The Witches of the Orient (KimStim, NR)

The 1964 Summer Olympics were notable for many reasons. For one, it was the first time the Olympic Games were held in an Asian country. For another, it was the first telecast in color and the first seen internationally through the use of satellite technology, bringing an immediacy to viewers around the world not possible in previous years. The Games are always about more than sports, of course, and the Tokyo Olympics were seen as a way for host country Japan to show how far they had come from the devastation of World War II. Japanese athletes rose to the challenge by winning 16 gold medals, a performance bettered only by the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Japanese women’s volleyball team, composed of workers from the Nichibo Kaizuka textile factory, were among the most celebrated athletes at the 1964 Games. The players’ lives were not easy: they lived in dorms, four to a room, and put in a shift on the factory floor each day before volleyball practice. Their coach, Hirofumi Daimatsu, was known as “the Demon” due to the lengthy and grueling practice sessions he put the players through. Julien Faraut’s The Witches of the Orient (more about the name in a moment) documents the team’s rise to glory through archival materials, interviews with surviving members, and extensive recreations.

The Nichibo Kaizuka factory team first gained international recognition in 1960, when they finished second to the Soviet Union at the world volleyball championships in Brazil. They followed up with a tour of Europe, during which they crushed every team they played. So dominant was their performance that the team was dubbed “The Typhoon from the East,” which was revised to “The Witches of the Orient” after they beat the mighty Soviet Union women’s team on their home turf.

The Japanese players felt the second nickname was both odd and insulting—in Japanese, as in English, it’s not nice to call a woman a witch—but chose to focus on the positive aspects of the label, which implied they could perform feats not possible for ordinary people. They continued to win, running up a victory streak of 22 games.

After winning the 1962 world championship, some members of the Japanese team were ready to hang up their sneakers. Due to the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, however, and the chance to win the first-ever gold medal in women’s volleyball on their home turf, most decided to continue training. The team’s intense practice schedule was the subject of a 1964 Sports Illustrated feature with the tone of an exposé, describing the women as “driven beyond dignity” and saying that the coach’s “grim, wild-eyed intensity is frightening.” Hmm—I wonder if American sportswriters typically took such a tone when describing, say, the practice habits and competitive attitude of Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers?

The Witches of the Orient has an unusual pace and structure for a sports documentary, lending a mythical tone to its subject. It incorporates anime and manga sequences (the team’s success set off a boom in volleyball-themed stories in both forms), as well as long stylized montages of training set to a rhythmic soundtrack by K-Raw, which likens the repetitive nature of their rolling and diving drills in the volleyball court (many of which involve the coach pegging the ball at them from close range) with that of their work in the factory. Players are introduced with graphics recalling trading-card graphics, and clips of what appear to be actual performances are included as well as many reenactments (the distinction between the two is not always clear). The real heart of the film, however, is a series of scenes featuring the 1964 players today, as they meet for lunch or go about their daily routines, discussing with good humor the lives lived by their young selves of some 60 or 70 years ago. | Sarah Boslaugh

The Witches of the Orient is distributed by KimStim; after a  theatrical opening July 9 at the Film Forum in NYC, the film will be available in more theaters and through through virtual cinemas, including the Webster Film Series, beginning July 16.

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