The 120-minute film by Japanese director Naomi Kawase looks at the Olympic Games primarily from the perspective of the athletes – but not just the winning athletes.
After Tokyo, the film will be screened at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday at the Bunuel Theatre, named after Spanish-born iconoclastic filmmaker Luis Bunuel.
“The Olympics isn’t just about winning prizes, finishing first and aiming for a win that’s right in front of you right now,” Kawase said in a recent interview. “I also tried to portray the pursuit of winners in life.”
Kawase has also directed another film dealing with events outside of the athletes, titled Side B. It hits Japanese cinemas on June 24th. The film, shown on Monday, starts in some Japanese cinemas from June 3rd.
Kawase said she shot the film in two parts because her subject matter had become too complex after the games were postponed due to the pandemic.
The film, which is only in Japanese unless the voice actors use other languages, focuses much of its attention on athletes from Japan and female athletes from around the world. It also looks at refugee athletes, athletes who defected and athletes competing as mothers who brought their children to the games.
The film targets a cross section of sports, specifically judo, softball, surfing, women’s basketball and skateboarding. For the most part, it stays away from the medal ceremonies, the flag-waving, and who won – and who lost – and prioritizes the drama of the competition.
Yiannis Exarchos, the CEO of Olympic Broadcasting Services, attempted to summarize the documentary’s mission by speaking in the final minutes of the film before the credits roll.
He said Olympic athletes often do “something totally unexpected. This is a brilliant moment. Yes, we have to do all these exercises to see the world through different eyes. Even for a millisecond.”
The documentary featured flashes of controversy dogging the Tokyo Games with protesters calling for cancellation and scenes questioning the wisdom of holding the Games amid a pandemic.
The “Side B” version is expected to cover more issues, including Yoshiro Mori’s resignation as president of the local organizing committee.
Mori, a former Japanese prime minister, resigned five months before the start of the Olympics after making derogatory remarks about women, saying they “talk too much”.
Kon Ichikawa’s 1964 Tokyo Olympics documentary, Tokyo Olympiad, is widely considered one of the most important of the genre. Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia” from the 1936 Berlin Games also falls into this category.
Kawase said she was honored to follow in Ichikawa’s footsteps and tried to show what was visible and also what was beyond the visible.
“I was moved by how people reach the pinnacle of physical beauty,” Kawase said. “I thought they were so lovely to watch; all athletes, not just the winners. And the time they put into it was nice too.”
The Kawase documentary is simply titled Official Film of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
She was named in 2018 to direct the film, which briefly addresses the year-long postponement announced in March 2020 and the run-up to the opening ceremony – largely without fans on July 23, 2021 – and the August 8 closure.
In a synopsis, Cannes said the film took 750 days with 5,000 hours of shooting.
Cannes said it is “taking in not only the athletes gathered from around the world, but also their families, people involved in the Games, volunteers, media personnel and protesters who are crying out for the cancellation of the Olympics.” The film shows the passion and fear that produced these Olympics.”
Kawase is highly acclaimed and became the youngest director to win the Camera d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival with her film Suzaku in 1997.
Her most famous recent films are “Sweet Bean” and “Still the Water”.
The documentary is funded by the International Olympic Committee and the Local Organizing Committee and is a requirement under the hosting contract.
Toshiro Muto, the CEO of the Tokyo Organizing Committee, said when Kawase was unveiled four years ago that the IOC owns the copyright to the film and “has the right to make important decisions in the making of the film.”
Kawase said she was concerned by the invasion of Russia or Ukraine and wondered what entertainment was in the midst of killing in war.
“I hope when people see this movie in 50 or 100 years,” Kawase said, “they will understand how important it is to protect that bit of happiness — so small that it fits in the palm of your hand.”
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