by Joshua Ray on Jul 16, 2021

Katsumi Matsumura might be the oldest person in the gym, but that doesn’t mean much. She’s now about 60 years removed from the height of her career as a starter on the Oriental Witches, the unfortunately named 1964 Olympic gold-medal-winning Japanese volleyball team. The septuagenarian’s workout routine is rigorous and purposeful, and maybe only a little bit more carefully deliberate now that she’s aged a bit. She appears to know her workout macros by heart and hardly breaks a sweat – even though she respectfully wipes down her weight machines after using them.

Her behavior is par for the course, as Matsumura was conditioned to be a workhorse, coming of age under much more physically strenuous conditions. She and her former teammates – including The Witches of the Orient’s other contemporary subjects, Kinuko Tanida, Yoko Shinozaki, and Yoshiko Matsumura – were drafted into the volleyball team as teenagers, but their setup will likely seem alien to younger viewers (or Western viewers of any age) of Julien Faraut’s documentary.

Matsumura and her teammates were to become day-laborers in a textile factory who after work would head straight into evening training and practice. Six days a week, and for years on end – with an occasional “break” to catch a movie – the young women ate, drank, and breathed work and volleyball. Their coach, former military commander Hirofumi Daimatsu, was charming yet commanding, with a unique system of points for practices that would often cause the sessions to stretch into the wee hours of the morning. The players had to overcome mental and physical trauma – an untreated broken rib here or there –  to make their 10th hit and finally rest after their distended days. In their golden years, the women understand how outsiders could view Daimatsu’s processes as cruel. They generally wouldn’t disagree, but it’s simply how they existed during their formative years.

Faraut’s examination of the team’s work, their triumphs, and the culture surrounding them is unique among similarly themed sports docs. The Witches of the Orient is as much about the group’s experience of being on the greatest volleyball team of the 1960s as it is about them having lived through it. Intertitles throw out anchoring facts about the Witches’ rise to prominence, acting as the first layer in the film’s Russian-nesting-dolls structure. Asynchronous narration from the subjects overlay the pieces of its stacked montage, which include contemporary footage of the four women navigating their daily lives and reuniting over dinner; occasional bursts of East Asian exploitation-cinema stylization; archival newsreel and television footage; and a television manga adaptation based on the exploits of the team called Attack No. 1.

This narrative playfulness is twofold. Chiefly and most successfully, the film’s elliptical telling excavates the intersection at which the team exists and existed. They are Japanese women who lived through the American occupation to become a worldwide phenomenon with a fear-mongering, othering moniker that Faraut rightfully subverts with the title’s grammatical scrambling. They were also just young people with typical teenage angst and anxieties, only made exponentially worse by the spotlight under which they lived.

However, ellipses also mean The Witches of the Orient favors affect over anecdote. What’s lost is the specificity of detailed individual human experience, sacrificed to favor the hypnotic, rhythmic filmmaking that serves to ape a more generalized experience. Faraut sometimes leans into the latter too hard, with an extended training montage set to the entirety of Portishead’s bass-and-drum jackhammer masterpiece “Machine Gun,” overextending the comparison of the players’ extreme practice regimen to the track’s portrait of poisoned devotion. Among a few other missteps in what’s mostly an unexpectedly complex essay on the industry of sports and its players, the choice suggests that the filmmaker, like coach Daimatsu, might be more concerned with the team over the individuals that comprise it.

Rating: B-

The Witches of the Orient is now available to rent via virtual cinemas from KimStim. Purchase a ticket between July 16-29 and the proceeds will help support the Webster University Film Series.