The capstone title at this year’s Doc Fortnight is a highly unusual sports documentary. In The Witches of the Orient, director Julien Farault blends contemporary interviews, archival materials, and pop culture artifacts to capture a specific moment in time for the national women’s volleyball team of Japan. More than presenting the mere facts of history, the film explores how a series of events can capture the attention of a culture at large, and what that means for the people at its center.
In the 1950s, Nichibo Kaizuka, a women’s volleyball team sponsored by an Osaka textile company, gradually gained regional and then national attention. Their intense, constant practice made them into a force to be reckoned with, eventually earning them a record-setting winning streak of 258 games. When they toured in Europe, they were feared for their prowess on the court, and in a testament to how the West still viewed Japan as an alien upstart in the postwar years, they became known as the “Oriental Witches.”
The team’s star power in Japan was such that in 1968, mangaka Chikako Urano started publishing Attack No. 1, a comic book series about a girls’ volleyball team that was heavily inspired by their story. In turn, that comic was adapted into an anime of the same name which ran from 1969 to 1971. Attack No. 1 proved foundational to the popularity of both sports-themed manga and anime, and shōjo — works aimed specifically at girls. From one factory volleyball team, then, springs a sports phenomenon which in turn spurred a still-influential work of art.
Rather than straightforwardly relate this story, The Witches of the Orient blends together the history, the present, and the myth. Farault catches up with some of the women where they are now, and their interviews form the main basis for the narration of the events of the ’50s and ’60s. Since we see them talk as they go about their everyday business, in parks, gyms, and the like, the sense is that we are privy to their flashbacks as they remember their glory days. The past is brought to life via a skillful blend of different sources — news footage of the team’s matches, a promotional film made about them for the run-up to the 1962 Volleyball World Championships, and most excitingly, shots taken directly from Attack No. 1.
A seamless montage of live action and animation directly demonstrates how art reimagines reality. Sometimes the color commentary from the anime is even overlaid onto real life. This is particularly vivid in the climactic recounting of Japan’s gold medal match against the Soviet team at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, which intercuts news coverage of the face-off with the corresponding all-important showdown from the TV show. The respective energies of the two different sequences harmonize and feed into each other marvelously.
While the team’s story may seem to have sprung straight from an inspirational sports movie, Farault plays with the tropes of such films rather than hew to them. For example, there is no “main character” to focus on here; the team is instead emphasized as a collective, with each individual anecdote feeding into their overall experience.
The blending of fantasy and reality doesn’t just illustrate how culture psychologically merges them, but also critically illuminates where fantasy and (often harder) reality diverge. One of the hoariest sports movie clichés is the tough but brilliant coach, yet Hirofumi Daimatsu‘s methods were so intense that he later became a controversial figure in Japan after they came to light. A training montage edited to match the rhythms of Portishead’s “Machine Gun” emphasizes the feeling of being literally drilled into conformity by an authority figure. (If only I could see / return myself to me / and recognize the poison in my heart.) The women mostly remember him fondly, leaving viewers to judge what was and wasn’t “worth it.”
With its title, The Witches of the Orient pushes back against that Orientalist and sexist moniker the Japanese women’s volleyball team received, ironically repurposing it. This lands with different significance, as the documentary makes its US debut in the midst of a new wave of anti-Asian hate. There are obviously many distinctions between anti-Japanese Cold War sentiment and contemporary anti-Chinese rhetoric, but both stem from the same racist archetypes about Asia and Western anxieties about being supplanted on the global stage. (Both also tend to rope in ethnicities not related to those targeted, demonstrating how carelessly the white gaze can conflate the broad umbrella of “Asian.”) In the face of such ugliness, a film which emphasizes the hard work and humanity of a group heretofore minimized as “witches” makes for a nice change of pace.
The Witches of the Orient is streaming online as part of MoMA’s Doc Fortnight from March 31 to April 5.
Art Problems: How Do I Get a Public Art Commission?
Want to leave a mark on your city or town, but don’t know where to start? Paddy Johnson has some tips.
Rose B. Simpson Embeds Ancestral Histories in Clay
She has taken clay and used it to recall its ancestral roots in Pueblo culture and address the present history of postcolonial recovery and ongoing trauma.
Mondays at Pratt Institute: Weekly Openings of Work by Graduating Artists
Free and open to the public, Pratt Shows celebrate the school’s graduating students. MFA and BFA work on view this spring in Brooklyn, New York.
Quiet Paintings at a Time of Sensory Overload
Where Kim Mikyung’s process suggests an obsessive burrowing into the self, Kim Hyung-dae casts his gaze upward and outward into the sky.
Is the “Free the Nipple” Movement Too White?
Online representations of the activists lean White and thin, creating an image problem for the movement.
LSU School of Art Grants Highest MFA Stipends in the Southern US
With funded assistantships, full tuition waivers, and generous stipends, Louisiana State University helps students lay the groundwork for a successful lifelong art practice.
New “We ❤️ NYC” Campaign Misses the Mark
The recently unveiled design is meant to live alongside the iconic original and specifically address the city, but New Yorkers are not happy.
1,000+ Objects at The Met Linked to Antiquities Smugglers
A report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists revealed hundreds of works once owned by people accused of or convicted of antiquities crimes.
School of the Art Institute of Chicago Offers Summer Art and Design Courses Online and On-Campus
Emerging and established artists can choose from over 50 Adult Continuing Education courses at one of the most influential art and design schools in the US.
Lunar Bead Necklace and Asteroid “Emoji” Head to Auction
Christie’s bizarre sale features other space rocks propped up on stands like sculptures.
Scientists Create the First Full Brain Map of a Fly
The achievement is a giant step toward understanding human neural networks.
IDSVA Offers a Non-Studio PhD in Visual Arts: Philosophy, Aesthetics, and Art Theory
With no campus, the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts is a truly nomadic institution, existing everywhere our students and faculty are.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Closes Over Climate Protest
The institution shuttered in advance of an action planned for the 33rd anniversary of its infamous art heist.
Remembering the Migrants Who Died in US Detention
Artist Jackie Amézquita will lead a caravan of trucks with the names of the deceased to LA sites representing systems of oppression and solidarity for immigrants.