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‘The Witches of the Orient’ inspires at DPAC

| Monday, September 27, 2021

Doug Abell

Dive into the 1960s and watch a Japanese women’s volleyball team become unlikely heroes with “The Witches of the Orient.” Even as they worked “day jobs” in a factory, these women trained day in and day out under their coach, Hirofumi Daimatsu. The idea was for the team to become like Daruma dolls — that is, dolls that roll around when pushed but never fall over. This team of underdogs won 258 consecutive matches, as well as the 1964 Olympic Gold Medal. Named the “Witches of the Orient” for their seemingly supernatural volleyball abilities, these now 70-year-old women use Julien Faraut’s documentary (named for the team’s nickname) to reflect on their time with the team. “The Witches of the Orient,” which was recently showing at DPAC, mixes present-day footage of the retired players with shots of them from the 60s and scenes from Eiji Okabe’s “Attack No.1,” an anime based on the team. Ultimately, the documentary portrays the remarkable talents these women had and takes viewers through the process by which they became heroes for post-WWII Japan.

According to Faraut, these amazing women woke up at 6:30 am, went to work at 8 am, and practiced volleyball from 4:30 into the night (often until 1 am). Training till their breaking points, these women persevered — despite the world’s doubts — to compete in (and win) many volleyball competitions. Their success proved everyone wrong and brought pride to their home nation. Fifty years later, their Olympic win is still the most watched sports broadcast in Japanese television history.

The documentary uses elements like archived footage of the team, modern footage of the women and animation to create a story of hard work, power and even magic. However, director Julien Faraut used so many of these beautiful clips that the essence of the story was lost, leaving the audience puzzled at the apparent lack of a storyline. In my view, the film’s storyline was sacrificed for its aesthetics.

As I was watching the documentary, I found myself wanting to learn more about these women’s lives and their stories. Unfortunately, such details were only haphazardly mentioned between less expository scenes — one clip, for instance, shows a woman throwing herself over and over (for two minutes, actually) to get the volleyball as the screen spins around. While they may have seemed attractive or cool in the moment, scenes like that took away from the core of the documentary.

By the end of the film, I just wanted the film to stop showing the same anime clips and get on with the story. The juxtaposition of the “Attack No.1” anime and the actual team footage was clever for a while, but it eventually started taking away from the film’s overall sense of reality and, therefore, from the incredible (and true) story it hopes to tell. Yes, the team acted in supernatural ways — which were represented in the anime — but the constant clash of reality with animation made the real team seem unreal, as if they really were “witches” and not real women who worked extremely hard to get to where they were.

Despite these criticisms, I enjoyed the documentary, even though it could have been better. Ultimately, the story was inspiring, but it lacked focus. Nevertheless, the film still made me want to put more effort into what I do and to be passionate about my daily life. 


Title: “The Witches of the Orient”

Director:  Julien Faraut

Starring: 1964 Japanese Olympic Team

If you like: “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection”

Shamrocks: 3.5 out of 5

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