Storytelling is all about execution. You can have the most fascinating, compelling, edge-of-your-seat concept, but, if the execution flounders, nothing else matters. Take the story about the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo which saw the introduction of volleyball as an official competitive sport, allowing for a rematch between the women’s Japanese and Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) teams. Since the two teams faced off in the World’s Championship in which USSR beat the Japanese, the Japanese team, lead by Coach Hirobumi “The Demon” Daimatsu, traveled Europe defeating every country they faced without a single defeat. Dubbed the “Witches of the Orient” due to their relentless and unbroken series of wins, the women’s team was provided an opportunity maintain their streak and conquer their rivals at the same time in the 1964 Olympics. All of this is compelling stuff, so it makes sense that documentarian Julien Faraut (John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection) would want to preserve this story for generations to come in his film The Witches of the Orient (Les Sorcières de l’Orient). The trick is that the execution, while meditative and thoughtful, fails to capture the inherent excitement at the heart of the story.
There’s nothing wrong with playing with format when trying to tell a story. Even documentaries, a retelling of specific events, can do so with a measure storyteller’s flair. Fellow North Bend Film Festival entry CODE NAME: Nagasaki uses overlapping tools to tell its story of a young man’s search for his long-disappeared mother. There are false film trailers conveying the internal struggle of the central figure, Marius Lunde, use of animation to play-out interactions, and he and filmmaking partner Fredrik Hana quite literally stage a potential future meeting between mother and son as a means of giving Marius practice. These overlapping methods weave an emotionally complex structure which slowly pull the audience in further. Faraut’s approach is far more subtle and gentle, even meditative, in some respects, where the combination of visual and scoring elements began to lull this particular reviewer to sleep. For instance, instead of the typical talking head interviews with the remaining members of the team who agreed to speak with him — Kinuko Tanida, Katsumi Matsumura, Yoko Shinozaki, and Yoshiko Matsumura — he recorded them off camera and then runs that audio against seemingly unconnected material of them going about their current lives. In the first, featuring Katsumi Matsumura, the camera follows her as she leaves home, rides her bike in the rain, and goes to a gym to workout. Much of her dialogue is about the procedures of preparing the gym for practice, something which she, as a substitute player, was responsible for doing each day; how long practice would go; and how hard they all worked. According to the press notes, Faraut’s idea is to have the location/action of the subject serve as a “game of mirror and resonances” against the dialogue. Frankly, if I hadn’t read this post-screening, there’s almost no way I would recognize the ideation Faraut had in mind behind this style of interview presentation. Particularly because so much of the film is intercut with material that isn’t explained in any capacity until much later, there’s often a feeling that the audience is running to catch up, like the players themselves in practice.
After a brief opening involving an old black-and-white Japanese cartoon setting up how this culture views witches, there’s a concept intro, then a narration over several of the teammates sitting down to eat. The narration doesn’t come from them (the audio almost never comes from the video we’re watching from the present-day players) and the overlaid animatic of them playing volleyball over a daruma doll concludes the intro before Katsumi’s interview portion begins. For what we come to know later about both Daimatsu’s emphasis on judo-like rolls, inspired by a daruma doll, the inclusion here makes sense. But if you don’t know, if you have no concept of the players, their history, the inspiration for their training, the manga/anime which sprung up because of their success, and more…well, you’re going to be confused almost from the start. It’s bold to create a documentary under the assumption that the audience is already well aware of the central event. France is part of Europe where the Witches of the Orient dominated. This, combined with a greater interest in volleyball over the U.S., may explain why the topic feels as niche as it does. Given the narrative core, there’s something exciting to the story of getting to know more about these athletes and what they endured to succeed, yet Faraut’s so focused on the meditative/reflective aspect that there’s no energy pulsing through it. In fact, the editing is such during the footage of the best of five match against the USSR that momentum is cut each time Faraut cuts away to tell us the date and time, even when it’s only progressed by a minute.
Despite these frustrating moments where The Witches of the Orient feels designed for a different audience, one which doesn’t need to either race to catch up or be calmed into tranquility, the story of the Japanese volleyball team is undeniably remarkable. It’s not just for the series of pop culture creations they inspired or how they themselves became unwitting symbols of Japanese endurance post-War World II, both of which are explored within the doc, but that they are champions who were being led by someone who understood what it took to win, even if it meant pushing each player past their limits, through the pain of bruised ribs or straight up exhaustion. That so many of the players either refer to or have memories of others referring to Daimatsu with kindness despite the clear brutality he displayed in practice, shows that his efforts weren’t punitive but were strict and precise, designed to create the best possible versions of his teams that he could. Faraut presents this and other interpretative truths with the grace each deserves, enabling the team — living and present, unavailable, or deceased — to have their story preserved beyond the annals of Olympic history.
Screening during the 2021 North Bend Film Festival beginning July 15th, 2021.
For more information, head to the NBFF film page or Lightdox’s The Witches of the Orient website.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.