Oriental witches: How female factory workers became Olympic champions in volleyball

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The witches of the Orient, the nickname of the legendary Japanese volleyball team for the Olympics in Tokyo 1964 due to their seemingly supernatural powers, is now a gripping film that maps the incredible story of the former athletes. It can also be seen as a political commentary on Japan’s resurgence after World War II and the rivalry with the Soviet Union (after all, it was the Russians who gave the women’s group their nickname). Released in time for the Tokyo 2021 Olympics, this documentary by filmmaker Julien Faraut (director of the John McEnroe film In the realm of perfection) tells the story of the troupe, which with 258 straight victories (still a record today), inspired legions of fans and an entire cult genre of manga comics and anime shows and has left a unique sporting and cultural heritage.

The film follows the formation of the unstoppable team for the whole woman in the late 1950s as a work team at a textile factory in Osaka after the war, who together with their demanding trainer Hirobumi Daimatsu trained through the night and rose to world champions in 1962, before their sensational victory at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. The witches of the Orient contains striking 16mm color wheels from the team in training plus previously unseen archive footage produced by the Japanese Olympic Committee in 1964 along with a montage of vintage manga and TV material as well as modern interviews with four of the players now in the 70s.

One of the most captivating moments in the film is a sequence that shows an exhausting training technique where players are repeatedly led back and forth across the court to hit a ball, roll over, run back and repeat. Equally fascinating is when four of the original players reunite around the dining room table to reflect on their collective achievements and their lives and on the pros and cons of their “demon trainer”. One player says “we thought we would leave the country if we lost …. We talked seriously about going to Romania.” Facts and fable fly hand in hand, and these women’s strength, perseverance, ambition and enormous modesty are celebrated again.

The archive films and vintage anime film are supported by an evocative score that mixes the sound loops and repetitive rhythms of textile machines and sports education along with the gripping voice of Beth Gibbons (Portishead) in key sequences and uplifting, original tracks composed by American musician Jason Lytle, best known for his work as the greatest singer and songwriter for the acclaimed indie rock group, Grandaddy.

Director Julien Faraut says: “The [original 16mm reels] is striking and great curiosity arose in me. They also seemed strangely familiar. The connection did not take long to create, these images resembled a Japanese cartoon, the famous Jeanne and Serge “manga” cult from an entire generation. Thus, I discovered that behind all the volleyball manga and anime, there is a long lineage that goes back precisely to ‘Witches of the Orient’, the nickname that the Soviet press gave this Japanese team with extraordinary powers that spanned a chain of undisputed victories. ”

The witches of the Orient shown in cinemas nationwide and can be seen through Modern movies Virtual cinema partners.

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