Women are tough. Perhaps even tougher than we realize.
If you need any further reminder of this truism, I give you Julien Faraut’s documentary, The Witches of the Orient.
The film derives its title from an insult hurled at the Japanese national women’s volleyball team in the early 1960s, after they trounced the global competition in a string of victories that lasted an astounding 258 matches — a record that still stands today.
The epithet, meant as a racist and misogynist slur, was taken quite differently by the women, who understood it to mean females possessed of powerful abilities who were capable of magical feats, which in fact they were.
The women, all largely amateurs, were recruited from an Osaka textile factory and moulded into a fighting squad the likes of which has rarely been seen in the annals of sports history.
Now in their late 70s and 80s, the women recount the story of their meteoric rise for the film.
Faraut has an interesting approach to sports documentaries, eschewing the usual arc of triumph for a more artful take. His earlier outing, John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, gave tennis an almost architectural clarity.
With the Japanese women’s team, he has a doozy of a story.
After working in the factory all day, the women would troop next door to the gymnasium, change into green shorts and run drills, sometimes until 5 a.m.
Under the brutal demands of their coach Hirofumi Daimatsu, nicknamed the demon, they honed their skills, bodies and most importantly their force of will until they became virtually undefeatable.
The footage of them — rolling, dodging, spiking the ball, employing techniques found in judo to develop a fluid and unique style of play — is beyond mesmerizing. Faraut often sets the scenes to a techno beat so they feel almost trance-inducing.
A European tour saw the women sweep across the continent, beating every single competitor they came up against. Then they faced the mighty Soviets. At the time, the U.S.S.R. was a volleyball colossus, but even it proved no match for the Japanese team.
The narrative intersperses glorious Kodachrome footage with interviews of surviving team members, many of whom are still strong and flexible in their elderly years. The women’s exploits spawned countless anime versions, with Attack No.1 being one of the most famous. It’s a strange and curious comparison between the cutie-patootie anime versions, with big wet eyes and teeny tiny bodies, and the real women from the team, who had all the hardened ferocity of Spartan warriors.
But the thing that is most apparent in the film is the enduring bonds between team members. As one woman explains, they had to protect each other, not only from the sadistic methods of their coach, but to help one another survive. When one wasn’t able to cope with the rigours of the training sessions, the others covered for her, taking the brunt of the work.
The other unexpected benefit of such extreme training was that everything that came afterwards — regular old work and life — felt like a breeze in comparison.
The first-ever Olympic Games held in Tokyo in 1964 set the ultimate stage. Still one of the most watched events in Japanese television history, the women’s team destroyed the Soviet competitors and took the gold medal.
Faraut’s film reminds us of the power of women upholding other women, especially in times when different feminist factions are at odds across Twitter, as they usually are. I don’t even want to try and sum up/catalogue the current women-on-women wars but suffice to say that no one fights quite as long or as viciously.
The bitterness reminded me of Michelle Wolf’s comedy routine about older men telling the younger ones not to freak out about women organizing, because it will all horribly implode from infighting. The gist of the joke is that women are their own worst enemies and maybe other women’s worst enemies, too. So, as the battle wages on about who is a better feminist, the war is being lost.
Meanwhile, there are so many larger and more malevolent enemies out there. Less infighting, more outfighting, please.
Over to the volleying of other balls for a moment.
The campaign launched in Texas to strip women of their bodily autonomy while empowering those with a vigilante streak to sue anyone even suspected of helping women get an abortion is so grim that it’s hard to even wrap your head around. Even the legal ramifications are staggering, much less the personal suffering enacted on the most vulnerable women. Who needs the Taliban when you have Texas Gov. Greg Abbott vowing to arrest future rapists?
If you’re looking for inspiration to carry on in the face of seemingly unending attacks on the rights of women, you need only watch the final moments of the gold medal match at the 1964 Olympics. Even when the ending is a foregone conclusion, it’s thrilling and electrifying to see these strong, capable, ferocious competitors acting in perfect concert. The togetherness, the unity, the strength and the resolve in pursuit of a clear goal is exhilarating.
Ultimately, the most resounding lesson from the film is that women, united and strong in their efforts, are an unstoppable force. If some of the collective fighting spirit of the Japanese volleyball team could be applied to larger issues, just imagine what might happen.
Focus up women, eye on the damn prize — because freedom, justice and liberation for all is better than any gold medal.
The Witches of the Orient is screening in theatre at the Cinematheque in Vancouver (1131 Howe St.), and streaming online, from Sept. 16 to 29.