I was saddened by the news that Kon Ichikawa died yesterday (Japan Times obituary). He was one of the most talented directors of his generation. I had been thinking about his work a lot recently, as I had noticed that Criterion has released DVDs of The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain and added them to my wish list.
I treasure my Criterion DVD of Tokyo Olympiad (1965), not only because my Aunt Marian makes a cameo appearance in it -- in one of the montages of unfortunate mishaps at the Games, my aunt is shown being carried off the track in a stretcher -- but also because it is the greatest sports documentary ever made. My Dad is a big sports fan so I saw my share of sports documentaries growing up, but none of them rivals Tokyo Olympiad in its widescreen glory. It reminded me of the first time I saw The Band's The Last Waltz (Martin Scorcese, 1978) on the big screen and was transported back in time to the event itself.
Among the extras on the DVD there is a rather oddly shot interview with Ichikawa sitting in the stands of the stadium. Ichikawa is shot in profile and he avoids addressing the camera directly. At the beginning of the interview, the odd framing and lack of engagement is distracting, but after a while he warms up a bit and shares some fascinating information about the way in which they shot the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
The best moment comes when the interviewer asks Ichikawa the obvious question: "How much were you influenced by Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia?" Ichikawa reveals that he watched Olympia repeatedly and treated it as a textbook in documentary filmmaking. He even recounts meeting Riefenstahl at a festival after making Tokyo Olympiad and shaking her hand and thanking her for making a film that had taught him so much. I wonder if he told her the truth about how her film influenced him: that he had studied the minute details of how she made her film and decided that his film about the Olympics would be the antithesis of hers. Olympia, he explained, had been made by a conquering nation, but Tokyo Olympiad was being made in a post-World War II world in a defeated nation. Olympia had depicted the Olympics as a celebration of god-like sporting champions. Ichikawa's Tokyo Olympiad is not just about the champions, but about the losers as well. It is also about the spaces in which the events were being held and it also foregrounds the spectators and the city itself. There is surely no better document of how the city of Tokyo looked in 1964 than the marathon sequence in this film.
Ichikawa transformed his Olympic documentary into a celebration of humanity in all its glory and misery, its triumphs and defeats. This is what made him such a truly great director, for in all his films he probes the difficult question of what is means to be human. For more information about the oeuvre of this director, I recommend Alexander Jacoby's article at Senses of Cinema.
A pet project I hope to do one day is to learn more about Ichikawa's wife and sometimes collaborator, Wada Natto (1920-1983). There are a lot of stories about Japanese wives who have collaborated with their director husbands (not many women have attained director status in Japan) so this may be a fruitful area of research.
© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008