Julien Faraut’s The Witches of the Orient chronicles Japan’s famed women’s volleyball team Nichibo Kaizuka, winners of a record 258 consecutive matches between 1961 and 1966. Its members weren’t athletic prodigies weaned on the sport, but rather workers at a textile factory in the small town of Kaizuka, near Osaka, who were recruited by their bosses to form a company team that could eventually compete on the world stage. Under the guidance of enigmatic coach Hirofumi Daimatsu, the women achieved this goal and more, all the while working full days at the factory and then rigorously practicing after hours.
It’s a story perfect for the movies, but Faraut isn’t interested in making any sort of conventional sports documentary. Much as he grappled with the mythology of tennis legend John McEnroe in 2018’s In the Realm of Perfection, the French filmmaker pursues a slipperier and more instinctive type of commemoration, in tune with the atypical legacy that the team left in its wake. As the narrative of the “Oriental witches”—a moniker derogatorily bestowed upon them by Western journalists who refused to understand them—has almost exclusively been relayed through media representation, including various manga and anime adaptations, Faraut reshapes these sources to convey a more honest perspective.
The filmmaker also finally gives voice to some of the surviving players, now in their 80s, who have rarely, if ever, spoken about their moment in the spotlight. Revolving around a scene of four of the women meeting for dinner, their first time together in many years, the film gives them space to reflect on their fame and misrepresentation in the press, which they often comment on with wry bemusement. Their charming recollections then become perfect transitional windows into fanciful archival montages, which shrewdly demonstrate the ways in which memory and art seamlessly combine to document reality.
This is where Faraut’s skills as an editor and archivist—he holds a position in the film department at the Institut National du Sport in Paris—come into play, providing us with a treasure trove of astonishing footage ranging from media reports of the daily operations at the Kaizuka textile factory to devastating accounts of the destruction of Tokyo that provide greater context for what the Nichibo Kaizuka volleyball team’s victories meant to a country in a state of massive post-war physical and emotional repair. Going a step further, Faraut chops these images up and often adds optical effects to create his own kind of experimental aesthetic, reminiscent of the cinematic luminaries of the Japanese New Wave, accompanied by a hypnotic score from French artist K-Raw and former Grandaddy member Jason Lytle.
In one of the film’s most evocative sensorial moments, Faraut takes an old video of the volleyball team’s stern training regimen under Daimatsu and cuts together repetitive shots of the players striking the ball with clips of subsequent anime representations doing the same, all set to the rapid-fire beat of Portishead’s “Machine Gun.” It’s a savvy found-footage remix that reflects on the West’s insistence that these women were being abused by their coach’s techniques, when in reality they all had respectful relationships with him and appreciated being given the rare opportunity to train as diligently in their discipline as male athletes.
Faraut may not adhere to the clichés of the sports genre, but he still understands that The Witches of the Orient deserves to culminate with a nail-biter of a game, so he caps the documentary with an exciting recap of footage from Nichibo Kaizuka’s monumental gold medal triumph at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. The filmmaker places focus on the artful back-and-forth movement of the match as the team’s members score point after point against the opposing Soviet team, as well as the truly herculean skills that the women possessed. Earlier in the film, one of the players reflects on the eventual acceptance of their team’s informal name by stating, “Witches can pull off feats impossible for normal people.” Likewise, Faraut’s film shows us, in its own playfully unorthodox way, how the communal bond these women developed through a fierce commitment to physical and athletic prowess resulted in a real-life superhero group more dynamic than those imagined by Hollywood.