Film Review: Ainu Mosir

Japan/USA/China, 2020, 84 minutes.
Directed and written by Takeshi Fukunaga.

Setting Free the Bear

This relatively short second feature by writer-director Takeshi Fukunaga wants to tell several stories and doesn’t hesitate to abruptly interrupt the premise of one narrative in order to begin another. It also attempts to negotiate through the potholes and pitfalls of representing, and ultimately, speaking for Ainu culture.

All stories circle around a fourteen year old boy of Ainu descent named Kanto. His mother runs a traditional arts & craft shop and deftly negotiates the stereotypes brought to her village (Unesco World Heritage site of Akan Kotan) by tourists from Japan and elsewhere. The director casted the actual mother and son along with a host of non-professional actors, save for Lily Franky (from Koreeda’s Shoplifters) who makes a brief appearance as a regional journalist. And so the film hints at the socio-economic reality that binds this first nation to Japan.

Then comes the first shift wherein Kanto is introduced as a gifted, sensitive and talented boy. His father, a respected artisan and craftsman, has passed away and the boy doesn’t hesitate to express how disconnected he’s come to feel with the village; he’s ready to leave it. The film assembles a number of sequences that confirm both this break and this rebellion, from embracing Chuck Berry and electric instruments in band rehearsals, telling the school councillor that he wants his next school to be anywhere but here, to the ambiguity of his relationship with Ainu culture.

Enter Debo, the charismatic, clever and opportunistic ‘incarnation’ of this indigenous identity who decides to put Kanto back on the right path, from showing him the entrance to a forest cave that leads to a valley of spirits, to having the boy take care of a caged bear cub. The director uses this as a lure to introduce the Iomante ritual in which a bear is sacrificed to protect the community, that was banned by the Hokkaido region in 1975. Once Kanto discovers the true intent, he attempts to free the bear; he fails and gives up. The compressed anthropology sequences here are purely illustrative and do not concern themselves with exploration; the spectator is made to understand that village members have dissenting perspectives on accomplishing the ritual, but not the bear’s taxonomy in the belief system . The boy refuses to witness the arrows piercing the bear but joins his mother for the gathering that follow in which the animal’s head is carried in as a centerpiece. Its ‘spirit’ sees the boy and grants him a gift: Kanto returns to the forest, at the mouth of that cave that opens the film and there waits the ghost of his father, whom he embraces. It echoes another scene in which the boy is with the star musician of the village, a close friend of his father’s; together they look at Autumn forests and mountains as he tells Kanto ‘all of this used to be ours’. 

Debo had asked Kanto if he’d ever seen an owl, ‘in a zoo’ the boy replies. His father had once encountered a majestic one in the forest and made a stark carving of it. As the film closes with Kanto walking to school -he decided to stay-, a great owl perched at the top of a tree calls out to him. It’s that simple, Kanto is walking to Hogwarts.

Ainu Mosir has garnered prizes from indie film festivals; its director, trained in the US, has displayed a different kind of savvy in financing the film and his networking ability sufficiently impressed the Japanese government to entrust him with developing screenplay writing programs, which Japan continues to be in dire need of.


Debo (Debo Akibe)

The Image It Bears

The last few years have witnessed the springing up of cinematic depictions of Ainu culture, including both documentaries and fictions. As yet another sketch, Ainu Mosir brings together glimpses of the Ainu society’s social landscape and a teenager’s growing up story written by director Takeshi Fukunaga. Behind both there is the director’s avidity to approach to his neighboring community (Fukunaga is Japanese, or wajin, from Hokkaido), keen and cautious, if not overtly. The film flitted in and out of the Ainu people’s lifestyles, rituals, and beliefs, without bothering itself with a further effort to ask the more acute questions underneath the appearance. His gesture very much resembles the teenage boy in the film, curious and respectful, but doesn’t really know what to do with the familiar stranger, especially when this stranger is not an individual or an object, but a culture, a civilization.

The director’s good intentions and enthusiasm earned him help and support in Akan Kotan. However, as the film involves many local Japanese and Ainu residents, negotiations are inevitable between the enthusiastic outsider and the local community, as well as within the community itself. The Ainu people enjoys thousands of years of history but remains little known as it was only recognized recently. Between tradition and the contemporary, between the struggles of preserving the culture and the new chances such as the nationally sponsored promotion of Ainu culture and the boom of ethnic tourism, individuals stand out as powerful agents for the community, while also being concerned with self-interests that don’t always conform to our imagination of “for the sake of the indigenous culture”. Just like the rest of us. In this sense, the quandary shown in the story and the direction of the film is rather honest in its anti-climax. It can be taken as a response to the innocent audience who hope to learn about every deepest secret and difficult condition about the marginalized indigenous people whenever they come to a title related to it. Whereas as a matter of fact there could be nothing different from the “normal” and “ordinary”. What else are your expecting? There is nothing you don’t already know.

The sacred is latent. It has always been. Between the heavy tradition that asks for sacrifice and the temperature-less modernized, globalized condition, it’s a breath of fresh air to glance from the dead cub’s eyes.


Kanto (Kanto Shimokura)


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