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Note: This post may contain spoilers.

Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad (1965) is an epic spectacle of the 1964 Olympic games that celebrates the coming together of humanity within this sporting event in peace.

Ichikawa structures this spectacle from the running of the torch to the closing ceremonies. The documentary celebrates the individual within the collective without focusing on the person. His cinematography shows the athletes and their performances, but we learn very little about the athletes themselves, aside from one man from Chad and another woman who hugs her fiancé after winning the gold.

Within the arc, this documentary focuses on select events, usually in their final competitions. For the 100-meter dash, we see the men running in what feels like slow-motion through a vacuum. No external sound detracts from them. The slow motion effect belies the fact that the race ended within 10 seconds. The slow-motion technique appears in other events, such as the pole vault.

Other events show each competitor as he or she prepares. With the men’s and women’s shotput, the camera closely focuses on their facial expressions as they prepare in their minds for the throw.

While many events are shown without commentary, a voiceover sometimes accompanies other events by describing the weather, people’s actions, and of course the competition as it unfolds. For the 10,000-meter dash, the voiceover turns into a sports commentator, describing who keeps taking the lead throughout the race.

Ichikawa uses a range of framing to represent these different events and the event of the Olympics itself. Extreme close-ups show muscles in the arms and legs, or they show the eyes and teeth. Extreme wide shots capture all right lanes of a swimming pool from overhead so we can watch all the competitors in the race from start to finish. Medium shots focus on the athletes and their routines, such as one woman putting a lemon on her starting block before the race.

Other shots make less sense. As an American boxer walks away, the camera keeps him in frame. The boxer looks back at the camera not understanding what’s going on. Receiving no explanation, he keeps walking, and the camera, stationary, keeps recording.

In addition to the myriad uses of framing, this documentary incorporates great score that runs throughout. The score is often orchestral, but occasionally switches to light jazz times.

The year 1964 was the first time for Tokyo and for the Asian continent to host the Olympics. At the beginning of the documentary the narrator takes a moment to note how both East and West Germany compete together in these events though at the time the wall divided them. Overall, a deep sense of the significance of bringing people together in peace runs throughout this documentary.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh is a documentary blogger and mass media professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Follow her on Twitter @documentarysite.