The domain of the retrospective sports documentary is one wholly occupied by Men. We require lasting women’s histories of sports, in order to grow those sports effectively, and create lasting legends around them. Think back to the last women’s sports documentary you’ve seen, one that stays with the subject and interviews them in their maturation. Have you ever seen one? Or perhaps only documentaries that highlight women in their prime and are fixated on their moment in time, their youth and that one moment of glory they had all the cameras on them? Globally, we have tragically let the stories of our women athletes wither away, while they are crucially important to document.
The Witches of the Orient is a French production cataloguing the history of the 1964 Japanese women’s Volleyball team. As we round the corner on the second time Japan will host the Olympics, it’s perfect timing to look back at a memorable national story from the very first time. It’s a story of heroics and overcoming adversity, as the team made it to the finals and knocked out an imposing USSR team. Their opponents were taller, bigger, and had the odds. Japan had never won at Volleyball and this was the first time Women’s Volleyball was included. Winning at home is always a big deal. A couple decades after the devastation of World War II, Japan was naturally eager for stories of heroics. For projections of renewed strength. There’s something curious about the footage of the win. When they win the match it looks as though they’ve lost it. They’re all doubled over and occupied by profound emotion. It’s everything you want to see in sports stories.
The athletes are now in their 70s. Documentarian Julien Faraut (previously known for John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, 2018) follows the matrons of Volleyball as they live their practical, everyday lives. When the Volleyball ended, they were just like everyone else. Before the Volleyball, they were like everyone else. Sponsored by a textile company, they came from working class industry. The documentary artfully juxtaposes the industrious ’60s working class of Japan, in close proximity to its sports portrayal. On the court, these grand dames were anything but ordinary. They weren’t just great as an early victory for Japanese Volleyball, they were all-time great. They recorded a record 258 consecutive wins. And yet, the West still dubbed them with the ugliest of titles, “The Witches of the Orient.” The ladies still very much object to this classification and it’s an uncomfortable reality that informs the documentary’s name, but also signals another kind of adversity they overcame, and signals especially that they were so damn good, they terrified the competition. The documentary could have spent more time with all these hardships and really reflecting on how hard their grandiose record of achievements were to obtain, but it does cast a wider sociological net.
The form of this documentary is structurally unique. The Witches of the Orient fuses historical Volleyball footage with colorful anime interludes. It volleys back and forth, when the old footage (still well preserved) can use the boost, the anime adds emphasis. It’s not just any anime but very connected footage. The team was so popular they inspired a manga called Attack No.1, which was adapted into 104 anime episodes. It helped popularize the sports manga treatment and especially those attending to women’s sports, in Japan. The film is radically uneven because of these interesting techniques. It’s not even sufficient for Faraut to go between his real-life and anime compromise. He also uses flashing black-and-white negatives, circle dissolves, and a head-scratching preference for more modern drone music. It makes at least one great musical choice, in the most agreeable audiovisual segment: during an intense training session, where the team’s coach pelts them with balls, it fires off all of the various techniques Faraut is at play with, while Portishead’s “Machine Gun” pulsates a perfect rhythm. It never feels that adequately experimental again, but for one moment, everything works perfectly.
The Witches of the Orient is a perfectly fine celebration of a deserving subject. Always on the lookout for off-the-wall sports documentaries, this fit exactly the bill I was looking for. By conveying his interviews with his subjects through mostly visual representations, rather than allowing his talking heads to talk, Faraut still steals away from his own picture the very special aspect of allowing women to finally tell their own sports stories in old age. He takes what they say and then tries to create modern and interesting visualizations of their stories. Fine. It plays well or it’s all over the map, or it doesn’t really matter. It remains consistently engaging, at least, the mix of history and anime creating an image of a certain time in Japan and a celebration of worthy subjects. Just don’t call them Witches. They deserve so much more than that.