Saturday, 20 February 2021

WITCHES OF THE ORIENT/LES SORCIERES DE L'ORIENT - Rotterdam International Film Festival review

Reunited more than 50 years after they competed at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the surviving members of the Japanese Olympic volleyball team reminisce about their incredible sporting success. So impressive was their winning streak that it was looked at as almost otherworldly, leading the foreign press to dub them the "Witches of the Orient". Using new interviews, vintage anime and archive footage of their training sessions, Julian Faraut's new film charts the team's rise from humble factory floor beginnings to facing off against their biggest rivals in an Olympic final.

One of the highlights of the recently wrapped IFFR Rotterdam International Film Festival (that is, until the second leg begins in June), French director Julian Faraut's Witches of the Orient (Les Sorcieres de L'Orient in its original French) is a fascinating blend of archive materials and volleyball anime - a subgenre that sprang up at the height of the team's success and that is still being made today - along with new interviews with the team, now all in their seventies. Gathered around a grand roundtable - the setting for a catch up meal rather than an in depth interview - Faraut nods to the level of fame and hero-worship they once received by introducing each player with stylised on-screen graphics. More appropriate for characters from a Saturday morning cartoon that a group of septuagenarians, these intro's reveal the taunting, often cruel nicknames they played under (Blowfish, Horse, Kettle, and so on), bestowed upon them by their coach, Hirofumi 'The Demon' Daimatsu, based on how he judged their physical appearances. 

It's certainly jarring by modern standards to see such an un-PC approach to coaching, and alongside the footage of Daimatsu relentlessly hurling balls at his team, it stands as both a relic of a different time and a (not excused) display of how he pushed them to greatness, training them 6 days a week, 51 weeks a year. Maybe it's Stockholm syndrome or just the ability to look back on their youth with fondness, but the team all remember the barbs and nicknames in good humour, and have a lot of praise to offer for Daimatsu.

The film follows the team's humble beginnings from the Nichibo Kaizuka factory - with players graduating from the factory floor to becoming part of the sports team - all the way through their success at the World Volleyball Championships and towards the prospects of bringing home Olympic gold. As fate would have it, Tokyo was chosen as the host city for the 1964 Olympics, marking the first time television would be broadcast from Asia to the United States as well as the introduction of two new Olympic sports, judo and volleyball. With huge political and cultural ramifications, as well as national pride at stake - particularly when the volleyball team were to face their biggest rivals, the USSR, in the final - the importance of winning wasn't lost on these women.

Paralleling their success with that of Japanese industry, Faraut employs a number of energetic montages to show how the team was trained to win. Cut together to create a collage of animation, old footage and a propulsive new synth soundtrack courtesy of Grandaddy's Jason Lytle, Witches of the Orient resembles something akin to a music video Spike Jonze would have made at the turn of the millennium. The volleyball anime that shows them jumping like superheroes is incredibly fun to watch and gives the film a truly unique way of telling the story of these women. Likewise the footage of them training, showing the relentless regimen they were under, has a rhythmic quality that pulls you into their world.

Where the film does hit a wall somewhat, is in the modern day interviews with the players. We see their family lives as doting grandmothers (and in one case a still active love for volleyball), but these sequences do go on longer than necessary and stop the momentum the film builds with its archive material. Faraut's approach is about offering these clashes in speed and sources, switching gears from a Portishead scored montage to a more sedate, formal documentary 'slice-of-life' style, but an argument could be made that had he presented a documentary that was solely comprised of just the archive, all the high points would remain intact.

In the same way his 2018 tennis doc In the Realm of Perfection was less an expose of John McEnroe as a public figure of some repute and more a dissection of the mechanics of how McEnroe was such a skilled athlete, where this film succeeds is in selling the Nichibo Kaizuka team as a force to be reckoned with. As the film sets into the final showdown against the team from the Soviet Union, the reveal of the restoration work on the original film is incredible, looking and sounding as good as new. I'm sure the original footage was passable, but the attention it's been afforded gives this film the sporting climax it deserves. Director Julian Faraut has crafted a truly fascinating documentary on the young lives of these women and the pressure they were under to succeed from the powers that be. Inventively presented and compelling, Witches of the Orient is a gripping, joyous experience. 

Verdict

4/5




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