Three years ago, filmmaker Julien Faraut, a documentarian attached to France’s Institute National de Sport, took a trove of John McEnroe footage and crafted the dazzling “In the Realm of Perfection,” a foundational text in the emergent micro-genre of the sports-documentary-that’s-not-really-about-sport. His new film, “Witches of the Orient,” may substitute volleyball for tennis, and loosely sketch out the Japanese women’s team that dominated the sport in the early 1960s, but it shares many of the hallmarks: a dreamy, glitchy, immersive soundtrack, a crackling editing style and a facility with 16mm archive footage that practically puts you inside its gorgeous grain.
But where the focus of “Realm” was so narrow that its peculiar thesis — that tennis and filmmaking are somehow analogous — emerged with thrilling clarity, “Witches” never quite finds its own unifying principle. And so for all the film’s playful artistry, the effect is more scattershot. Sometimes it’s almost self-contradictory, as when the comparatively anodyne recent segments, featuring the women of the team, now in their 80s, playing memory games with their grandchildren or chatting cozily over dinner, undermine the mesmerizing, trance-like interplay of vintage volleyball coverage, old newsreels and anime cartoons inspired by the team’s heyday.
It’s possible that “heyday” is too weak a word. For a brief blazing period, from the late ’50s until taking gold at the inaugural volleyball event at the 1964 Tokyo Games, the team earned its witchy nickname with a borderline-supernatural run of success, amassing 258 straight wins, a record to this day. The team’s origins — it was a worker’s team attached to the Nichibo textile factory — and eventual status as defining marker of Japan’s postwar national identity give Faraut license to cull footage from a wide range of contemporary sources: manufacturing documentaries, match commentaries, training films and most strikingly, Eiji Okabe’s “Attack No.1,” an animated TV show that was inspired directly by the team.
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That Faraut’s heart is partly that of an archivist, fascinated by the process of excavating and reworking antique footage to get closer to the truth of the images it contains, is unmistakable. His minute, frame-by-frame attention to the assembly of the training and matchplay sequences — where to cut, where to slo-mo, where to loop a movement or run it briefly backward — is palpable. Aided by the shimmer and stutter of Jason Lytle and K-Raw’s chillout-room-at-a-rave score (supplemented at one point by the unearthly vocals and industrial percussion of Portishead’s “Machine Gun”), Faraut and co-editor Andrei Bogdanov create mythologies of motion and power out of the arc of a ball through the air or the jackknife action behind a winning spike.
Through these avant-garde techniques of repetition and de- or recontextualization, individual segments attain a kind of hypnotic power. Through montage, a parallel is established between the team’s hardcore training regimen and the ceaseless industry of the machines at the Nichibo factory. One spellbinding sequence becomes its own mini-essay on perseverance and stamina, simply by hanging on a player endlessly sent back and forth across the court to punt a ball, roll over, run back again and repeat, a grueling training technique inspired by daruma dolls, which always return to upright when tilted over.
That and other coaching innovations were developed by the team’s mercilessly exacting trainer, “Demon” Daimatsu. To a modern eye, his tactics look borderline abusive — at one point after he keeps flinging volleyballs at the forlorn crumpled form of a player weeping with exhaustion, you half expect him to start tossing wrenches at her like Rip Torn in “Dodgeball.” But though his influence over the team is loosely examined, and though Faraut includes Top Trumps-style intertitle cards for each of the key players, listing position, core skill and often unflattering nickname, no one personality emerges that strongly from “Witches.”
Partly that’s the nature of the sport — there is no “I” in this team. But partly the film falls short in having, despite its highly creative approach, little of substance to say about the relationship between the camera and the court. In both “Realm” and Faraut’s debut feature doc, “Regard neuf sur Olympia 52,” the director was not just in conversation with the sport being portrayed but also with a specific filmmaker (Gil de Kermadec and Chris Marker, respectively). Here, absent that added dimension, the intriguing flourishes and meditative montages don’t fully cohere with the underdog-sports-movie narrative, leaving “Witches” slightly less than the sum of its parts — but what frequently wonderful parts they are.