' ' Cinema Romantico: The Witches of the Orient

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The Witches of the Orient

“The Witches of the Orient” takes its name from the Nichibo Kaizuka, a women’s volleyball team established in Kaizuka, Japan that graduated to national team status, representing their country at the 1960 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Of course, witch is a loaded term, replete with sexism and racism, which the documentary lays bare in its opening archival images of an anime show depicting a bewitching woman luring a man into her sorceress trap. It is an opening just as evocative of director Julian Faraut’s approach. This story, in which the Nichibo Kaizuka win an unprecedented 258 matches in a row and a Gold Medal, is the stuff of a thousand sports documentaries providing the middling sweep of a middle school history textbook. Faraut, though, bless his heart, thinks in images, eschewing generic narration to instead illustrate his ideas and themes through scads of archival footage, yielding a refreshing, often moving formal experience. And though “The Witches of the Orient” convincingly argues the team was part and parcel to Japan’s post-WWII rebuild on display at their 1960 Summer Games, in giving a few still living members of the Nichibo Kaizuka a voice, none of whom had ever spoken about their experience before, the documentary transcends their nationalistic cocoon to present them as individuals.

As the documentary opens, the former players who agreed to be interviewed gather for dinner, the camera circling them but not intrusively, more like a fly on the wall, as interested in what they have to say to each other as to us. When they do communicate for our benefit, it is not through typical talking head interviews but in voiceovers, ones which Faraut lays over top of everyday images of the women: riding a bike through the rain to the grocery store, taking a bus and staring out the window, coaching volleyball practice. This, in tandem with the kind of stream of consciousness speaking style, like Faraut is just letting them go rather than asking a series of questions, wonderfully lives out the idea of getting lost in memory while life goes by. 

The women were not simply volleyball players; they worked by day in a textile mill in Kaizuka before practicing late into the night until that practice was deemed satisfactory, and then waking up the next morning and doing it all over again. To illuminate this idea, Faraut rhythmically cuts back and forth between footage of workers inside a textile mill and the players practicing volleyball, the two seemingly disparate acts bleeding into one another with a kind of Wax On Wax Off poetry. Despite such lyricism, some of the other uncovered footage also makes plain the brutality these practice sessions, the squad’s coach, Hirofumi Daimatsu, launching volleyball after volleyball, like a human batting machine, at players as they slide left to right and back again, over and over, trying to dig each ball before it hits the floor. It resembles an unrelenting game of dodgeball in which no one is ever considered “out.” The players admit they questioned such intensity at the time, and the relentless savageness of this passage might make you wonder where such high-level sport is worth it, though “The Witches of the Orient” being afforded the passage of time means these interviews are reflections rather than instant reactions, informed by matter-of-fact perspective. One former player notes that after volleyball, she never really felt tired again.

If this passage of endurance and exceptionally hard work effectively counteracts the supernatural notion of their Witches of the Orient sobriqu, Faraut wades into the mystic elsewhere. The Nichibo Kaizuka’s key triumph over the Soviet Union at the 1962 World Championships begins with basic black and white newsreel footage before segueing to the game itself, which Faraut intercuts with images from an anime fantastically reimagining the same contest, the electronic music score by Jason Lytle rendering it not suspenseful but coolly thrilling, a sequence dramatizing how a volleyball team was elevated into the realm of mythology. For the conclusion, however, at the 1964 Olympics, Faraut noticeably keeps the heightened anime interpretations to just the crowd and the announcers, presenting the Japanese team itself as live and in color. That Gold Medal, it was no myth; it was the real thing. 

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