There is not a lot of storytelling in the unconventional documentary “The Witches of the Orient”, directed by French filmmaker Julien Faraut, and plot twists are entirely absent. Watching the film, I found out that in the 1960s the Japanese women’s volleyball team went undefeated for 258 games, a record that still stands. I found out that the players were textile factory workers who trained very hard every day after work and slept as little as four hours a night. I also found out that the team felt some anxiousness before their match with the Soviet Union in the final of the 1964 Olympics, but they won anyway.
However, most of the above is also available on Wikipedia, and it could have been told in a much shorter and much more straightforward film. Faraut’s documentary is interested not so much in informing us about the “Witches” (as they were nicknamed in the foreign press), but in conveying the status they had at the time as almost-mythical figures, as well as the intense, grueling nature of their training. It does this through an inventive use of animated footage.
“The Witches of the Orient” borrows extensively, and repeatedly, from the 1969 anime series “Attack no.1”, which, albeit inspired by the triumphs of the national volleyball team, is set in a high school and has an entirely fictional plot and cast of characters. We are told that the team’s winning streak triggered a veritable craze around volleyball in manga and anime. (For what it’s worth, I myself remember watching on tv, as a child, a different volleyball-focused anime, “Attacker You”, many years after the success of the Witches.)
Attack No1 Opening:
Inserting animated sequences in mostly live-action documentaries is nothing new, of course. But Faraut’s film does with them something altogether different from the usual explaining or re-enacting of reality.
What is reality, anyway? The former athletes can tell us how exhausting it was to dive for the ball hundreds of times in a row as part of their training, or how they felt during their pivotal games against the Soviets, but we can never truly understand it. “The Witches of the Orient” brings us as close to understanding as possible, though, via rhythmic montages that intercut “real” footage and clips from “Attack no.1”.
The anime is not actually about the real women of the Japanese volleyball team, but here it delivers an experience of reality. A hypnotic sequence of the players diving for the ball again and again goes on for too long and overstays its welcome, perhaps. That may be part of the point: for the athletes, the training sessions probably seemed to go on forever, beyond their endurance limit. TV anime itself is, of course, repetitive, reusing the same frames over and over again. And while the characters of “Attack no.1” are not the same women of the volleyball team that won 258 consecutive games, the real women accept a storyline for themselves, too, by embracing the cartoonish nicknames assigned to them by their coach.
The film’s approach is an experiment that may not be successful all the time, but it’s certainly interesting.
“The Witches of the Orient” is now available in cinemas and on streaming in the UK and in Ireland.