Witches of the Orient

The untold story of Japan’s all-star female volleyball team who inspired a new form of anime
By Finn Blythe | Film+TV | 26 July 2021

Witches of the Orient by Julien Faraut, 2021

This summer, the Olympic games return to Tokyo after nearly 60 years. It’s the first time a city in Asia has hosted the games twice, and inevitable therefore that this year’s edition has prompted much reminiscing to that breathless summer of 1964.

Japan finished third, just behind the two-horse race between the USA and Soviet Union, but it was the women’s national volleyball team triumph for which that summer’s games are immortalised. After being introduced for the first time as an Olympic discipline along with Judo, Japan’s all-star volleyball team stunned the world with their speed and synchronicity. Using techniques never seen on a volleyball court before, with a discipline to their training that rivaled even that of the Soviet champions, these women wrote themselves into Japanese sporting folklore while working part-time jobs at a textile factory.

A new documentary by French filmmaker Julien Faraut delves into the story of Japan’s world-beaters with stories and interviews from its now white-haired former team members. Witches of the Orient takes the team’s former sobriquet, which despite having aged poorly, succeeds at least in projecting an image of their supernatural powers on the court.

GALLERYWitches of the Orient

Beginning in 1962, when Japan won its first gold medal at the women’s volleyball World Championships, dislodging the undefeated, decade-long Soviet Union champions in the process, the documentary takes this pivotal moment as the team’s true emergence into Japan’s public consciousness. With some members eager to retire following the tournament and concentrate on future careers, a nationwide letter campaign convinced the team to compete at the home Olympics that were round the corner.

Coached by Hirofumi Daimatsu, a former platoon commander and notorious taskmaster, the team’s training methods were unlike anything at the time. With a relentless focus on perfecting techniques and tactical maneuvers, Daimatsu’s unorthodox methods could hardly be called into question with a tenure that brought 258 consecutive wins for the team. One signature move, referred to as kaiten reeshiibu (rotate and receive) involved a judo-esque tumble-and-roll technique that was used to defend against a spike. Drilled for hours with unerring focus and military precision, the move became somewhat of a secret weapon for the team and symbolised their strength as a collective.

That success at the 1964 Olympics proved instrumental to the sport’s popularity within Japan and paved the way to future medals at Mexico 1968, Munich 1972, LA 1984 and London 2012. Beyond the court, the team’s success resonated across popular culture, particularly within Japanese Anime, where it led to the emergence of a volleyball sub-genre that’s still popular today. In the 60s however, the craze was capitalised on by Chikako Urano, whose manga series Attack No. ! followed an all-girls high school volleyball team and became the first televised female sports anime series.

While the show was a more literal recreation of the Witches’ success, the genre remains strong today with shows like Haikyu!! and Harakanu Receive. Faraut’s documentary splices archive footage with contemporary interviews to remind us all of just how much Olympic gold can mean.

Witches of the Orient is in UK cinemas now. Watch the trailer below. 

Read Next