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‘The Witches of the Orient’ review: Stranger than fiction sports documentary with an anime twist

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The Witches of the Orient is one of those strange sports documentaries that embody the saying, “truth is stranger than fiction”. The film follows the 1960s Japanese women’s volleyball team that would go on to win the Gold Medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The team won a remarkable 258 straight games and became such a national sensation they were the inspiration for a number of popular anime.

Things start with an anime short from the 1930s. This serves a number of purposes for the audiences. It shows how much the Japanese style of animation has changed since the early 20th century. The opening animation looks like something done by an American studio. Since The Witches of the Orient also has clips from the Attack No. 1 series, there is what amounts to a side by side comparison.

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The beginning also shows the influence the volleyball team had on Japan. Their success led to a 12 volume manga that ran from 1968-1970 and the aforementioned anime comprised of over one hundred episodes. The Witches of the Orient use clips of the both (and other shows it inspired) during its runtime. It is odd to see the brutal training mixed with the upbeat soundtrack, but it does not prevent it from being fascinating.

Most poignantly, the first few moments of The Witches of the Orient set a tone for what the documentary is about. It turns out, this is less a story about what the team did back in the 1960s, but more of a recollection of what the team thinks today. Case in point: the team looks back to when they first hear they were referred to as witches. The first took it as an insult before realizing the term was in regards to what seemed to be their supernatural power on the volleyball court. (Though the term was not meant as a compliment by everyone.)

Director Julien Faraut tells a personal story that is filled with frenetic energy. Splicing together animated footage seamlessly with archival recordings and modern day interviews, The Witches of the Orient is an exciting ride filled with emotion and historical facts. It is an interesting mix that feels a little off at times, but it also succeeds at telling a story few will be familiar with. 

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