From The Witches of the Orient (2021), dir. Julien Farault (all images courtesy International Film Festival Rotterdam)

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.

From Attack No. 1, as seen in The Witches of the Orient

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.

From The Witches of the Orient

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.

Dan Schindel is a freelance writer and copy editor living in Brooklyn, and a former associate editor at Hyperallergic. His portfolio and links are here.