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

Credit…Larry Burrows/The LIFE Picture Collection, by way of Getty Images

This weekend should have been the halfway level of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, which might have gathered the world’s main runners, jumpers, throwers, lifters and — for the primary time — skate boarders on the planet’s most populous metropolis. May the Simone Biles fan membership forgive me, however the occasion I used to be most enthusiastic about was handball.

Not for the game, however for the stadium: Handball matches have been to happen within the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, a landmark of Japanese trendy structure designed by Kenzo Tange. The stadium is outlined by its huge, plunging roof, fashioned from two catenaries — metal cables stretched between concrete pillars, like a suspension bridge — and the perpendicular ribs that sweep down from these axes to the ground. Years in the past, biking by means of Yoyogi Park, I bear in mind stopping useless earlier than the gymnasium’s soldered roof panels, marveling at its canopies of metal. It may need been essentially the most glamorous venue of this 12 months’s Olympics, although it was constructed greater than half a century in the past.

Credit…Keystone Features/Hulton Archive, by way of Getty Images
Credit…Art Rickerby/The LIFE Picture Collection, by way of Getty Images
Credit…Bettmann/Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has compelled the Olympics’s first postponement: Tokyo 2020, its title unchanged, will now happen in July 2021 if it takes place in any respect. Yet throughout the Japanese capital is the legacy of one other Olympics: the 1964 Summer Games, which topped Tokyo’s 20-year transformation from a firebombed spoil to an ultramodern megalopolis. (Actually, the “summer” Games have been held in autumn; organizers thought October in Tokyo could 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 solely by means of sport but additionally by means of design.

The preparations turned Tokyo right into a citywide development web site. The creator 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 some years out from changing into the world’s second-largest economic system, and the 1964 Olympics have been to be a pageant of financial revival and honor regained.

Trolleys went out, elevated highways got here in. The metropolis obtained a brand new sewer system, a brand new port, two new subway strains, and critical air pollution. Slums, and their residents, have been mercilessly cleared to make room for brand new development, a few of it grand — just like the beautiful Hotel Okura, designed in 1962 by Yoshiro Taniguchi (father of the MoMA architect Yoshio Taniguchi) — and far forgettable. The new shinkansen, or bullet prepare, hurried between Tokyo and Osaka for the primary time only one week earlier than the opening ceremony. Not till 2008, when the Games opened in booming Beijing, would an Olympics so profoundly alter a metropolis and a nation.

Credit…Keystone/Hulton Archive, by way of Getty Images

Tokyo had been awarded the Games as soon as earlier than; 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 due to this fact needed to fulfill a transparent ideological aim: This was to be a showcase of New Japan, pacifist and forward-dawning, largely freed from classical Japanese aesthetics or conventional nationwide symbols. No Fuji, no cherry blossoms, and no calligraphy. And any expression of nationwide satisfaction needed to be as distanced as potential from the previous imperial militarism.

Devising the look of Tokyo ’64 fell to Yusaku Kamekura, the dean of Japanese graphic designers, who had imbibed trendy design from the Bauhaus-trained professors of Tokyo’s Institute of New Architecture and Industrial Arts. Where previous Olympics posters had relied on figurative, typically explicitly Greco-Roman imagery, Kamekura distilled Tokyo’s ambitions to the only of emblems: the 5 interlocking rings, all gold, topped by an enormous crimson disc, the rising solar.

Kamekura’s poster didn’t simply spurn western expectations of the “exotic” Orient for exhausting, clear modernity. More spectacular than that, it rebooted the Japanese flag — which was all however banned throughout the first years of American occupation — as a logo for a democratic state. The similar daring aesthetic would additionally characterize Kamekura’s second (and, for 1964, technically daunting) Olympics poster, with a full-bleed, split-second {photograph} of runners in opposition to a black background.

Credit…Yusaku Kamekura, by way of The Museum of Modern Art, New York

The essential ceremonies and athletic occasions occurred at a nothing-special stadium that has since been demolished. In the Komazawa Olympic Park in Setagaya, a management tower designed by Yoshinobu Ashihara took the type of a 165-foot-tall concrete tree; it’s nonetheless standing, although its brutalist candor has been softened with a shellacking of white paint. It was, nonetheless, the considerably smaller stadium in Yoyogi, designed by Tange — who would go on to construct Tokyo’s towering metropolis corridor and its Sofia Coppola-approved Park Hyatt Hotel — that expressed in concrete what Kamekura and the opposite designers did on paper.

In 1964 Tange’s stadium hosted the swimming, diving and basketball occasions, and its marriage of brawn and dynamism broadcast extra loudly than every other that Japan had been restored, even reborn. From the surface, it appears to be like like two misconjoined halves of a sliced pair, rendered in metal and concrete, although its actual innovation was the roof. Its tensile construction elaborates on Eero Saarinen’s just lately accomplished hockey rink at Yale University, and, much more, the Philips Pavilion on the Brussels World’s Fair, designed in 1958 by his hero Le Corbusier.

More quietly, the gymnasium nods to Tange’s most important work up so far: the cenotaph arch in Hiroshima, one other curve of strengthened concrete. In Hiroshima, Tange’s arcing concrete turned a mausoleum for Japan’s darkest hour; in Tokyo, it enclosed a pageant of recent nationwide life. (The legacy of Hiroshima additionally suffused the opening ceremony, the place the sprinter Yoshinori Sakai — born on Aug. 6, 1945, the day the primary atom bomb fell — lit the caldron.)

Credit…The Asahi Shimbun, by way of Getty Images
Credit…The Asahi Shimbun, by way of Getty Images
Credit…by way of the Frances Loeb Library/Harvard University Graduate School of Design

The 1964 Olympics have been the primary to be broadcast worldwide, by way of the primary geostationary satellite tv for pc for business use, and Japanese households with rising family budgets may even watch the Games in shade. Nevertheless, essentially the most enduring photos from Tokyo ’64 appeared within the cinema, within the director Kon Ichikawa’s three-hour documentary “Tokyo Olympiad.” Shot within the broad CinemaScope format, in wealthy shade, with newfangled telephoto lenses, “Tokyo Olympiad” is, by a number of lengths of the observe, the best movie ever made in regards to the Olympics. (You can stream it, together with a lot drearier films 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 solar in opposition to a crimson sky — the Japanese flag, inverted — smash-cuts right 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, after which crowds jostling to see the younger foreigners arriving at Haneda Airport. Inside the stadiums, the telephoto lens allowed Ishikawa to get beautiful close-ups of the sprinters’ sweat and the swimmers’ gooseflesh, however simply as typically he shot nearly abstract sequences of fencers and cyclists blurred into streams of shade.

Credit…by way of the Criterion Collection
Credit…by way of Criterion Collection

There are champions and record-breakers in “Tokyo Olympiad,” however they share display screen time with last-place finishers. Gold-medal matches get intercut with ignored particulars of attendants sweeping the triple leap observe, or shot put officers wheeling away the metallic balls. The Japanese Olympic Committee hated the movie and commissioned one other; nationalist boosters referred to as it unpatriotic or worse. But Ichikawa’s distillation of nationwide ambition into abstract type was the hallmark of Tokyo ’64, and “Tokyo Olympiad” went on to change into Japan’s greatest home field workplace success, a file that will stand for 4 many years.

Whether they occur in 2021 or under no circumstances, the upcoming Tokyo Games will certainly have a quieter cultural impression than their predecessor’s. The first brand for Tokyo 2020 was thrown out, on grounds of supposed plagiarism. The first stadium, too: Zaha Hadid’s preliminary design obtained dumped, and was changed by a extra serene and far cheaper wooden stadium, designed by the architect Kengo Kuma.

If Tange’s metal and concrete expressed Japanese ambitions in 1964, now it’s pure supplies that time to a imaginative and prescient of a future whose challenges are as a lot ecological as financial. But Mr. Kuma, who attended the 1964 Games as a toddler, credit Tange’s swooping stadium because the set off for his personal architectural profession. “Tange treated natural light like a magician,” Mr. Kuma advised the Times two years in the past, reminiscing on his childhood discovery of Yoyogi National Gymnasium. “From that day, I wanted to be an architect.”