A spectacle of magnificent proportions, Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad ranks among the greatest documents of sport ever committed to film. Utilizing glorious widescreen cinematography, Ichikawa examines the beauty and rich drama on display at the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo, creating a catalogue of extraordinary observations that range from the expansive to the intimate. The glory, despair, passion, and suffering of Olympic competition are rendered with lyricism and technical mastery, culminating in an inspiring testament to the beauty of the human body and the strength of the human spirit.
Criterion’s original (now long out-of-print) DVD edition for Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad presents the film on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The picture has been enhanced for widescreen televisions and comes from a high-definition restoration scanned from a 35mm low-contrast print.
This is another superb standard-definition presentation that holds up well all of these years later. The format’s short-coming obviously hinder things, with some obvious compression and limited detail, but even then it’s been encoded quite well. It’s a grainy film and the grain mostly remains but manages to come off looking pretty good, not as noisy or digital as one might expect. Motion is also very smooth, no choppiness or blur present and all of this together manages to give this as filmic a look as possible for the format.
Colours are strong and black levels are decent, though there can be a murkiness to some of the darker scenes with some blacks coming off a bit more gray, though I think it’s more of an issue with the source materials. Very little damage also remains, some bits of debris scattered about, along with some visible scratches, the restoration having cleaned up things nicely.
The new Blu-ray found in Criterion’s 100 Years of Olympic Films set offers a substantially better image, no question, but this DVD is still quite striking on its own.
The film’s soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono. The narration sounds incredibly flat but the rest of the sound effects, from various grunts and sweeps to the opening’s short demolition sequence, come off a bit more aggressive and dynamic. Music also sounds pretty clean with excellent range itself.
This disc has been out of print for a long while and still manages to fetch ridiculous prices online, so much so it would probably be more economical to just pick up the new 100 Years of Olympic Films box set at a half-off sale since it includes Tokyo Olympiad. Unfortunately that set drops all of the features found on here and all of them are very good.
The big feature is Peter Cowie’s rather exhaustive audio commentary and it covers the film and the event from a number of perspectives. He likes to focus on Ichkawa’s playful nature in presenting some of the events 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 great detail about each event within the film, and even covers the history of said event in some cases. He also talks about some of the athletes, explaining what happened to some afterwards, and even talks about the then upcoming Beijing Olympics (the track was recorded around 2002). 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 a very much recommend listening to. I hope Criterion can somehow re-release the film with the track again. It’s probably one of my favourite commentary tracks.
This is then followed by a really great 1992 interview with Kon Ichikawa himself, talking about the reasoning behind his choices for the film and the work that went into getting the shots and footage he did. It’s very illuminating and very detailed at a lengthy 32-minutes.
Criterion also includes a very thick booklet featuring a substantial amount of material. First up is a short essay on the film by George Plimpton, going over the unconventional nature of the film and some of his favourite moments. The best item in the book, though, and one of the best in this entire release (only beat out by Cowie’s commentary) is a reprint of a symposium conducted through “electronic mail” (dating this release a bit) between a number of scholars, addressing the various controversies that built around the film. It’s an incredibly in-depth and rich discussion, a really wonderful read. The booklet then closes with a list of all of the winners in the competitions.
Overall, looking at the listing of features it’s easy to dismiss this as a pretty light release, but the material here is really incredible and I’ve always considered it one of Criterion’s most impressive releases.
Yes, the new restoration in the large Olympic Films box set is significantly better but the DVD still looks pretty damn good all these years later and the supplements offer so much, particularly Cowie’s commentary. As a whole this is a very entertaining and informative release, and it’s easily one of my most prized DVDs in my collection.