Before Haikyu!!, there was Attack No. 1. Chikako Urano‘s classic volleyball manga, which originally ran from 1968 to 1970, was the first ever shojo manga with a sports theme to become a TV anime. The series is still influential to this day, inspiring a stage play in 2018.
The true story that inspired the manga is even more momentous and groundbreaking. In 1964, the Japanese women’s volleyball team won a gold medal at the Olympics, shocking the entire world. The “Witches of the Orient,” (or Nichibo Kaizuka) as they were called abroad (with a mixture of East Asia exoticism and grudging admiration of their feats), enjoyed a win streak of 258 games – a record that remains unbroken to this day.
A new documentary by the French filmmaker Julien Faraut tells the story of those women, from their humble origins as textile workers playing for the factory’s volleyball team to their performances on the world stage. It combines historical archive footage with interviews of the women as they share their recollections. Interestingly, it also directly incorporates anime footage, blurring the lines between myth and history.
Speaking to ANN, Faraut said that when he first encountered their story, he was struck by how familiar it was. The Attack No. 1 anime was first broadcast in France in 1987, when Faraut was nine years old, where it became a beloved classic. In fact, the story of Attack No. 1 may be better known in Europe than that of the real-life Witches of the Orient – a case of fiction eclipsing reality.
In some ways, it is no surprise that the legend of the Witches of the Orient precedes them. Even in their own story, the women come across as larger-than-life figures. From the beginning, the Nichibo Kaizuka was a product of Japan’s rapidly industrializing landscape. The initial team was formed in 1954 as a way of keeping up the physical health of the workers. After they demolished their competition in Japan and toured overseas, they came to represent Japan’s postwar economic success story.
There are certain aspects of the story that feel like a fictional invention. Their harsh training regime, for instance, was almost unheard of for a women’s sports team in the 1950s and 60s. Scenes of their coach flinging balls at them one after another until they scored enough points to earn themselves a break looks like something out of a training montage in a manga. Identical scenes appear in Attack No. 1, hinting that the anime may have used similar reference footage to what Faraut incorporated into his documentary decades later.
Although they produced results, the coach’s methods were controversial even at the time. The women share their frank recollections of their experiences, both the good and the bad. Unlike manga characters, the women had to live with the consequences of their training, but they also liked their coach, whom they described as a father figure, and they ultimately felt that it was all worth it in the end. Over the years, the women have rarely opened up in interviews, even for the domestic media, and so this documentary shows a rare glimpse of their reality.
Some other parts of the documentary simply show the women, now in their eighties, living their daily lives. In these sections, the mundanity cuts through the myth and legend. But it isn’t long before the fantasy returns, culminating in a genuinely gripping final match against the Soviet Union that plays out like the climax of a sports drama. They even had a signature move: The “Rolling Receive,” which involved them receiving the ball as they rolled across the court.
Although Faraut admits that he initially thought of using anime clips as a way to supplement the sparse amount of archive footage he could obtain, his approach inspired contemplation about the relationship between fantasy and reality. Animation from Attack No. 1 is sometimes imposed directly over the live action footage, blurring the boundaries even further and affirming the symbiosis between the two. The Witches of the Orient is a story not just about the Nichibo Kaizuka, but also a story about how they are remembered.
You can find details about the North America screenings here.