23rd April 1972 was a Sunday. That evening, as the world geared up for a summer of Olympic sport, a new anime aired on Tokyo’s TBS channel: Anime Document Munchen e no Michi (The Road to Munich.)
It was the year of the Munich Olympics, marked by an appalling tragedy that led to sixteen deaths. Halfway through the Games, in the early hours of 5th September, eleven Israeli competitors were taken hostage by eight Palestinians. Two of the hostages were killed while resisting their captors. The other nine hostages, and five of the murderers, died in a rescue attempt at the airport next day.
But before these events unfolded, the whole world was looking forward to the Games. This largely forgotten show reminds us why. The media and the International Olympic Committee may have had less time and money at their disposal than today, but the Games generated huge interest. The anticipation, even around less popular sports and in countries with no hope of a medal, was building, and in Japan the scent of gold was in the air. The Japanese Olympic team brought home 13 gold medals. The Road to Munich recounts the struggle for one of them.
The Japanese men’s volleyball team had won bronze at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and silver in Mexico in 1968. They had strong hopes of gold in 1972. In the tradition of classic sports anime, the series (made by Nihon TV Doga) depicts their harsh training regime under coach Yasutaka Matsudaira, and their individual struggles. It was made using animation mixed with live footage, in line with the prevailing rules on amateur status and sponsorship.
Other shows, such as Uchujin Pipi or Osamu Tezuka’s Vampires, mixed live-action and animation to insert fantasy into the real world. The Road To Munich aimed for documentary realism despite using animation. To emphasise this, the credits proclaimed the involvement of the Japanese Volleyball Association. Masaaki Oosumi was the director.
The series ended on 20th August, before the Games began – a natural cliffhanger no scriptwriter could rival. Triumph mixed with the overriding tragedy for the Japanese team when they won the men’s volleyball gold. An extra episode, made after the victory and broadcast in September, was poignantly titled Namida no Kin Medal (Gold Medal of Tears.)
Outside Japan you won’t find much information on The Road to Munich, but the opening credit sequence may whet your appetite for the search. The Anime Encyclopedia is the primary English-language source.