Aiming for the Top! The Witches of the Orient: Documentary Review

14 Sep

The Witches of the Orient (2021) - IMDbBy Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)

The Cinematheque
1131 Howe Street
Vancouver BC

Sept 16-19, 22
(please check link for showtimes)
Playing online: September 16–29

The Witches of the Orient is a deceptive title. Unless you are reading the plot teaser, you won’t know this sports film is about the triumphs of the 1964 Japanese Olympic volleyball team. These ladies who are still living today fondly recall their glory days, their training, and how they feel (past and present) about their achievement. Most of them were workers at a textile factory in Kaizuka, Japan, and in some ways, the title is about the magical connection they’ve formed during their training to aim for the top, Gunbuster style. Though this anime is about giant robots and excelling in the battlefield, the title is inspired from older sports cartoons. The aesthetic of a getting a group of ladies fully trained by a determined coach shows why the narrative is familiar. The real life Olympic team had to deal with the demanding Hirofumi Daimatsu.  

Technically, their competitors saw them as Oriental Witches. Instead of taking it as a derogatory statement, the Japanese team took it as a term of endearment. They weren’t upset either. I suspect they were fussing over how they’ve stayed true to themselves. As they toured the world in exhibition matches, we can see why they are a finely tuned and fierce team on the volleyball field.

This documentary is engaging. Director Julien Faraut mixes up the old (archival footage) with the new (interviews) and blends it with the anime, Attack No. 1. The way the scenes transition from this work to that of the story at hand is seemless, and it only adds to their mystique. In many published interviews, this filmmaker recalls seeing it a long time ago, back in the late 80s, when he was a kid living in France and said it a profound impact. He includes bits of this cartoon to heighten just how important of an influence the real world team had in other forms of media. The two stories are unrelated, but I feel the juxtapositions are on the nose. It’s important to note Japan’s Olympic team still holds a world record for the number of wins made during this event.

The Witches of the Orient (2021) - IMDb

This volleyball team is doing more than simply representing their country’s national pride. In a time where sentiments around the world about this country is varied, not everybody will see them as equals. As women, they even faced tougher scrutiny, and this work does a fine job at exploring every avenue. The economic notes don’t feel as important, but to understand where these ladies come from means paying attention to each of their stories. This work deserves more than one view to understand all that transpired. Thankfully, The Cinematheque is offering many screenings than just the in-house ones as it plays in Vancouver this later this coming week.

5 Stars out of 5

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