by Jeremy Clarke.
This sports documentary, just out in UK and Irish cinemas, opens with a scene from the anime short Danemon’s Monster Hunt at Shojiji (Yoshitaro Kataoka, 1935) in which the hero, trying to save the damsel in distress from the web of the evil spider witch, learns too late that the damsel is the evil spider witch and has lured him to his fate. You don’t really expect a film about a women’s volleyball team to start with animated horror, even if the team in question became known as “the Witches of the Orient.” “To refer to people as witches is not very kind,” says Katsumi Matsumura, a surviving member of the team. “But then, witches have supernatural powers. So that suited us fine.”
The nickname originated in the Russian newspaper Pravda when the Japanese team faced the Russians in the 1962 volleyball championships. It was to be their 22nd successive win in an undefeated run that would last another four years, totalling 258 victories. When this seemingly unstoppable series of successes began, they were dubbed “the Typhoon of the Orient” with the expectation that typhoons last a limited time and then blow out. But this team just kept on going.
The team in question was not recruited from all over Japan, but formed from the staff of an Osaka textile factory, Nichibo Kaizuka (today known as Unitika). It was relatively commonplace in Japan for firms to provide sports facilities, raining and teams for their workers, with inter-company matches becoming increasingly competitive by the 1950s. The most popular sport for women in Japan was volleyball; for men it was baseball.
Nichibo Kaizuka’s young women endured a punishing regime, allowing them no more than six hours’ sleep a night. Getting up at 6am, they would work in the factory from 8am with an hour for lunch, then change for gym training in the afternoon under their captain Masae Kasai. Their coach, Hirobumi Daimatsu, another Nichibo employee, finished work by 5.30 to train them until midnight or sometimes as late as 2am.
Daimatsu was old enough to be their father. He had famously spent several months in the Burmese jungle in WW2, where he and all the men under his command had survived. He was ruthless and pushed the girls hard, yet perhaps because of the national tendency to place the well-being of the group far above that of the individual, they never complained. Once a month, at his own expense, he’d take them all out for a trip to the cinema. Watching the present-day talking head footage, the women had no regrets, and clearly adored him.
The French documentary’s director, Julien Faraut, previously made sports documentaries about the 1952 Olympics (A New Look at The 1952 Olympics, 2013) and a tennis star (John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, 2018) so he’s no stranger to this particular genre. Helped in no small part by spending two decades working with the film library of the French Sports Institute (INSEP), he has accessed some pretty amazing footage for The Witches of the Orient, including Pathé newsreel of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, a devastating shot of a flattened urban area of Japan after the war and the arrival of the Olympic flame in Tokyo, carried to the top of the stadium by a Japanese runner for the 1964 games.
In addition to shooting present-day material of the few surviving team members still alive as they meet to reminisce or, in one case, cycle, work out at the gym and train high school students as a PE instructor, the director has also managed to source extraordinary colour footage of the girls’ training back in the sixties from Nobuko Shibuya’s prizewinning documentary short The Price of Victory (1963). We watch their coach throwing a stream of balls at alternate corners of the court as his charges run across the back of the court to catch them.
Most of their training was spent doing this, and when Farault’s film moves on to footage of their 1962 and 1964 finals against the Russians, the results can be clearly seen. As soon as the ball is on their side of the net, Nichibo have complete control over it right up to the point where one of them lobs it fiercely at the floor on the opposing side. (For the uninitiated, the object is not to let the ball touch the ground of the court).
The film is for the most part window-boxed in the old ‘Academy’ (TV) aspect ratio of 4:3, which you accept, along with the fact of the archive 1962 match footage being black and white. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics final, however, was shot in crisp colours in the letterbox format, which means that for this final reel drama, the screen bursts into vivid widescreen glory.
The team’s success and its two major victories on the international stage captured the hearts and minds of the nation. In 1968, Chikako Urano responded with the first girls’ volleyball team manga Attack No.1, spawning in turn a 104-episode anime TV series directed by Fumio Kurokawa and Eiji Okabe in 1969, the first Japanese sports cartoon for a female audience. Another girls’ volleyball team manga followed later in 1968: The Sign is V by Shiro Jinbo and Akira Mochizuki, which similarly in 1969 spawned the 45-episode live-action TV series with Kaai Okada and Mari Nakayama. A popular Japanese sub-genre was born.
The Attack No.1 series sold to France, Germany and Italy, so was knocking around in the background during director Faraut’s childhood and proved instrumental in his journey making this film. He and his editors can’t resist cutting little bits of it into the archive live-action training and games footage, something they pull off seamlessly, making the animated clips feel part of the real live-action world and vice versa. Not one to do things by halves, he also manages to construct engaging, wordless visual sequences around compositions by American indie musician Jason Lytle and “Machine Gun” by Portishead, as well as running the theme song for Attack No. 1 over the end credits.
Apart from President Johnson being dubbed into French, presumably by a French TV network, then subtitled in English as he talks about the 1964 Olympics, all footage here including the sports commentaries is in the original language, primarily Japanese, subtitled in English. The Witches of the Orient is not perhaps the most obvious viewing for anime fans, but is nonetheless rewarding and well worth seeking out. And just in time for the 2021 Olympics in Japan, too.