The Witches of the Orient (France/Japan, 2021)

Julien Faraut follows up his 2018 tennis documentary In the Realm of Perfection with another film on unique sports personalities. This time, he focuses on the Japanese National Volleyball team who were dubbed “the Witches of the Orient”: magical players that achieved a record winning streak en route to an Olympic Gold at the Tokyo Olympiad in 1964. Titled after the Team’s nickname, The Witches of the Orient revisits the exploits, trials, and victory of said team through a mix of archival footage, anime sequences, and contemporary interviews.

We first see the so-called witches with five of the team members dining at a round table in the present: receiver Yoshiko Matsumura, forwards Yuriko Handa, Kuniko Tanida and Yoko Shinozaki, and setter Katsumi Matsumura. They were workers from a textile factory, Nichibo Kaizuka, where they also served as members of its volleyball team. Commentaries in the film mostly come from the interviews of these five members, hence we get sufficiently acquainted to call them to with the nicknames they refer to each other: Futen, Fugu, Pai, Chitro, and Chabin respectively. This gives the audience an entry point to the team’s journey as recollections are narrated from the present.

This personal touch is often contrasted with the quite distant and impersonal collection of archival footage, from the team’s practice when they are watched by their other co-workers from the factory to other related media which may or may not directly refer to the team. A common attitude in the documentary is its attempt to balance out past mythologies surrounding the team with recollections of the starters in the present. One example is how the film opens with a clip from a 1935 anime, Danemon’s Monster Hunt wherein the titular character, Danemon, meets a damsel in distress tied to a pole, which is later revealed to be a monster. This is a popular representation of how the concept of a “witch” is expressed in Japanese culture.

It is in this context that the film frames the team. Futen recalls how from being called the “Typhoon from the Orient”, the term “Witches of the Orient” came about after their successful  tour of USSR territories. As depicted in the Danemon cartoon, to be a “witch”, as Futen says, is not something you’d wish for yourself in Japan. However, the conceptual difference between how the Soviets and the Western world in general understand the concept overlaps their understanding: that witches are figures of power outside the domains of authority.

Through the montage of recollections and archival footage, Faraut carefully aligns things conceptually as he tries to unfold the chronology of events and achieve clarity. One notable parallelism of historical and personal events revealed through editing is the use of the clips from the adaptation of the 1968 anime Attack No. 1 as montaged with team practice to depict the harshness of training that they endured. As revealed later in the film, Attack No. 1 was an example of the direct impact of the team on Japan’s popular culture when their popularity lead to a boom of volleyball-themed anime and movies.

The Witches of the Orient deals with the mythologies surrounding the team with rationalizations from history but, interestingly enough, leads to a more fantastic depiction of the champions. The highlight of the documentary is their match with the USSR team at the Tokyo Olympics. Faraut’s editing seizes upon the emotions built up from the recollections as Nichibo Kaizuka’s match is revealed to be the second most anticipated by the Japanese population next to Judo. Capturing these emotions prompted this reviewer to anticipate the experience of watching almost untouched archival footage as though it were being witnessed on live television.

It could be all the years that Faraut has spent working with sports footage that has instilled his understanding of what is important to any spectator of a sports event. His approach to documentary may be far from his contemporaries who uses archive material and interviews for conceptual synthesis. Rather, Faraut understands why people love sports and it is on this understanding that this documentary thrives. This is why The Witches of the Orient proves to be enjoyably gripping viewing, even for non-sports fans.

The Witches of the Orient is distributed in the US by KimStim.

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