A long documentary about the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The Olympics themselves were, and are, considered the stage from which Japan launched itself as a modern nation of the world, once more taking its place among the leading countries. You see, many people supposed that after its crushing defeat in war Japan would return to its agrarian past, becoming just another backwater Asian nation like it used to be before it launched its empire. And there was every reason to suppose that this would be the case: many nations wanted this, fearful of a second Japanese Empire; the nation’s infrastructure was utterly destroyed; most of its cities were flattened by relentless bombing; and millions of lives were lost.
But Japan set out on a path of re-industrialization. Education was ramped up, cities were rebuilt, factories reopened, and Japan aimed to be not just good, but the best. Japanese products were becoming know for their quality rather than just their cheapness. Tokyo Tower, the tallest tower in the world, was completed in 1958. And the Shinkansen, dubbed the “Bullet Train” by Olympic visitors, the fastest train line in operation at the time, was opened in 1964.
However, you’ll see very little of that kind of thing in this documentary. Instead it focuses on the individuals of the games: the athletes, the spectators, the staff. Sometimes the film shows just a quick look at a sport, like fencing or shooting, while other times it shows the whole final competition as two athletes vie for gold in a close contest, as in the pole vault or high jump.
The sport that gets the most attention by far, though, is the final event, the marathon. While we certainly take a good look at the leaders, the true quality of this documentary shines through when we see the people who finished farther back, or who were unable to finish at all. The film seemingly reaches its emotional climax as we see runners, no where near close to having a shot at winning a medal, forcing themselves to limp across the finish line before collapsing. Their shoes are removed by assistants to reveal bandaged and bleeding feet. Some have to be carted off on stretchers. And this is back in the days of the true amateurs, the announcer telling us that, back home, this guy is a teacher, or that guy is a car mechanic. It is a truly moving scene.
So much that, when the closing ceremony arrives, I was surprised to find the true climax of the film. For we see neither a celebration of the nations of the world, as in the opening ceremony, nor a celebration of the host country, as we tend to see at Olympic ceremonies nowadays. Instead we have a flood of athletes, celebrating together as one mass of humanity, singing Auld Lang Syne and watching the fireworks. Simple and perhaps not very impressive for a television broadcast in our time, but enough to move the Japanese announcer. Slightly choked up and clearly not working from a script, I give you the Criterion Collection’s translation of his broadcast, preserved in the film:
“The formal opening ceremony was beautiful indeed, but tonight all barriers of nationality and race have dropped away. The whole mass of humanity celebrates together as one and feels sad the time must come to say good-bye. It’s just wonderful…that’s all I can say. This moment brings tears to my eyes and warms my heart, as if understanding for the first time what world peace would be like. Sayonara, good-bye. Until we meet again. Good-bye, friends.