The Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, with the next edition of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo on the horizon, and the massive 100 Years of Olympic Films box set released last year by the Criterion Collection revived and rekindled my interest in sport documentaries. So I decided to revisit one of my favourite non-fiction films dedicated to sport, Record of a Marathon Runner, a movie shot by Kuroki Kazuo between 1963 and 1964 about Kimihara Kenji, a Japanese marathon runner active during the 1960s and 1970s. Kuroki was a director who, long before establishing himself as an author somehow associated with the Japanese New Wave (Silence Has No Wing and Ryōma Assassination are two of his best work of the period), was a respected and innovative documentary filmmaker at the Iwanami Production, where he and other friends, Tsuchimoto Noriaki and Ogaka Shinsuke among others, formed the Ao no Kai (Blue Society), a group that tried to experiment and find new ways of expression through non-fiction cinema.
Record of a Marathon Runner is a PR movie (a sponsored movie) founded by Fuji Film, but paradoxically shot almost entirely on a Eastman Kodak film. If you want to know more about the movie’s troubled production and have more insights on Kuroki career, this interview is a must read.
It is possible to watch the relatively short documentary (only 62 minutes) on The Science Film Museum’s Yutube official page, unfortunately it’s without English subtitles.
For some scholars, and I couldn’t agree more, Record of a Marathon Runner represents the other side of the official discourse about the Olympics, the one exemplified, with great artistic results I have to admit, by Ichikawa Kon’s Tokyo Olympiad (1965) for instance. In Record of a Marathon Runner the connections with the big event are very thin if not completely absent, in fact someone could argue that the movie is not even about the Olympics at all, we don’t see the marathon or the games themselves, the camera “just” follows Kimihara Kenji, who would eventually finish in eighth place at the competition in Tokyo, throughout his training and running in the winter and spring of 1963-64, as he prepares for the big event.
Although originally the documentary was conceived by Kuroki without narration, the movie uses a traditional narration alternating with the words spoken by the marathon runner himself and his coach. However, the tone of the words is so flat and has an almost matter-of-fact quality in it, that there’s no glamour nor pathos, on the contrary, everything, from the endless and solitary training, to the foot injury and the recovery, is displayed like some sort of natural phenomenon. Drained of any passion, the style of the movie reflects the act of running as felt by Kimihara himself, or at least as it is presented in the film, mechanical and without a real purpose, but it is also a way of transferring on screen the gray skies and the dull landscapes depicted, Kitakyūshū city with its industrial suburbs often drenched in rain, or the very ordinary countryside roads in Kagoshima prefecture.
This sense of necessity and that of the loneliness of the runner is amplified by the use of an eerie, dissonant and minimalist music, and by a cinematography that often uses long shots when depicting the athlete while training on the track, on the beach or on the streets. Even in the only scene when Kimihara is shot on a close-up while running, the monotonous sound design and the circularity of his movements form a hypnotic run that seem to lead nowhere. Another scene towards the end is also exemplary about this aesthetic approach: Kimihara after recovering from his injury participate in a competition- the Asahi road relay as the last runner – the only proper race we see on screen. After he wins and crosses the finish line though, he goes on running for a couple of minutes among people and trees like in a state of trance and without goal.
Focusing on the experience of running in preparation for a competition, highlighting its harshness and solitude, Kuroki also depicts indirectly the social background which Kimihara belongs to, the working class of a highly industrialized Kita Kyushu, and the life of an athlete before the brief and ephemeral light cast by the Olympic event.