“The Witches of the Orient” is not at all what it sounds like. It’s about the 1964 Japanese women’s volleyball team who won the Olympics — and it’s a lot of fun.
The women were dubbed witches in the Soviet Union because of their incredible string of victories that included beating the highly favored Soviet team in 1962. Years later, documentary filmmaker Julien Faraut brings them together again at a dinner, where they share tales about their lives.
Faraut melds archival footage from the 1960s with current-day film of the women, all of whom worked for the same textile factory. It’s fascinating to see how they aged, but also interesting to see how committed the young women were to volleyball — pulling down long factory shifts and then spending many more hours at the Osake factory’s gym, where they honed their skills.
This is third sports-themed feature-length documentary for France’s Faraut. His most notable prior film was 2018’s “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection.” It focuses own the 1984 French Open final. But “Witches” is much more experimental, weaving manga into the tale, especially in the later sections involving the Olympic championship game.
Also of note is archival footage of the women’s demanding coach, Hirofumi Daimatsu, whom some of the students viewed as a dreamboat.
Faraut says the idea for the documentary came from a meeting about 10 years ago. At the time, Ralph Hippolyte, a former volleyball coach, “brought me a 16mm reel of a volleyball film produced in 1964 by the Japanese Olympic Committee,” Faraut says in press notes. “I discovered for the first time the daily reality of Kinuko Tanida, Katsumi Matsumura, Yoko Shinozaki, Yoshiko Matsumara and their teammates, all members of the Japanese national team and of whom I knew absolutely nothing at the time.”
And when Faraut saw footage from Eiji Okabe’s anime “Attack No. 1,” a film and TV series from 1969 to 1970, the director decided to include it in “The Witches of the Orient.”
“The Witches of the Orient” is screening at AFS Cinemas, starting July 16, as part of its grand — and most welcome — reopening after the pandemic. For more details, visit austinfilm.org.