Tokyo Olympiad has been out of print for five years and typically runs you about $200 for a used copy. Even worse, there has been no new release on DVD for western audiences, making this the new Salo (pre-re-release of course) in terms of being nearly impossible to see through any legal means in the US. This is a shame, as it's one of the best sports journalism documentaries I've ever seen.
Choosing Ichikawa to film your Olympics - ostensibly to glorify Japan and its hosting at long last of the grand world games - was certainly an odd choice. It's very nearly like America hiring David Lynch to film the '96 games. Unsurprisingly, the Olympic committee got what they really should have expected, and heavily edited this nearly 3 hour epic to give it a more conventional feel. Criterion's restoration of the original work reveals just what you might expect from Ichikawa: a film much more concerned with the process - the pushing of the human body and mind to excel and how will interacts with physicality - than the outcome of any one sport.
The closest any segments get to a conventional depiction of the competition are the suspenseful pole vault duel that lasts into the night and the much duller women's volleyball face-off in which Japan wins the gold. The latter almost feels like Ichikawa forced it into the film to placate the homers that were looking for a rah-rah moment. The film shines much brighter when zeroing in on a runner's body, shown from the waist up gliding through mid-air, or a rifleman indenting his cheek as he leans over his weapon. These moments attain a sort of elementary beauty that is devoid of the marketing, mythmaking, and over-importance of the typical sports document. Tokyo Olympiad becomes entirely separated from the event it is supposedly depicting - even as the world of 1964 looms large. This is an observation of the diversity of Earth, the breadth of skill and talent we have accumulated, and the remarkable adaptability of the human form. Of the four Ichikawa films in the Collection, I think it's undoubtedly the best, and it's worth seeking out in whatever form you can find it.