► Witches of the Orient is in UK cinemas from 16 July.
- Reviewed from 2021 International Film Festival Rotterdam.
French documentarist Julien Faraut specialises in archival sports footage, and made a splash with his 2018 feature John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection. That film was a philosophical inquiry into the pursuit of excellence on the court, and into the ways that footage of great players might yield the secret of what makes their moves transcendental.
Faraut goes in search of perfection again, and a magic this time collective rather than individual, in The Witches of the Orient (Les Sorcières de l’Orient), about the Japanese women’s volleyball team that caught their nation’s imagination in the early 60s and triumphed in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
The film begins with a group of now elderly ‘Witches of the Orient’ – as the team were known – seen today reunited around a dinner table and individually recalling their time in the Nichibo Kaizuka team, formed at an Osaka textile factory.
Some of them still very athletic (we see one training a fitness class), they remember the nicknames that their coach gave them – Masai Kasai was ‘Horseface’, Yuriko Handa was ‘Fugu’, or Blowfish. Identified in stylised freeze-frame captions, this makes them resemble cartoon characters – which they in fact became, as their success sparked a vogue for volleyball-themed anime.
Their coach was a man named Hirofumi Daimatsu, his methods so tough that in Japan he was known as ‘the Demon’. Faraut shows us a page from a 1964 Sports Illustrated article headlined ‘Driven Beyond Dignity’ – although, frustratingly, we don’t learn much of what it reveals either about the training regime or about early 60s American attitudes to Japan.
Yet, however brutal Daimatsu’s methods, some of the women recall that they happily accepted his drills, even wax idealistic about him. Some considered him a father substitute, or more: “We all thought we’d like to marry someone like him.” One comments, “If he called you ‘imbecile’, it didn’t seem he was telling you off because he spoke with such composure.”
A coach presumably inspired by Daimatsu appears as a square-jawed hero in one of the women’s volleyball films that the team inspired. A key theme of these films, we learn, was the rigour of training, and the clips shown seem oddly fixated on young women wincing as they receive brutal blows from balls flying at them.
But it’s only incidentally that Faraut’s film comes across as a piece of #MeToo sports archeology. What emerges more explicitly is a picture of the Nichibo Kaizuka team’s national prominence, with Faraut attempting to put them in the historical context of Japan’s post-war resurgence and its rivalry with the USSR, with sport as a political battlefield. He doesn’t always avoid cliché, however – notably in a lengthy sequence depicting 50s/60s Japanese urban and industrial modernity, set to an electronica soundtrack.
Faraut sometimes leans too much on the rhythmic dynamism of his score – electronics by K-Raw and Jason Lytle, plus Portishead’s aggressively propulsive Machine Gun – to provide the energies of his montages. Notably, he and editor Andrei Bogdanov intercut images of the ‘Witches’ in play and in training with the anime sequences (in one montage, the TV commentators in the cartoon appear to narrate the real-live action).
All this is fun and often exciting, especially as it builds towards the team’s Olympic triumph. But the footage of the former ‘Witches’ today is a little laborious, and not always that revealing – partly because of the rather detached formality with which they recall their youthful experiences. Witches is an engaging but superficial watch, too often yielding to a stylistic celebration of Japanese iconography without offering that much illumination about the complexities of national sports culture.
Originally published: 10 February 2021