In his film Tokyo Olympiad Ishikawa Kon took what could easily be a matter-of-fact or lackluster subject-sports competitions-and, through then-ingenious technical and narrative choices, created a documentary film singular in its entertainment value and emotional appeal.
Narratively, Kon opens the film with a sequence of the rising sun, and concludes with its setting. The images both lend a sense of a basic structure to this most unconventional movie, and have a thematic significance as a symbol of Japan and the basic connectedness of humanity.
Japanese symbolism is again utilized with a stunning shot of a train passing before the looming Mount Fuji. The latter theme (connectedness) is further explored by Kon in the film with the juxtaposing of unidentified spectators of various nations with explicatory narration.
It is the depictions of the sports competitions, however, that stand apart as masterful in Kon’s inventiveness.
No single event is shown typically, and even in those most “typical” examples Kon added a depth: in the case of the speed walkers, Kon’s addition of spritely background accompaniment gave the scene a comicality.
Many other events are exceptional in their camerawork, as with the uneven bars where Kon chose to show part of the sequence from directly below the athlete. Kon gave the shooting competitions a quietness and an intensity befitting the event, and chose to shoot along the gun barrel toward the competitor at times, an intimate effect.
Other sports are notable for the parts of the athlete Kon shows: with the runners, their arms, and with the heavy lifters, their ankles. Kon’s scenes of water sports are equally appealing: swimmers are shown mingling with the iridescent blue of the pool, and rowers pass by the viewer on a shimmering lake.
Kon has the viewer traveling parallel with the boaters, reveling in their speed and grace as the fly on the water. Kon’s decisions are often initially startling, but within seconds the viewer is taken with the originality and the artistry of the uncommon camerawork.
As critical as Kon’s visuals are, what he chose to show and not show is of equal importance. Losers are shown much more often than winners.
Athletes are not typically glorified, but shown in their weakest and perhaps least attractive moments, as with the sequence of long-distance runners Kon shows going by the drinks table, sometimes laboring over a choice in an admittedly amusing way.
Sprinters are shown falling down; marathon runners’ mangled feet are also shown to the viewer. Kon treats the audience similarly, and the image of Americans suffers for it.
Kon’s spectacle of the Olympiad does strive, ultimately, to find meaning among the grandeur and complexity of the event.
All imposed narration aside, Kon intended to emphasize not only the athletics of the occasion, nor even the humanity of the athletes, but man’s essential connectedness.
Kon shows at length the carrying of the torch across countries, and also gives a good deal of screen time to the athletes’ entrance ceremony, giving equal screen time to athletes from all over the globe.
Spectators are shown in the stands of their individual country, then mingling together as one crowd.
No viewer needs to listen to the narration to understand that this event is a coming together and unification of all peoples, however regrettably brief the occasion may be.
To make great movies, it’s important to watch the good ones. This one is more than good – it’s a great example of inventive cinematography.
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