Like a Well-Oiled Machine

By Madeleine Collier

French filmmaker Julien Faraut is quickly making a name for himself in a highly specialised generic niche: meditative, essayistic sports films. Building on the critical success of his 2018 tennis feature John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, Faraut has returned once more to the court, this time to consider the meteoric rise of the 1964 Japanese Olympic women’s volleyball team.

Interspersing and superimposing archival footage, sequences from the sports anime series Attack No. 1, and contemporary interviews with the team members, Faraut crafts a film more interested in corporeal dexterity than gameplay, and more invested in geopolitics than celebrity. An uncommonly focused study in movement as material history, Les Sorcières de l’Orient choreographs an encounter with labour and gender relations in post-war Japan.

Operational aesthetic

The Japanese volleyball team was responsible for a yet-unmatched winning streak of 258 victories across the late fifties and early sixties, earning them folk hero status domestically (bolstered by a plethora of anime and manga series) and the nickname ‘The Oriental Witches’ abroad. Les Sorcières de l’Orient opens with a brief sequence from the 1935 animated short film Danemon Ban: The Monster Exterminatorwhich depicts the Edo-era hero Danemon Ban rushing to the rescue of damsel who transfigures into an ugly sorceress. Crucially, this seemingly unassociated clip establishes a misogynistic assumption implicit in both domestic and international coverage of the team: for women to have achieved this level of technical proficiency and brute strength, they must either be witches or machines. 

The latter implication dovetails with Faraut’s interest in situating the team’s accomplishments within the social context of mid-century Japan. In the film’s most absorbing sequences, Faraut teases out the rhythmic correlations between athletic discipline and industrial bodily techniques. Across several hypnotic montages, the players dive to the mat again and again, punctuating the ambient electronic score (courtesy of K-Raw) with precise spikes and serves. Training footage dissolves into shots of factory workers introducing gossamer threads into the spindles of a power loom; soon, the repetitive propulsion of the mechanical cylinders reaches the tempo of players’ swiveling legs mid-exercise. In these sequences, the immersive experience of sports ‘flow’ merges with historian Neil Harris’s concept of an ‘operational aesthetic’; the awe-inspiring feats of the rigorously trained body align with the pleasure of watching machines at work.   

Les Sorcieres de l’Orient Film Still

Les Sorcieres de l’Orient Film Still

This correspondence is no coincidence. In post-war Japan, professional volleyball teams (including the Nichibo Kaizuka team featured in the film) were largely organised by regional women’s textile factories. Corporations invested in the sport as a means to enhance performance on the factory floor, emphasising the importance of discipline, coordination and teamwork to production capacity. Furthermore, as Faraut underscores via an extended montage of various assembly lines, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics staged Japan’s re-entry into the global economy as a new industrial superpower. Bookended by images of smelting iron and record presses, the bodies of these women are rendered analogous to raw materials metamorphosing into commodities; team member Yoko Tamura notes in a voice over “At that point, recovering took enormous willpower. It wasn’t by fooling around that we became a good team and such powerful players… There was nothing like: ‘this hurts,’ ‘this is difficult,’ or ‘this is boring.’” Of course, these women were not machines; despite their incredible stamina, they could not perform consistently under such intensely pressurised conditions. 

As the teammates prepare for increasingly competitive international events, the harsh training regimen of ex-platoon leader Hirofumi Daimatsu begins to take its toll. The kaiten reeshiibu (rotate and receive) maneuver for which the team became famous was notoriously taxing and dangerous; Daimatsu acquired the moniker ‘Demon Daimatsu’ for his punishing exercises. Here, Faraut’s playful and immersive editing style acquires the disjointed and fatigued kinetic energy of the flushed players, who no longer bounce back up from the mat like roly-poly daruma dolls. Through this inspired, sudden slide into rhythmic dissonance, the players begin to reassume their human dimensionality and fallibility, increasing the viewer’s awareness of the magnitude of their feats for the duration of the film.  

As the history books show, the women overcame adversity to triumph in the Olympics, and have retained their substantial legacy in Japanese popular culture. Nonetheless, the scene which has stayed with me in the days following my viewing of the film is not the climactic final match, nor any of Faraut’s inventive double-exposure montages, but a minute-long sequence of a now-elderly Yoshiko Matsumara slicing and peeling a red apple. Faraut’s unique sensitivity to dexterity and sure, practised movements divulges decades of rehearsal within even such minute feats of the body.

Madeleine Collier
Written for the Young Film Critics 2021