Witches of the Orient, directed by Julien Faraut, arrives in select theaters and virtual cinemas just ahead of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. This documentary tells the story of the Nichibo Kaizuka women's volleyball team, a group of factory workers pushed to extremes of training throughout the '50s and early '60s before winning big at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Utilizing an array of experimental techniques -- most successfully, the blending of real matches with anime adaptations -- it's an inconsistent but intriguing film that might teach you a bit about Japan's complicated relationship with the Olympics.
Witches of the Orient's opening scene establishes the film's anything-goes mood with what appears to be an anime short from the 1930s. Looking more like a Fleischer cartoon than the post-Tezuka style commonly associated with Japanese animation, the main point of its inclusion beyond comedic value is to establish the negative Japanese image of witches. From there, the film cuts to the now-elderly Nichibo Kaizuka team gathered at a table as one of the women describes the culture shock of being described as "witches" when playing in other countries, taking it as an insult at first before embracing it as a descriptor of supernatural power.
Note that the film doesn't actually show the woman saying these lines. One of Faraut's most unique yet potentially off-putting techniques as a documentarian is that he avoids showing interviews with his subjects entirely, instead opting to always lay narration from these interviews over other footage. This makes for a more visually interesting film than a series of talking-head interviews would be, but sometimes the disjoint between sound and image can be distracting and the repetitive nature of both the footage and conversations distancing. Other bits of stylization, like the use of negative images, circle dissolves and anachronistic music by Jason Lyttle and K-Raw vary between effective and tiring.
Faraut has essentially taken a dramatic true story and de-emphasized much of the drama in favor of a mood piece generally more in tune with the rhythms of the "witches" today than in their prime as athletes. Those wanting to see a more dramatic but fictionalized account of the Nichibo Kaizuka team's tough road to victory might be more interested in reading Chikako Urano's influential, 12-volume 1968-70 shojo manga Attack No.1 or watching its 104-episode 1967-71 anime adaptation. Neither of those, however, is officially available in the United States, so Witches of the Orient is actually your best opportunity to see clean remastered footage from the Attack No.1 anime.
It's in the transitions between those anime scenes and the real footage of both matches and training sessions that Witches of the Orient hits its stride. Attack No.1 might have exaggerated the players' moves (though they did train to wobble like daruma dolls, none of the real players are ever seen flipping in midair to hit a ball), but scenes from the anime manage to cut perfectly into the exciting real tournaments. In one montage showcasing the borderline-abusive techniques of their coach Daimatsu, a bombardment of real balls blends with animated ones like a documentary Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Witches of the Orient gets more interesting as it builds up to its thrilling climactic match at the Olympics. It's here that the film places the team's story most effectively into its post-World War II historical context. Though you can't really call facts in a historical documentary "spoilers," suffice to say that this context makes both Daimatsu and the players' psychology make a lot more sense. It even helps explain why the Japanese government today has been so dead-set on refusing to cancel the Olympics against almost all logic and reason.
Although Faraut's style of directing isn't always the best match for the material, Witches of the Orient is nonetheless a fascinating piece of cultural history. There's enough that's good about the documentary to make it worth a watch for sports fans, anime otaku and history buffs alike.
Directed by Julien Faraut, Witches of the Orient is now playing in select theaters and virtual cinemas.