In the experimental documentary “Witches of the East”, the women of the 1964 Japanese Olympic volleyball team recall their lightning rise to gold medal glory. The former champions ironically and modestly tell their own stories in new interviews, while the film uses chic archive footage to set up a mythical revision of their triumphs.

The team members met while working at a textile factory in Kaizuka, Japan, where they were known as Nichibo Kaizuka, after the company name and the city name. . To their European competitors, they were known by the racist nickname of Oriental Witches. Some viewers joked that their skills were the result of magic, but the film shows that their ability of course came from meticulous practice. The players somersaulted, dived and jumped for the ball, and their efforts were filmed by the Japanese Olympic Committee in 1964. These footage have now been recycled into this documentary.

In these remarkable archival recordings, the young faces of the team shine in bright green, red or white uniforms, and they show themselves as precise in the field as they are at the factory. When director Julien Faraut begins piecing together the footage of the team’s practices with shots from a 1984 animated series they inspired, the cuts from actual events to the illustrations seem transparent.

Faraut has filmed the members of Nichibo Kaizuka these days, but he wisely centers archival footage and animation in his film, building a collage from fragments of the past and present. The fixtures are set to a plugged-in electronic score, complemented by Portishead needle drops. If the team were ridiculed by their prejudiced (and defeated) enemies at the time of their success, this documentary elegantly restores the luster of legend, saving champions from having to explain their heroism in words.

Witches of the Orient
Unclassified. In Japanese, with subtitles. Duration: 1 hour 40 minutes. In theaters.


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