Unbeknownst to many, during the postwar era of the 1950-60s, Japan experienced a surge of cinematic masterpieces. Film historians refer to this as “The Golden Age” of Japanese film. Though it wasn't until 1951 when a relatively unknown director, Akira Kurosawa, made his mark at the Venice Film Festival for his submission, Rashomo, when Japanese cinema would finally stand in the well-deserved limelight. This was the first time Japan held true cinematic critical acclaim and the following years would reveal an array of Japanese directors worthy of international recognition.
At the time, Japan was in a time of rebuilding. The country was fragile and, in many ways, divided. For film, the typical undercurrent aligned with one of two opposing thoughts; for traditional Japanese politics and structure or questioning of Japan’s old ways. One director that stood obviously in question, challenging viewers with progressive narrative, was Kon Ichikawa. Ichikawa saw relatively early success but his 1964 Tokyo Olympiad is one film that set him apart as a master of cinema. Tokyo Olympiad was the official Olympic documentary of the year (an Olympic tradition which still holds today and is a piece directed by a citizen from the host country in an effort to document the events). Tokyo Olympiad was an achievement equally as impactful as winning the Olympic medals themselves. This film not only paved the way for future Japanese filmmakers but reflected a Japan abundant in durability, willing and able to move forward.
A further look into the events surrounding this year's Olympic ceremonies and those of 1964 (the first time Japan successfully hosted the Olympic games) one finds a striking parallel between the occasions nearly 60 years apart. However, these parallel challenges that Japan has faced on both occasions each led to a wave of resilience seen largely through the execution of surrounding artistic pursuits. Following the onset of World War II, Japan’s opportunity to host the Olympic games in 1940 was cancelled due to massive global unrest. As a result, the country would not host officially until 1964. When Japan surrendered in 1945 the country had lost nearly a quarter of its wealth and suffered over 2.5 million deaths; a heavy period for its surviving residents. But from the trauma came substantial reform which would put the country back on its feet. Before long, Japan was thriving again, both economically and artistically.
Kon Ichikawa was known for his fictional work and thus was an intriguing choice to craft a documentary depicting the Olympic Games. What followed was a film so honest and cinematic it is now recognized as one of the greatest sports documentaries of all time. The film was controversial in nature as it opposed the narrative envisioned by its investors and the Japanese government, yet it was surprising and delightfully humanistic. With the use of advanced camera lenses and the expansion of subjects to include not just the athletes but spectators alike, Ichikawa achieved a relatable and raw portrayal of the spectrum of human emotions (and subtle in-between moments) involved in Olympic pursuit. The camerawork displayed both slow-motion and zoom techniques that were incredibly evocative and innovative for the time. The film feels more like an artistic dance than a forthright sports story. In 1965, Tokyo Olympiad became the highest grossing film in Japan for box office admissions. Ichikawa is now considered a legend of Japanese cinema and a respected historian in some regard. If we can take anything away from Ichikawa's interpretation of the 1964 Olympics it is to fully embrace rebirth after disaster; to recognize the beauty and opportunity in a chance for any nation to build again.
By Alexis Kanter
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