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‘The Witches of the Orient’ Hits Theaters July 16

Check out the trailer for Julien Faraut’s fascinating live-action / animated documentary about Japan’s 1964 Olympic gold medal women’s volleyball team, the direct inspiration for Chikako Urano’s ‘Attack No. 1’ manga and subsequent anime series.  

After debuting July 9 at Film Forum, Julien Faraut’s live-action / animated documentary, The Witches of the Orient, hits selected theaters in the U.S. and Canada starting July 16.

The film follows the Japanese women’s volleyball team, formerly a group of Osaka textile workers, on their way to 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, where they took home the gold medal after beating the Soviet Union. Their improbable record-setting winning streak and rise to prominence inspired a number of popular anime programs in their likeness, including Attack No. 1, which ran from 1969-71, based on Chikako Urano’s 1968 manga of the same name serialized in Weekly Margaret Magazine. It became the first televised female sports anime series in the shōjo category.

In the film, Faraut moves back and forth through time, with more recent interviews of the team members mixed with archival footage of their extreme training along with animated segments from Attack No. 1 and other animation; compelling present-day, memory-spanning interviews of the team's shared triumph and hardship helps the director craft a complex portrait of post-WWII Japan, depicting the way that sport can act as a tool for political leverage, while allowing the women to reclaim their highly scrutinized narrative.

The squad was originally formed in the late 1950s as a worker’s team at a textile factory; the 1964 Olympic team members, now in their 70s, were known as the “Witches of the Orient” because of their seemingly supernatural powers on the courts.

According to the director, “The idea for the film was born out of a meeting. About ten years ago Ralph Hippolyte, a former national volleyball coach, brought me a 16mm reel of a volleyball film produced in 1964 by the Japanese Olympic Committee. I discovered for the first time the daily reality of Kinuko Tanida, Katsumi Matsumura, Yoko Shinozaki, Yoshiko Matsumura and their teammates, all members of the Japanese national team and of whom I knew absolutely nothing at the time. The images are striking and arose great curiosity in me. They also seemed strangely familiar... the connection did not take long to make, as these images resembled a Japanese cartoon, the famous Jeanne and Serge ‘manga’ cult of a whole generation.”

“I thus discovered that behind all the volleyball manga and anime there is a long lineage that goes back precisely to the ‘Witches of the Orient’, the nickname given by the Soviet press to this Japanese team with extraordinary powers that strung a chain of unchallenged victories,” he continued before concluding, “I was personally very inspired by the strength of these women, their tenacity and their immense modesty. With this film, I hope to pay them the greatest tribute.”

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.