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The 1964 Olympics Certified a New Japan, in Steel and on the Screen


This weekend ought to have been the midway point of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, which would have gathered the world’s leading runners, jumpers, throwers, lifters and — for the first time — skateboarders in the world’s most populous city. May the Simone Biles fan club forgive me, but the event I was most excited about was handball.

Not for the sport, but for the stadium: Handball matches were to take place in the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, a landmark of Japanese modern architecture designed by Kenzo Tange. The stadium is defined by its massive, plunging roof, formed from two catenaries — steel cables stretched between concrete pillars, like a suspension bridge — and the perpendicular ribs that sweep down from those axes to the floor. Years ago, biking through Yoyogi Park, I remember stopping dead before the gymnasium’s soldered roof panels, marveling at its canopies of steel. It might have been the most glamorous venue of this year’s Olympics, even though it was built more than half a century ago.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced the Olympics’s first postponement: Tokyo 2020, its name unchanged, will now take place in July 2021 if it takes place at all. Yet all around the Japanese capital is the legacy of another Olympics: the 1964 Summer Games, which crowned Tokyo’s 20-year transformation from a firebombed ruin to an ultramodern megalopolis. (Actually, the “summer” Games were held in autumn; organizers thought October in Tokyo would be smarter than sweltering July.) Those first Tokyo Olympics served as a debutante ball for democratic, postwar Japan, which reintroduced itself to the world not only through sport but also through design.

The preparations turned Tokyo into a citywide construction site. The author Robert Whiting, who was stationed with the U.S. Air Force in Tokyo in 1962, describes the pile drivers and jackhammers that delivered an “overwhelming assault on the senses.” Pedestrians went about with face masks and earplugs, and salarymen drank in bars protected by dust-blocking plastic sheets. Japan was just a few years out from becoming the world’s second-largest economy, and the 1964 Olympics were to be a pageant of economic revival and honor regained.

Trolleys went out, elevated highways came in. The city got a new sewer system, a new port, two new subway lines, and serious pollution. Slums, and their residents, were mercilessly cleared to make room for new construction, some of it grand — like the exquisite Hotel Okura, designed in 1962 by Yoshiro Taniguchi (father of the MoMA architect Yoshio Taniguchi) — and much forgettable. The new shinkansen, or bullet train, hurried between Tokyo and Osaka for the first time just one week before the opening ceremony. Not until 2008, when the Games opened in booming Beijing, would an Olympics so profoundly alter a city and a nation.

Tokyo had been awarded the Games once before; it was meant to host the canceled 1940 Olympics, succeeding the Nazi spectacle in Berlin in 1936. The architects and designers of the 1964 Games therefore had to satisfy a clear ideological goal: This was to be a showcase of New Japan, pacifist and forward-dawning, largely free of classical Japanese aesthetics or traditional national symbols. No Fuji, no cherry blossoms, and no calligraphy. And any expression of national pride had to be as distanced as possible from the old imperial militarism.

Devising the look of Tokyo ’64 fell to Yusaku Kamekura, the dean of Japanese graphic designers, who had imbibed modern design from the Bauhaus-trained professors of Tokyo’s Institute of New Architecture and Industrial Arts. Where past Olympics posters had relied on figurative, often explicitly Greco-Roman imagery, Kamekura distilled Tokyo’s ambitions to the simplest of emblems: the five interlocking rings, all gold, topped by a huge red disc, the rising sun.

Kamekura’s poster didn’t just spurn western expectations of the “exotic” Orient for hard, clean modernity. More impressive than that, it rebooted the Japanese flag — which was all but banned during the first years of American occupation — as a symbol for a democratic state. The same bold aesthetic would also characterize Kamekura’s second (and, for 1964, technically daunting) Olympics poster, with a full-bleed, split-second photograph of runners against a black background.

The main ceremonies and athletic events took place at a nothing-special stadium that has since been demolished. In the Komazawa Olympic Park in Setagaya, a control tower designed by Yoshinobu Ashihara took the form of a 165-foot-tall concrete tree; it’s still standing, though its brutalist candor has been softened with a shellacking of white paint. It was, however, the somewhat smaller stadium in Yoyogi, designed by Tange — who would go on to build Tokyo’s towering city hall and its Sofia Coppola-approved Park Hyatt Hotel — that expressed in concrete what Kamekura and the other designers did on paper.

In 1964 Tange’s stadium hosted the swimming, diving and basketball events, and its marriage of brawn and dynamism broadcast more loudly than any other that Japan had been restored, even reborn. From the outside, it looks like two misconjoined halves of a sliced pair, rendered in steel and concrete, though its real innovation was the roof. Its tensile structure elaborates on Eero Saarinen’s recently completed hockey rink at Yale University, and, even more, the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair, designed in 1958 by his hero Le Corbusier.

More quietly, the gymnasium nods to Tange’s most significant work up to this point: the cenotaph arch in Hiroshima, another curve of reinforced concrete. In Hiroshima, Tange’s arcing concrete became a mausoleum for Japan’s darkest hour; in Tokyo, it enclosed a festival of new national life. (The legacy of Hiroshima also suffused the opening ceremony, where the sprinter Yoshinori Sakai — born on Aug. 6, 1945, the day the first atom bomb fell — lit the caldron.)

The 1964 Olympics were the first to be broadcast worldwide, via the first geostationary satellite for commercial use, and Japanese families with growing household budgets could even watch the Games in color. Nevertheless, the most enduring images from Tokyo ’64 appeared in the cinema, in the director Kon Ichikawa’s three-hour documentary “Tokyo Olympiad.” Shot in the wide CinemaScope format, in rich color, with newfangled telephoto lenses, “Tokyo Olympiad” is, by several lengths of the track, the greatest film ever made about the Olympics. (You can stream it, along with much drearier movies of the Games from 1912 to 2012, on the Criterion Channel.)

Unlike Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia,” which prefaced the Berlin Games with Aryan athlete-gods in Greek drag, “Tokyo Olympiad” plunges us into modernity from its opening sequence: a blazing white sun against a red sky — the Japanese flag, inverted — smash-cuts into a wrecking ball slamming into pylons. Building facades tumble to powder, bulldozers haul away rubble. We see Tange’s stadium in mist, then the torch relay, and then crowds jostling to see the young foreigners arriving at Haneda Airport. Inside the stadiums, the telephoto lens allowed Ishikawa to get stunning close-ups of the sprinters’ sweat and the swimmers’ gooseflesh, but just as often he shot nearly abstract sequences of fencers and cyclists blurred into streams of color.

There are champions and record-breakers in “Tokyo Olympiad,” but they share screen time with last-place finishers. Gold-medal matches get intercut with overlooked details of attendants sweeping the triple jump track, or shot put officials wheeling away the metal balls. The Japanese Olympic Committee hated the film and commissioned another; nationalist boosters called it unpatriotic or worse. But Ichikawa’s distillation of national ambition into abstract form was the hallmark of Tokyo ’64, and “Tokyo Olympiad” went on to become Japan’s biggest domestic box office success, a record that would stand for four decades.

Whether they happen in 2021 or not at all, the upcoming Tokyo Games will surely have a quieter cultural impact than their predecessor’s. The first logo for Tokyo 2020 was thrown out, on grounds of supposed plagiarism. The first stadium, too: Zaha Hadid’s initial design got dumped, and was replaced by a more serene and much less expensive wood stadium, designed by the architect Kengo Kuma.

If Tange’s steel and concrete expressed Japanese ambitions in 1964, now it is natural materials that point to a vision of a future whose challenges are as much ecological as economic. But Mr. Kuma, who attended the 1964 Games as a child, credits Tange’s swooping stadium as the trigger for his own architectural career. “Tange treated natural light like a magician,” Mr. Kuma told the Times two years ago, reminiscing on his childhood discovery of Yoyogi National Gymnasium. “From that day, I wanted to be an architect.”

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