Review: The Witches of the Orient
- Making very creative use of archive material, Julien Faraut looks back on the emblematic journey of an exceptional women’s volleyball team in Japan
"Us? Witches? We were surprised to begin with. But then we were reminded that witches are endowed with supernatural powers. At which point, shamelessly, we were fine with it." People like statistics in the world of sport, alongside epic tales of legendary, invincible teams. From 1960 to 1966, the women belonging to the Nichibo Kaizuka factory volleyball club who were so brilliant as to become Japan’s national team, set a phenomenal record which is yet to be beaten: 258 consecutive victories. It’s this unusual collective adventure, symbolic of a country undergoing reconstruction, which Julien Faraut brings to light in The Witches of the Orient [+see also:
film profile], a work previously unveiled in FIPADOC and competing this week in the Big Screen competition of the 49th Rotterdam Film Festival. Stamping his new documentary with the very same unique hallmarks borne by his previous opus John Mcenroe: In the Realm of Perfection [+see also:
film profile], the French director gives these women and sportspeople the glory they deserve, as well as confirming his consummate and scientific mastery of film narration, interweaving TV archives and manga cartoons (Attack n°1 by Chikako Urano) with testimonies from surviving players.
Katsumi "the kettle", Yoshiko "the dreamer", Kinuko "paï – a mahjong tile - (who died in December), Yoko "lemonade" and Yuriko "the puffer fish" are now grandmas in their seventies and eighties who are tied together by unbreakable bonds, five women sharing a meal and reminiscing over the astonishing days of their youth spent at the summit of high-level sport. Theirs is a trajectory marked by the pushing of limits, solidarity and victory which took them as far as Olympic gold and which was also the path taken by Masae "the horse" and Sata "Achako" who have now passed away, not to mention that of Emiko "the fidget" (who is absent for health reasons).
Recruited upon their graduation from high school by the Nichibo textile factory, where work begins at 8am and ends in long and arduous training sessions which last until the middle of the night (balls shoot across the pitch like machine gun bullets and are blasted back to the point of exhaustion, leaving the players rocking like Daruma weebles), under the iron rule of their coach Daimatsu (nicknamed "the demon" by the press and who also survived the Burmese jungle during the Second World War); a three-month tour representing their country in Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Czechoslovakia and the USSR ("the foreign players were incredible"); the 1962 World Championship in Moscow… The girls enjoyed a string of wins and Nichibo Kaizuka’s team was described as “the best in the world. We could leave the story there. But then volleyball became an Olympic sport, and, in Japan, the Witches were suddenly worth their weight in gold."
The pressure was huge, because Tokyo had been chosen to organise the 1964 Olympic Games (the very first to be broadcast via satellite). It was a way of closing the parentheses of war, of turning the event into the climactic point of Japanese reconstruction, of showing a new face to the world. It wasn’t just matches which were at stake for our friendly volleyball heroines: they were the flagbearers of a whole country’s honour and future (a country which suffered the humiliation of seeing Dutch competitor Geesink triumph in judo just ahead of the volleyball final). And whilst, at the time, Sports Illustrated might have described their training as "an incredibly shocking experience”, and their journalist “horrified by their fanatical efforts. They train six days a week, 51 weeks a year. The coach’s sinister, frustrated look sends a chill down the spine", Julien Faraut’s film tells an entirely different story, painting a fascinating portrait (buoyed by a sporty narrative that’s simple in its unfolding, but which becomes sophisticated, inventive and energetic through editing and music) of the emblematic, collective strength of character shown by these endearing women, who knock the ball out of the court before winning the final point.
The Witches of the Orient is produced by William Jehannin on behalf of UFO Production), in association with INSEP (French National Institute for Sport, Expertise and Performance), and is sold by Lightdox.
(Translated from French)
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