail in both long shots and close-ups, nice looking grayscale in the black-and-white sequences, and the action is still smooth and clear. Black levels are also strong, but shadow detail can be a bit limited in darker shots, or sequences that look to have been filmed at night, but I feel this is inherent to the source materials and is a byproduct of lighting.
The restoration job done on the DVD’s presentation was impressive for the time, but I don’t recall a single blemish popping up here. Where the image ends up being a bit weak—the caveat I spoke of earlier—is in the encode and final digital presentation: it’s a little noisier here, nothing too significant, and most of the time you have to be looking for it, but it’s noticeable, even on the television. It’s most obvious in the rendering of the film’s grain, which shows some pixilation, and it can look a bit worse in darker scenes. The previous Blu-ray looked far more natural and cleaner in comparison, pixilation not being an issue. This more than likely comes down to compression: the film had more room to breathe on the disc in the Olympics set, the file sitting at 46 GB on that release, whereas this edition has it share the disc with all of the supplemental material, compressing the film down to 31.8 GB to make room for everything else. Based on file size along that’s a pretty significant down grade, and it unfortunately does show on the screen.
In the end, for those that want the film and can’t justify spending anywhere between $200 and $400 for it (which is fair), the restoration and presentation is still great, and still offers a significant upgrade over the DVD. But it would have been really beneficial to release this as a 2-disc edition, with the film taking up all of the first disc, with the noticeably cleaner presentation found in the Olympics set showcasing it.
Like the Olympics set, the film comes with a lossless PCM 1.0 Japanese audio track, with English subtitles (there are also burned-in Japanese subtitles throughout, which was also the case in previous presentations). The following is from my coverage for the film in the Olympics set, and it holds true here:
The lossless PCM 1.0 mono track manages to pull off some surprising depth and fidelity, at least in regards to music and the sound effects of athletes grunting, feet hitting the track, and the clanging of the various tools used throughout. This all sounds great and manages to be amazingly immersive despite the single channel limitation. The narration, though, like the DVD, still sounds quite flat, and maybe even a bit edgy, at least in comparison to everything else found on the track. But I would still blame that on the original recordings and don’t feel it is an issue with the final restoration.
Criterion had thrown a couple of supplements onto their previous DVD edition for the film, most notably an excellent audio commentary by film scholar (and Olympics nut) Peter Cowie. Sadly, the Olympics set featured no on-disc supplements, not even the already-created features found on the previous DVD edition (the set did come with a great fully bound book, though). Thankfully Criterion is releasing the film on its own again and have not only carried over all of the on-disc content from their previous DVD, but they’ve also added some new content as well.
Things start off again with that excellent aforementioned audio commentary, recorded in 2001 for the 2002 DVD edition. Again, it covers the film and event from several different perspectives. Throughout he likes to focus on Ichkawa’s playful nature in presenting some of the events (which he gets into again in a new introduction he does for this release) and talks about the construction of the film and the framing of the events (as well as the ire this caused with the Japanese Olympic committee who didn’t appreciate the heavily stylized nature of the film). But Cowie, a self-proclaimed Olympic aficionado, talks in signifiant detail about each event within the film, and even covers the history of said event in some cases. He’ll cover details around some of the athletes, explaining what happened to some afterwards, and even talks about the then-upcoming Beijing Olympics. It’s also especially amusing when he gets into the various doping controversies. Impressively Cowie keeps the track going at a good beat for the film’s entire running time and it’s one I very much recommend listening to. It’s still one of my favourite tracks.
As mentioned in the last paragraph, Cowie also provides a new introduction to the film, running 12-minutes and recorded in January of 2020. It’s a bit of a summation of the commentary, touching on Ichikawa’s work prior to this film and what he was looking to accomplish with this one. He also looks briefly at the construction and playful nature of Ichikawa. This introduction is then followed by a collection of archival material featuring Kon Ichikawa. New to this edition are two short NTV segments from 1964, the first (running 8-minutes) featuring Ichikawa explaining how he came to accept the challenge of filming the 1964 Olympics, what he hoped to accomplish, how much he planned to film, and what it was going to be like filming in scope. This is followed by a 3-minute interview after filming had completed, featuring Ichikawa hard at work editing his footage (though it has obviously been staged) and talking about what he learned from the experience. Criterion also carries over the 1992 interview with the director that they included on their previous DVD edition. Here he discusses the reasoning behind his choices for the film and the work that went into getting the shots and footage he did. It’s a far more illuminating detailed in comparison to the other interviews and runs a lengthy 32-minutes.
As Cowie mentions (to an extent) in the commentary, the Japanese Olympics Committee was not all that happy with the film, despite the success it found, expecting something more patriotic or generic (I guess) and less experimental. The footage that Ichikawa filmed (which included footage that had been used Tokyo Olympiad along with footage that had not been used) was taken to construct a second film, Sensation of the Century. This film ended up being included in the Olympics box set and I actually half-expected it to show up as a supplement for this edition since I highly doubted there would be much interest for it on its own.
Unfortunately Criterion hasn’t included it, either because they couldn’t or didn’t see much of a point (it’s not a terribly interesting film, just straight coverage of the events). Instead, Criterion includes about 84-minutes’ worth of additional footage that looks to have been put together by Peter Cowie for this release. I was expecting the material to be just a collection of footage that was exclusive to Sensation of the Century, but that’s not even the case, as some of the material here doesn’t even appear in that film. Also to my surprise, the material has also been edited together and features voice-over narration that differs from both films. At first I wondered if maybe this was material that had been edited into Tokyo Olympiad and then cut out later, but it actually looks as though this is material used in the four short films mentioned in the notes on the restoration, which used the negatives for Tokyo Olympiad. There is a “The End” title card that further suggests this.
Criterion divides this section into four parts: “Track and Field,” “Aquatics,” “Ball Sports,” and then the longest section at 40-minutes, “Wrestling, Weight, Lifting, and Cycling,” each of which can be watched individually or altogether. Though the films/segments use footage that was shot by Ichikawa and his crew, meaning the material looks great, it’s still all presented in a generic way so that it ends up being more along the lines of what you would expect from a sports documentary. But, as Cowie points out in the 9-minute introduction to the footage (that shows its pre-COVID-19 days when Cowie talks about the “upcoming” 2020 Tokyo Olympics), the footage is still no less important and there is still some thrilling stuff here. Pleasingly, the footage has been completely restored and is presented in high-definition, though it has been heavily compressed and it unfortunately shows during quicker moments.
Either getting Sensation of the Century or the complete short films themselves (these don’t appear to be complete) would have been better, but any additional material is still welcome.
Criterion also provides a new making-of documentary, the 31-minute A Singular Vision, featuring interviews with Ichikawa’s son, Tatsumi Ichikawa, as well as editor Chizuko Osada and cameraman Masuo Yamaguchi. Ichikawa talks about his memories of his father (and mother) working on the film and Osada recalls the amazing footage she was receiving and the task of putting it all together. Yamaguchi shares what it was like actually being out in the field, the difficulty in knowing what to point the camera at, and the unbelievable luck he (and I can only imagine the rest of the crew) had in getting some of the footage he did. He also recounts the instructions Ichikawa gave them in how to “film humans.” The first-hand material from Yamaguchi and Osada is the highlight of the 31-minute segment.
Criterion also includes an interview with the restoration’s producer, Adrian Wood. Wood was tasked with restoring the Olympic films and the bulk of that hard work is evident in the Olympics box set. This 7-minute interview excerpt focuses on Tokyo Olympiad, with Wood giving some background to the film’s production before getting into the task of tracking down the best available elements, which had been spread out and used across multiple films. Wood also mentions a stereo track for the film, which Ichikawa preferred, but there are no longer any known copies of it. He also talks a little about Sensation of the Century, though more as a footnote. The whole project is a fascinating one, and I liked his notes found in the Olympic set’s book, so if Criterion manages to release any more of the films from that set I’m hoping they’ll include more information like this around the restorations.
The disc then closes off with the film’s theatrical trailer. The previous DVD included an excellent booklet that not only featured an essay by George Plimpton, but also featured notes by various scholars on the controversies around the film that led to the alternate version. The booklet also featured a complete list of the winners in every event. Sadly, none of this gets ported over, not even Cowie’s essay found in the Olympic set’s book. Instead we get an insert with a short essay by James Quandt, covering the film, how it fits in Ichikawa’s filmography, his use of widescreen, and how Olympia and its director, Leni Riefenstahl, served as inspiration (Ichikawa even mentions the film in the archival interviews found here). It’s a fine essay but this insert is still a huge step-down from the Criterion DVD’s booklet.
All-in-all, despite any of the short-comings and missing material, the supplements still prove incredibly fascinating and offer a very well-rounded analysis of the film. It would have been disappointing if Criterion wasn’t able to at least port over their previous DVD edition, but they’ve managed to outdo that edition with some great new material.
Packing the film and its supplements onto one disc have unfortunately impacted the image a bit, with the film’s presentation in Criterion’s 100 Years of Olympic Films box set looking noticeably better, but they’ve still put together a very satisfying collection of supplements that should please film buffs and Olympics fans alike.