As this documentary opens, a group of Japanese women in their 70s sit around a table, eating and reminiscing. They are the surviving members of a volleyball team, founded at a textile factory, that between the late 1950s and the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, became the best in the world. Dubbed ‘The Witches of the Orient’ by the press during their early 60s world tour, in which they defeated all comers, including their biggest rivals, the USSR.
Julien Faraut’s film mixes archive footage of the team, of anime inspired by them and of Japan at and before the time of their dominance, with contemporary footage of interviews with the surviving members, as well as bits of their current daily routine. As far as it goes, it’s not an uninteresting subject, but in terms of focus it passes by much of the most provocative material. In (finally) contextualising its anime clips, the film acknowledges the focus of many of these volleyball anime on the harshness of training, but the exploration of the real life equivalent is largely brushed off by the team members; they acknowledge the toughness of their coach’s regime but also that they happily accepted his drills, and Faraut never digs any further into the subject with them. However, the tough training does form the backbone of the film’s most effective sequence; a montage of the worst aspects of coach Daimatsu’s training, set to the thundering rat-a-tat drums of Portishead’s Machine Gun. It’s a brilliant synthesis of music, image and editing to make a powerful point. It’s also overextended, running for the entirety of the song, and an isolated sequence in both style and impact.
The contemporary footage isn’t particularly interesting in either its content or its imagery. For instance, we see the whole family of one of the team members sitting watching the anime that was clearly based on her team and their training, but we never hear any of their thoughts on it, never get any insight into how her children or grandchildren see her through this (or IF they do). It’s just an image of people impassively watching. The use of the archive footage is also a mixed bag. The film of training and matches is easily the most compelling material (though, again, almost always overextended) but when Faraut tries to get a bit more abstract it can become wearing. Just as the film is ramping up to its third act, it takes a long detour for a montage on the rebuilding of Japan in the post World War 2 period. It’s not that the footage in itself is uninteresting, but it really has nothing to do with the story of the Witches—though Faraut uses quotes from earlier in the film to attempt to draw parallels between how Japan rebuilt and how the team responded to Daimatsu’s relentless and challenging training style—and it stops the momentum of the film dead at exactly the wrong moment.
Oddly, the film chooses not to build up to the Olympic final by charting the team’s journey through the games, but when the final comes it’s a very well edited digest of the match, and manages to generate a little suspense if you don’t know how the game went. It also does well in contextualising just how big this was in Japan, especially with one of the team talking about how they discussed moving to Romania in the event of their losing, as Japan had in the Men’s Judo final just before.
The BBC’s flagship documentary features strand, Storyville, has come in for some deserved flack for editing some of the films it broadcasts, but honestly that’s exactly what The Witches of the Orient needs. There’s a great, lean, focused, hour of material here, but at 100 minutes the film is drawn out, somewhat repetitive, and rather less profound than I think it would like to be or believes it is.