The Witches of the Orient

Japan's world-conquering women’s volleyball team of the 1960s is celebrated in this sparky documentary that's colourful, retro fun but never quite gets under the skin of these fascinating sportswomen

Film Review by Jamie Dunn | 12 Jul 2021
  • The Witches of the Orient
Film title: The Witches of the Orient
Director: Julien Faraut
Starring: Masai Kasai, Yuriko Handa, Hirofumi Daimatsu
Release date: 16 Jul

This beautifully crafted and gently experimental sports documentary tells how a lowly Osaka textile factory’s volleyball team became an unstoppable force in the early 1960s. Dubbed the "Oriental Witches" by the western press, the team went on to represent Japan on a run of 258 undefeated games, winning the world championships and taking gold at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.

There’s a reason most sports movies tend to favour underdogs rather than teams on juggernaut winning streaks, but French director Julien Faraut’s fleet-footed film overcomes any lack of tension in the narrative thanks to witty reconstructions of key matches and brutal training sessions using a rich cache of archive material. Particularly winning is the inventive inclusion of a kids’ anime the 'Witches' inspired called Attack No.1, which is knitted together with the fevered audio commentary from real matches. What really makes the film sing, though, is its genuine affection for these humble, hard-working, slightly stuffy sportswomen, with Faraut’s dynamic montage sequences insisting parallels between the team's gruelling training regimes and the industry of post-WWII Japan.

Faraut reunites some of the 'Witches', still spry in their 70s, in the present day, introducing them on screen with trading-card like graphics of their specialist skills and their bonkers nicknames. The physical demands of their sports career are clear, but Faraut doesn’t manage to unearth much in terms of the emotional toll caused by such intense public pressure. The documentary is always alive and entertaining, however. And even those allergic to sports films will find themselves caught up in the story of Horseface, The Kettle, Blowfish et al.

The Witches of the Orient is released 16 Jul by Modern Films; certificate U