‘The Witches of the Orient’ Review: Symphony of a Sports Team

In the experimental documentary “The Witches of the Orient,” the women of the 1964 Japanese Olympic volleyball team recall their whirlwind rise to gold-medal glory. The former champions wryly and modestly narrate their own story in new interviews, while the movie uses chic archival footage to set up a mythic reconsideration of their triumphs.

The team members met when they were workers at a textile factory in Kaizuka, Japan, where they were known as Nichibo Kaizuka, after the name of the company and the name of the town. To their European competitors, they were known by the racist moniker Oriental Witches. Some onlookers joked that their skills resulted from magic, but the film shows that their ability of course came from meticulous practices. Players somersaulted, dove and leapt for the ball, and their efforts were filmed by the Japanese Olympic Committee in 1964. That footage has now been recycled into this documentary.

In these remarkable archival recordings, the team’s youthful faces glow against bright green, red or white uniforms, and they are shown to be as precise on the court as they are in the factory. When the director Julien Faraut begins to splice the sequences of the team’s practices with shots from a 1984 animated series that they inspired, the cuts from real events to illustrations appear seamless.

Faraut filmed the members of the Nichibo Kaizuka in the present day, but he wisely centers the archival footage and the animation in his movie, building a collage from fragments of the past and present. Montages are set to a hip electronic score, complete with Portishead needle drops. If the team was derided by their prejudiced (and defeated) foes in the moment of their success, this documentary elegantly restores the glow of legend, saving the champions the trouble of having to explain their heroism in words.

The Witches of the Orient
Not rated. In Japanese, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. In theaters.

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