From the East: Julien Faraut on “The Witches of the Orient”

Julien Faraut digs into the archives of the Institut National du Sport, giving a voice to members of Japan's famous women's volleyball team.
Jordan Cronk

Three years after debuting with the exhilarating essay film In the Realm of the Perfection (2018),  about American tennis icon John McEnroe, French filmmaker Julien Faraut returns with a sports-related feature that dives even further into the well of cultural history.  In The Witches of the Orient, Faraut looks east, to the story of a women’s volleyball team that became a sensation in Japan on their way to capturing Olympic gold in 1964. Formed in 1953 at the Nichibo Kaizuka textile factory, the team comprised a group of day laborers who by night practiced under the tutelage of a notoriously demanding coach to become an unstoppable force in the world of women’s volleyball, inspiring legions of fans and spawning untold numbers of manga comics and anime television programs in their likeness.

Charting the team’s rise from their quaint origins in Osaka to their Olympic victory in Tokyo, Faraut—whose day job at the archive of the Institut National du Sport provides him with much of his materials—brings his flair for montage, left-field rock music (Granddady frontman Jason Lytle provides a pair of original songs), and found footage to bear on a story that until now has only been partially told—and when it has, from a perspective that has historically elided these women’s voices entirely. Expertly crosscutting archival footage of the team’s intense practice sessions and matches with vintage anime programs and newly-shot testimonials from the players themselves, the film paints a holistic portrait of a postwar Japan that found in this group of incredibly skilled women an apt metaphor for the country’s resilience and quiet sense of resolve.

Following the premiere of The Witches of the Orient at Rotterdam, Faraut and I spoke about his early exposure to volleyball anime, traveling to Japan to meet Nichibo Kaizuka team members, creating a singular style, the musical nature of his editing, and how he convinced Lytle to contribute original songs to a film for the very first time.

NOTEBOOK: Do you remember when you first heard about the Witches of the Orient?

JULIEN FARAUT: Yes. I’m in charge of a film library owned by the French Institute of Sport, and about a dozen years ago a retired French volleyball trainer came to me with a 16mm film—it was a Japanese film produced by the Japanese just after the 1964 Olympic Games. It wasn’t just about the Witches of the Orient, but more generally about the top ranking volleyball player at the time. So I watched the film and I was impressed by what I saw: it was very far from standard as far as the intensity of the training and the speed of the players’ moves. When I saw this it quickly rang a bell: it reminded me of an anime that was very similar in its depiction of these athletes. In the ‘80s in Europe, and in France in particular, we discovered Japanese anime on TV. When I was a kid there was a volleyball anime called Attacker You! (1984-85), which is not the one I use in the film but is very similar—they all have pretty similar stories. This anime was famous—everyone in France and Europe knows it, but hardly anyone knows that it was inspired by a true story. So while I was watching this 16mm footage I was super happy to realize that I was watching the team that inspired this anime. And not just this one anime: of the fifteen or so anime that I counted from the ‘60s, maybe nine or ten of them depicted a female volleyball team. This was all because of the influence of the Witches of the Orient.

NOTEBOOK: Can you tell me a little about your job at the Institut National du Sport: how it came about and what it entails on a day-to-day basis?

FARAUT: I’ve been working there almost twenty years now. It was one of my very first jobs. I studied history in university, and even though I was a cinephile I didn’t have any intention of making films myself, probably because at that time I thought it was out of reach. My parents weren’t involved in the field or anything—I thought you needed connections or something.

I started watching documentaries in university. It was after seeing Chris Marker’s films, and in particular Sans soleil (1983), that I thought I could maybe make films, like it was a hidden wish or desire that had suddenly occurred to me. It was around this time that I got the opportunity to be in charge of this small film collection at the French Sport Institute, which came about through a lucky encounter with a teacher at the Institute. I used to play ice hockey and some of my teammates were studying at the Institute. So I had these two parts of my life: cinema history and sports.

When I came to the Institute there was a need to enrich the artistic and symbolic value of the archival footage in the eyes of the public. So they asked me to work on that, which entailed interviewing retired sports trainers and finding ways to showcase the breadth of the materials. It was around then that I realized that I could make films: I knew that as an academic I could write, and I was in love with editing—I really came to filmmaking through editing rather than filming.

NOTEBOOK: After seeing the footage that the trainer brought to you, what was the next step: did you begin to look through your own archive for materials?

FARAUT: I spent some time talking with the trainer about the Japanese team’s coach, Daimatsu, because I knew he was the model for a lot of the coaches in the animes. And from there I started researching newspaper articles from ‘60s, but also more recent academic studies about postwar sports in Japan and how this particular team embodies the reconstruction of Japan. I began discovering a lot of things along the way, with the players’ connection to the textile factory being one of the best and most pleasing discoveries—just because it’s so amazing and unusual. As you probably know, national sports teams are supposed to be a selection of the best players from the whole country, but in this case the entire team was comprised of women working, living, and training in the same factory in a very small town in Osaka called Kaizuka. I was stunned by this story. The more I learned about the team the more I wanted to make a film about them, but at the time I wasn’t sure that it was possible because I would need to find archival footage and materials that I wasn’t sure existed.

Fast forward a handful of years and I found in our archive a Russian film made about the 1962 World Championships, where Japan won the title for the first time. So this was a good start. Also, the film was made by a Russian woman, Aleksandra Rybakova, which was not very common. After this I discovered a short film, The Price of Victory, made by another female filmmaker named Nobuko Shibuya, which screened in Cannes in 1964. This is where the very colorful footage in my film of the factory and the training comes from. It was after I saw this that I thought I could make a film about the team—it was just so beautifully shot. But I also knew I had to find IOC (International Olympic Committee) footage of the finals when the team won the gold, so I could have footage of each of these very important moments in their career: their start at the factory; the training sessions; their first world title; and the Olympic final.

But when I started to read articles and do research I became frustrated and a bit upset by what I read because they all took a stance against the team’s legend and facade—they were shocked by the training methods. The American press were still a bit, you know—they were still referring to the team as “the Japs;” the style of the writing was borderline offensive. Even in France they were afraid to speak in the name of female emancipation, pretending instead that the Japanese were abusing these women. But what I was finding was the opposite, and that’s what really pushed me to go further with the project. I felt I had to talk with the players themselves. I found no interviews with them from the period. I felt the need for testimony, to hear from them if they were abused, or forced to do this. I pretty much knew this was not the case, since I know how high-level sports work, but I wanted to hear it from them. And it turns out many of them are not disgusted with volleyball, but actually still play. So as I began talking to them it became clear it was not a traumatic experience for them.

NOTEBOOK: As an American, it’s crazy to see that Sports Illustrated article that you show in the film so weirdly misrepresent the team.

FARAUT: “Driven Beyond Dignity” is the title of the article. [Laughs] But that’s interesting because it helped me understand the Western point of view more. I think what shocked people in the West most was the fact that, yes, maybe we were less patriarchal than they were in Japan—or maybe less than they still are in Japan. For example, women in 1960s France could do anything, right? They could drink alcohol, but not too much; they could laugh in public, but in moderation; they could practice sports, but sparingly. And now here’s this team of women practicing sports with no moderation at all—and in fact, with excess. So it was interesting to see that this was not accepted, and how they pretended to speak in the name of female emancipation by saying they were under the oppression of a demon coach, which I thought was bullshit. I wanted the women to tell their stories in their own words—to be in charge of their storytelling.

NOTEBOOK: I assume you’re familiar with Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad (1965)? I couldn’t remember if the team is featured in it while watching The Witches of the Orient but there is indeed a little footage of them in Ichikawa’s film. I think you even use the same image of the coach looking expressionless after winning the gold.

FARAUT: Yeah, the volleyball scenes in Ichikawa’s film last maybe 4-5 minutes, and it’s only focused on the women’s team. For licensing issues we couldn’t use excerpts from the film. But lucky me, I asked for any extra materials because I know that for any Olympic Games there is the official film, but also other footage that the Olympic pool edits into a longer film for each sports federation’s needs and purposes. So I discovered that there was a bit more than 20 minutes of extra footage of the finals, and I used this for my film. In some cases the footage is the same as what was used in Ichikawa’s film, but since I took it from this extra footage I was able to license it.

Translator Catherine Cadou with Akira Kurosawa

NOTEBOOK: Once you decided that you needed testimonies from the teammates, how did you go about finding each of the women?

FARAUT: It was a hard task. It took more than one year—we started from scratch. Me, my producer, and my translator Catherine Cadou found a contact with the volleyball association in Japan, and one by one they helped put us in touch with the players. It was my first professional experience in Japan, and I must say it was quite a bit different than our habits in France. For instance, the strangest thing for me was communicating with the players because in Japan when you ask someone like this a question they answer you through the person that put you in contact with them—for every question. It's a kind of polite cultural gesture, but it’s not convenient at all!

I knew I had to solve two problems: the first is the generation gap, because I’m 42 and the youngest of the Witches is 74. And the second is that I don’t speak a word of Japanese, even though I know Japan quite well. My solution for these issues was to work with Catherine Cadou, who is known for being the best Japanese translator in France. She’s quite famous: she used to be the interpreter for Akira Kurosawa when he came to France, and in the ‘80s and ‘90s she was always at Cannes to interpret for all the Japanese filmmakers. She lived in Japan for many years. And she’s 74. I really felt she would be my secret weapon, and I could use her to get in touch and get familiar with each of the women. But I had very short time with them: my first meeting with each player was only for a half-day, and then we only had one day of shooting time with each player after that. So we had to be efficient. It wasn’t easy to be welcomed into their homes; it’s a very private culture, and they were meeting a stranger. So Catherine was very helpful in finding this familiarity and trust between us and the players.

NOTEBOOK: Were these time constraints one reason to have them all gather together around a table to share a meal?

FARAUT: You know, there was also one other big issue for me: in cinema, in literature, in every kind of art it’s much easier to tell the story of an individual, of one person, because you can feel close to this person; it’s direct, there’s empathy for the individual. But it’s very hard for a story to tell or evoke the feelings of a group of people. So it was very challenging, but the more I learned about their story the more I knew it was a collective story. Unless you made a ten-hour film, you can’t stay focused on one aspect of their life for a long period of time. But because theirs was a collective story I chose to ask them all the same questions and just pick out excerpts, in hopes that one by one they’d tell their story in a chronological way. Especially since we knew most viewers would not be familiar with their story; we had to be informative. That said, I felt it was a shame that we would have to see them individually, so I thought it would be cool to set up this little gathering for them to reminiscence. I didn’t know what would happen, but it’s a documentary so it’s good to let reality or a real event transpire. 

When I met them I felt that they were strong women—some of them are really strong. You’re the first person I’ve mentioned this to but I think in my subconscious I had in my head the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs (1992). You know, Mr. Blue, Mr. Pink—all sitting around a table. When I met the Witches they were all just so tough—they were tough guys! So we decided to do the scene around a table, and when I watched the footage I thought, you know, some of these women really look like Mr. Pink or Mr. Blue! [Laughs] Like, I wouldn’t want to argue with them! I thought of it sort of like a witches' sabbat. I thought with their nickname that this sort of gathering in a circle could connect with the idea of a sabbat.

NOTEBOOK: Did you have any problems or was it difficult to get any of the women to participate? I know there is one scene where we learn that one of the women is sick and can’t be in the film.

FARAUT: Emiko Miyamoto is one of the most famous volleyball players in Japan, so I felt there would be something missing, especially for Japanese viewers, if Miyamoto wasn’t seen or referenced at all. But she was sick, and it was hard to communicate with her because her daughter is in charge of her and of course wants to protect her. Her daughter told us that she wasn’t in condition to participate, but it was still something that I felt would be missing, so I asked one of the other players if I could film her calling Miyamoto so we could at least have her presence in the film.

One of the other women, Yuriko Handa, is only present in the roundtable scene because she didn’t want to be formally interviewed. She wasn’t comfortable with it. Once we did the other interviews and I came back to France, I think the women talked to each other and Handa-san felt that it was a mistake to turn down the interview. So she asked me if she could join for the roundtable. She was the only one who didn’t agree at first.

I knew I had to try and get at least the starting lineup of players to participate. But the captain, Masae Kasai, has passed away, as has Sata Isobe. And Miyamoto is sick. But we had Kinuko Tanida, Yoshiko Matsumura, and Handa-san—the remaining starters. Otherwise I also felt it was important to include a few of the substitute players. Many of them were also very tough, and in team sports you always have to have strong substitutes. We ended up with two of them: Katsumi Matsumura and Yoko Shinozaki.

NOTEBOOK: Some of the most interesting stories come from the substitutes. It was fascinating to hear how they had to work to be accepted by the main group and the things they had to go through to be on the team.

FARAUT: Yes, and we had to be careful: these women speak very sparingly. They don’t talk a lot, and they don’t explain everything. But the substitutes explained how they accepted their situation and role on the team. There’s the one story in the film about how one of the substitutes became a starter, and I think it’s a very important moment where the viewer encounters a high-level athlete and not an abused woman. She explains how she can’t live as a substitute; she has to be a starter. And when she talks about it you really feel that she’s not a common woman. She wants it, and she’ll do everything she can to reach her goal to be a top-ranking player.

NOTEBOOK: As far as gathering the other archival material, where did you go to find the anime footage and the footage of the pre-Olympic matches?

FARAUT: Well, the footage of the Russian championship was already in my archive—

NOTEBOOK: Oh right, that sounds like it’s from some kind of French broadcast?

FARAUT: Yeah. There’s two actually: one was shot by the French trainer and the other is from a Soviet broadcast, which was also in our collection. For the Shibuya film, The Price of Victory, I just got in touch with the producer in Japan so we could get the materials. And I actually had two reels of the anime in 16mm in my archive as well. In France, and I guess this is the case throughout Europe, the Japanese anime was a great success and many young kids began playing volleyball because of this anime. It had a big impact on the sport. That’s why the reels were in my collection: the French volleyball association probably bought some of this footage because of the popularity.

One last source is an American documentary about the reconstruction of Japan after the war. In this one I was looking for some interesting material that would show this unbelievable collective effort to reconstruct the country. It’s a kind of instructional documentary—it’s called Japan: Miracle in Asia (1963). It’s very oriented around how the US helped Japan to reconstruct; these kinds of Cold War ideas are very present in the film. I also searched the US Army archives and I found this very stunning sequence of Tokyo after the bombing—it’s the black-and-white footage you see in the film. We all of course know those images of Hiroshima after the bombing; those photos are quite famous. But it’s not so common to see images of Tokyo after the bombing. Tokyo wasn’t exposed to the atomic bomb, but it was victim of more conventional bombings—a huge amount of bombings that in some ways equaled that of the atomic bomb. It was very surprising for me to see just how destroyed Tokyo was. If you look at Tokyo in 1946, and then you look at Tokyo in 1964, which is less than twenty years later, you see how amazingly fast they were able to rebuild everything.

NOTEBOOK: Were you surprised by the condition of any of the materials you found? While watching the film I was consistently shocked by how amazing the archival footage looks.

FARAUT: That’s probably because of my experience in the field. For instance, in Japan, I asked for negative prints of the materials, which surprised them. We digitized the original film negative. For the anime, those were shot on video tape, so it was harder, but I still asked if we could find the original materials. So as to the quality you mention, I think that’s because in each instance I did my best to go back to source. That makes a huge difference.

NOTEBOOK: Can you tell me a bit about editing and structuring the film? You mentioned that you had to present the material in a mostly chronological way, but I’m curious about some of crosscutting techniques we see in the volleyball sequences where you match the anime footage with the actual practice sessions and matches.

FARAUT: In June 2019, I went to Japan with only an audio recorder, because I wanted to be smooth and gentle with the players since they had made an effort to welcome us. Once I was back in France and Catherine had translated the audio, I decided to take excerpts from each of the testimonies and to arrange them so each player speaks one by one. Upon our second meetings with the players I asked each of them if they had a preference for the setting of our conversations. So that’s where you see each of the four of them: in a gym; on the volleyball court, at home with family, and in a car.

I knew going in that I would have to match the audio excerpts, the voiceover passages, and the in-person interviews. In my head, that was the first block, and in between that I would have other blocks of material. In terms of editing, the arrangement was: footage with voiceover but no music; archival footage with no voiceover but with music; and footage with music that would act as a voiceover, so as to bring forth not only feeling, but content. That’s why in the factory sequences I work with many loops—to approximate the feeling of repetition.

As for the anime, when I watched the training footage for the very first time I couldn’t believe how similar it was to the anime footage. So I thought, “let’s try it.” And when I tried to match the footage it was, like, “wow!” It was almost exactly the same. I could lay the pieces of footage overtop each other and it was the same—same frame, same shot. It was awesome.

Some of the other sequences weren’t so easy. When you make a film you have to face many technical issues, especially when making a found footage film. You’re at the mercy of what you have; you can’t invent material. So you have to solve many problems. For instance, my wish was to be able to show a great deal of the team’s 1962 championship match, but the Russian film that I had did not capture the whole game; it only had short sequences, and it also used close-ups that weren’t in continuity with the actual match. So I thought, “Why don’t I use the anime to fill in these blanks?” This helped solve a problem I was having. I wanted the audience to feel the energy and emotion of this first world title, so I used the Attack No. 1 (1968-1970) anime for this sequence. They made 104 episodes of this anime, which was originally adapted from a manga. Come to find out, the final two episodes, the 103rd and 104th, are focused entirely on the finals between Japan and Russia during the world championships. So that worked out well for me! I had two 25-minute episodes of a fictional final between Japan and the USSR, so, in an effort to solve another problem, I just took shots that matched the archival footage and made a kind of mashup.

NOTEBOOK: You mentioned Chris Marker before, but are there any other filmmakers that influenced your process or editing style?

FARUAT: I watched many films as a young adult. My film school was basically just watching films. We have the luxury in Paris of having many independent movie theaters that show films from all over the world. So at the time I was more interested in American cinema than French cinema. I watched the classics: Lubitsch, Wilder, Nicholas Ray, et cetera. I can’t say they have a direct influence in my editing, but I do think all these great masters have shown me that you have to make films of your own—you have to create a singularity. And that’s very hard to find. There are so many filmmakers, so many cinematic propositions being offered. As I said before, the film library I work at offered me a unique opportunity, which is not restrictive, not limited, and it encompasses not a small subject: sports. And sports are something I thought was mostly uncharted territory. Sports films are generally made for TV, and they usually forget to be actual films—they’re generally just interested in the topic, not the form. They tend to take an image of the subject or athlete but the people who make them are not cinephiles, they don’t want to make a film. In my case, because I’m very respectful and grateful to cinema itself, I just want to create something different, and maybe new—something of my own, while at the same time being respectful of the audience. That’s the advice of Billy Wilder. He was always telling, I think it was Lubitsch, that you had to be respectful of the audience. This is not the position of many of the broadcasters—they despise the audience. Wilder always said that you have to assume the audience is clever. So when I make films I try to apply that philosophy, because I’m also a viewer—I’m part of the audience, and I’m a cinephile. I figure if I have fun with a sequence, and I like it, maybe other people will enjoy it as well. 

NOTEBOOK: For me one of the things that makes your films unique is the combination of music and imagery. You used Sonic Youth to very memorable effect in In the Realm of Perfection, and this film uses Portishead and Jason Lytle in key sequences. Can you talk about your approach to music, and how you came to collaborate with Jason Lytle on this film?

FARAUT: You mentioned before my influences, and music is one of my greatest influences. I played a lot of music when I was a teenager. A band of mine broke up around that time and I think it created a lack of something in me. I was frustrated. So when I had this opportunity to make films it helped me to feel like I was in a studio again. That kind of musical approach to filmmaking has helped me. And of course editing is music: it’s rhythm, it’s texture—everything is musical in the editing for me.

About ten years ago, after I was given that 16mm Japanese film about volleyball that reminded me of the anime of my childhood, I took the footage to my editing computer and tried to pair it with some anime materials. It was around this time that I was working on combining these two elements that Portishead released their third album, called Third (2008). I was immediately hooked by one tune called “Machine Gun.” While I was listening to it I thought, “Damn! Machine gun! This is exactly what I've been thinking about.” So I decided to combine them and it matched perfectly. So once I decided to make this film after making In the Realm of Perfection, I returned to this initial experiment and made it longer. The other dimension that revealed itself through this song was the voice of Beth Gibbons, which is beautiful and has a great emotional charge—very powerful but also very fragile. So I thought it would be kind of beautiful to hear this female voice and the sound of the machine gun on the soundtrack while you watched footage of these women training and exhausted.

That was the first musical element I tried for the film, and it lent itself to the whole musical conception of the film. Portishead, as I’m sure as you know, use a lot of analog synths—so that led me to try something with a similar texture in the first factory sequence. So that’s me playing on one of my synths—a kind of vintage toy that I bought in Japan. From this I made the music for both the factory sequence and the world championship sequence.

For the Olympic final I knew I needed something different. I was looking at that image of Coach Daimatsu just sitting on the bench without any joy or emotion, and I thought of Jason Lytle’s music. He really mastered a specific kind of nostalgia. His music isn’t really sad or dark, but it’s not only joy and happiness. It’s in between. I think that Coach Daimatsu was proud of their achievement, but I also think he knew that at this exact moment that it was over—their story was over. So he was very sad to realize it was finished. It was the end of something. So I figured why not contact Jason and see what he thinks. After all, I really like him and I saw Granddaddy perform many times—

NOTEBOOK: I was going to ask if you were a Grandaddy fan.

FARAUT: Yeah, for sure, from the ‘90s. I used to be a skateboarder.

NOTEBOOK: Oh wow, me too.

FARAUT: Yeah, I wasn’t a great skateboarder but I really liked it. I used to love hanging out and skateboarding with my friends in Paris. I watched many skate videos—that’s how I discovered Grandaddy, through a 411 video I think.

Anyway, I just went to Jason’s Bandcamp page and sent him a message about how I love his work. I explained this final sequence and about how I don’t know why but when I watch the scene I have his music in mind.

He ended up making two tracks, one for the reconstruction sequence and one for the Olympics sequence. For the reconstruction, I really like how he brought this retro-futuristic dimension to the scene. The way people thought about robots in the ‘60s is now not futuristic at all, which is similar to the sense I get from Jason’s music, with all his analog equipment.

For the last scene I sent him the footage with one of Grandaddy’s songs. It worked well, and he was very moved by the sequence. He said he went to his piano and he found a melody almost immediately. So I asked if he’d be willing to add lyrics to the tune, lyrics that linked to the story of the film—and he agreed. I’m very grateful to Jason. I think this is the first time he’s written an original song for a film; he’s done soundtrack work before but this is the first song with lyrics and singing he’s written directly for a movie. There’s going to be a limited-run vinyl release of the soundtrack featuring Jason’s songs that my French distributor will put out, similar to what they did for In the Realm of Perfection.

NOTEBOOK: You mentioned earlier how you’ve developed a kind of singular approach to the sports film genre. Is this something you plan to continue pursuing, or would you like to explore other forms of documentary at some point?

FARAUT: At the moment I have one or two films in mind that would be made in the same way. I’m really not bored or tired of these sports-related topics. Like I said, I don’t feel restricted or limited by my archive. I’m also aware that I’ve found this uncharted territory and that it’s a chance for me to find a place in cinema. It’s true in the art world in general, but I think it can be hard to find that singularity. Sometimes you don’t choose it. It was an opportunity, and I think it would be a mistake to think I can do whatever I want just because I’m Julien Faraut. No one is waiting for me to make anything, so I think I should take advantage of this void and fill it. Neil Young tells a story in his autobiography that I really love. He says that when he was young he heard Bob Dylan on the radio and realized that he wanted to pursue music. But at some point he said he had to stop listening to Bob Dylan, otherwise he’d start making Bob Dylan music. So he didn’t choose his way—he knew he had to find it on his own. He knew Dylan’s style was occupied and that it had already been done by others. The frame I’m working in is a small frame, but it helps me be creative and innovative.

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