There are two official films of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the first to be held in Asia. The Tokyo Organizing Committee chose noted filmmaker Kon Ichikawa to direct Tokyo Olympiad. Ichikawa had been making feature films for more than 25 years and was best known for two films about the plight of individual Japanese soldiers after the collapse of the Japanese army: The Burmese Harp and Fire on the Plains. Tokyo Olympiad is one of the only Olympic films to achieve “crossover” status, praised by critics who were not particularly interested in sports. The Organizing Committee, on the other hand, was not so impressed, considering it too artistic, with too little coverage of the range of sports. To a certain extent, this criticism is justified. For example, Ichikawa dispenses with five of the six team sports in a matter of seconds. The field hockey final, between India and Pakistan, referred to as “The Fated Match,” is given some attention because a fight nearly breaks out.
There is extended coverage of the final victory of the Japanese women’s volleyball team over the Soviet Union. In addition to seeing the players in tears, Ichikawa shows us the Japanese coach, Hirofumi Daimatsu, sitting alone on the bench, with a relieved mission-accomplished look on his face. To foreign observers, this presentation might appear heartwarming. To Japanese, at the time, it was a major event, with 80% of Japanese TVs tuned to the final match. By today’s standards, Daimatsu would be considered a villain. He was physically abusive to his players, hitting them in the head and kicking them.
The motto of the Tokyo Games was “Peace, Love and Courage.” After showing the Olympic Flame run through Hiroshima 19 years after the city was destroyed by a U.S. atomic bomb, we see a Pan Am airplane land in Tokyo and young American athletes descend onto the tarmac to be greeted by the Japanese. Coverage of the Torch Relay and the Opening Ceremony culminates in the final runner entering the stadium, climbing a long flight of stairs and, after smiling to the crowd, lighting the cauldron. What the film does not mention, although it would have been well-known to Japanese, is that this runner, Yoshinori Sakai, was born in Hiroshima on the day of the bombing.
Twenty-six minutes into this 170-minute film, we see an athletic event for the first time: the men’s 100 meters final, won by Bob Hayes of the United States. The narrator observes that the eight runners look so intense that “they almost look sad.” This sets the stage for 50 minutes of track and field—mostly field—coverage, highlighted by engaging use of close-ups, slow motion and sound effects. Special emphasis is given to two come-from-behind victories, those of American Billy Mills in the 10,000 meters and Ann Packer of Great Britain in the 800 meters.
It isn’t until 76 minutes into the film that we are shown athletes from another sport: gymnasts in a montage that includes both women and men.
After an intermission, Ichikawa focuses on a single athlete, 800-meter runner Ahmed Issa of Chad, which was taking part in the Olympics for the first time. Unlike the racist coverage of Liberian athletes in the French-made 1956 Melbourne film, Issa is treated with respect and praised for making it into the semifinals.
Twice, we are told that Japanese women, Ikuko Yoda in the 80-meter hurdles and Satoko Tanaka in the 100-meter backstroke, finished out of the medals, but “She did her best.”
There are two omissions which are probably due to poor subtitling. After Australian Dawn Fraser wins the 100-meter freestyle, we are told that she has done something no one has done before in Olympic history…without telling us what that is. (She was the first swimmer to win the same event three times.)
The extremely brief coverage of modern pentathlon, which consists of a montage of black and white stills, concludes that the real story was all about the athlete who placed 37th (and last) and used the breaststroke in the swimming portion of the event because a shoulder injury prevented him from using the crawl stroke that everyone else used. But his name is not mentioned. For the record, it was Choi Gwi-seung of South Korea.
The final competition sequence of Tokyo Olympiad is a 34-minute visual essay on the marathon. The focus of attention is Abebe Bikila, the first person to win the marathon twice. However, we are also shown the struggles of many other runners, including Jim Hogan of Ireland, who was well-placed for a medal until he became dehydrated. He is shown sitting on the ground in front of a crowd of spectators, desperately gesturing for water.
The film concludes with the message, “The peace that we have created—are we going to let it go just like a dream that fades away?”