French filmmaker Faraut pays spellbinding tribute to Japan's Olympic "Witches"

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When the women’s volleyball competition starts on 25 July at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, hosts Japan will lurk way down the pecking order of teams most likely to claim the crown. China, the United States, Serbia and Brazil will be among the favourites posturing for supremacy.

Japanese inferiority wasn’t the case before the inaugural volleyball competition at the Tokyo Games in 1964.

Back then Japan went into the tournament as world champions. They were a powerhouse packed with players seemingly endowed with otherworldly abilities and skills.

Their sheen of invincibility emerged during a European tour in 1961 when they won 24 successive matches. They were anointed the Witches of the Orient and … abracadabra ... they claimed the 1962 world title in Moscow.

Yet the crafts begetting their nickname were hardly spirited from the realm of the supernatural. They were formed from the rather mundane drudges of application, dedication and discipline.

Formula

Vital ingredients all for triumph in any team sport but coach Hirofumi Daimatsu’s mix produced sustained success and renown.

The development of that witches brew from world championship to Olympic gold unfolds over 100 minutes in Julien Faraut’s film Les Sorcières de L’Orient (Witches of the Orient), which goes on general release in France on 28 July.

Already out in Britain, it will be shown on the Swiss TV channel RTS next month and a release is in the offing in Italy.

Faraut came across the team a dozen years ago while scouring through a can of 16mm film brought into him in his office at the French sports institute in Paris by the former volleyball trainer Ralph Hippolyte.

“We watched the film together,” Faraut recalled. “And I was stunned by sequences on the women’s volleyball team. I didn’t know about them but I was impressed by the speed of their drills and the intensity of their training.

“It reminded me of the anime I used to watch when I was a kid in the 1980s. That was the starting point.”

Subsequent research uncovered that the cartoons of his childhood were indeed choreographed on the glories of the volleyball team from the early 1960s.

He was charmed.

“It wasn’t easy though,” he added. “It took us a while to make contact and when we did, people were surprised that a Frenchman wanted to make a film about what they thought was just a story for Japanese people.”

Appeal

But the putative parish-pump pyrotechnics dazzled with universally comprehensible qualities: athleticism, devotion to the cause, defiance and downright pluck.

The coven came together at the Nichibo Kaizuka textiles factory near Osaka.

After they’d finished work for the day, Daimatsu would put them through their paces in the works gymnasium.

Famed for leading a platoon out of the Malaysian jungle during the second world war, his rigorous training sessions, for which he gained the moniker "demon coach", could last all night due in no small part to one particular drill in which a player had to receive and play a randomly thrown ball in the correct way or lose a point.

Their target was 10 points and they could drop to minus 10. Team members reminisce during the film of heading back on occasions to their dorms as workers on the early morning shift were preparing to clock in.

“Daimatsu was clever,” said Faraut of methods that modern coaches would probably eschew to avert legal action.

“He realised that the Japanese players were not that tall so they had to focus on receiving the ball whatever their role in the team. There was no specific training for either forwards or defenders.

Weapons

“The Soviets trained by playing but when you watch the training of Daimatsu, they didn’t play a lot of volleyball, they just received. It was a lot of repetition.”

A weapon was also perfected. It entailed the ability to angle the body to receive the ball from any trajectory and push it upwards. The player also had to learn to fall in such a way that they could roll back upwards rapidly to a standing position.

The rolling-dive technique - honed in those gruelling night sessions at the Kaizuka factory gym - bedazzled adversaries.

Faraut’s feature includes interviews with members of the team recounting their quests for perfection in the early 1960s as they go about their daily lives.

Their latter-day serenity contrasts powerfully with the footage showing the tempered dynamism of their youths.

Ordeal

One tells of training with broken ribs, others remember how they put padding under their T-shirts to minimise the bruising and they were, they insist, perpetually conspiratorial about protecting each other while having their menstrual cycles.

Away from such intimacies, the film touches on the social context of the 1964 Games too.

Less than 20 years after the end of the second world war, Japan was desperate to convince its conquerors that it was well and truly on the path to rehabilitation and peaceful regeneration.

And the layering of images depicting that yen with a rippling electronic soundtrack builds an intensity that increases through to the gold medal match with the Soviet Union.

Suspense

Even with knowledge of the result, it’s impossible not to be swept into the excitement and tension of the showdown.

Shots of the watching Crown Princess Michiko, despairing grimaces of spectators, the fight from the Soviet players and then apotheosis for the Japanese players and spectators.

“It’s the process of suspense that matters,” Faraut explained. “You know many things - the backgrounds, the fact that some of them grew up without fathers so I think you feel empathy with them … you are waiting for achievement.

“We know they worked hard, we see them with their grandchildren. We are close to them and when the final game starts you want them to win because you are in the family.”

The women’s triumph - watched by what remains one of the biggest TV audiences in Japanese broadcasting history - came after the Japanese judoka Akio Kaminaga lost in the Open category final to the Dutchman Anton Geesink.

Pressure

His defeat was a huge disappointment after Japanese men had claimed the three other categories in the judo which, like the volleyball, was making its Olympic debut.

The women, who had discussed fleeing to another country should they fail to win the gold medal, responded to the pressure to beat the Soviet Union in straight sets.

National pride restored, the Witches of the Orient had burnished their legend.

“When you work with people who are still living, there’s a new pressure because my aim was to pay tribute," said Faraut.

"I am grateful to the women who accepted me and to be part of my project. They welcomed me and I didn’t want to disappoint them. I didn’t just want to only take. I wanted to give back.”

Marvellous trading Monsieur Faraut, many more can now wonder at their magic.

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