The trials of adolescence collide with those of preserving traditional culture in Ainu Mosir, a modestly-scaled but emotionally effective coming-of-age drama from writer/director Takeshi Fukunaga. Typically films like this barely make it beyond regional film festivals, but thanks to Ava DuVernay’s Array Releasing it has been distributed internationally to Netflix for a much broader audience.
Kanto (Kanto Shimokura) is an Ainu teenager living in a small tourist town on Japan’s northern-most island Hokkaido. When he announces he plans to leave town to attend high school as far away as possible, the village elder Debo (Debo Akibe) reaches out to better educate him in traditional life.
The Ainu are an ethnic group indigenous to northern Japan, that have likely inhabited Hokkaido since at least the ninth century. Many years of assimilation have seen active communities extensively decline, however a minority continue to live according to traditional beliefs and practices. Ainu Mosir, titled after their original name for Hokkaido, situates a family drama inside this cultural tension. Broader Japan beckons for Ainu youth, while ancient ritual and religious practice continue in ever-decreasing communities.
Fukunaga’s film portrays the awkward position in which Ainu communities find themselves. Kanto’s home town earns its money from Japanese tourists, who arrive to eat local foods, purchase cheaply-bought souvenirs, and condescend terribly towards local residents. ‘You speak Japanese very well,’ Kanto’s mother is told at one point by a particularly insensitive tourist. The town relies on Japanese business, but to a degree resents the Japanese. Older residents seek to preserve long-held traditions. Young people like Kanto cannot wait to escape to the cosmopolitan southern islands. While Ainu Mosir tells a fairly familiar storyline, it makes strong use of its unique setting.
Performances are delivered in a naturalistic and low-key fashion by a cast of non-actors. It is a pleasant surprise: when the Ainu are represented on Japanese screens, which is rare enough, they are typically played by Japanese actors. What is presented on-screen here bursts with honesty. Kanto Shimokura feels particularly strong and believeable in the lead role. Debo Akibe plays a more broadly drawn character, but does so in a way that suggests a much more spirited character than it does any over-acting.
There is a time bomb element to the characters’ relationships: Debo seeks to teach Kanto traditional rituals and worship, starting with caring for a caged young bear. While it draws the boy’s interest, Debo does not share the whole truth – in a few short weeks the bear he feeds is to be sacrificed in a special ceremony.
It is all played for realism, with a clever and growing embrace of Ainu culture and beliefs. A delicate embrace of the spiritual gives it a unique identity. The end result does not quite meet its initial potential, but does offer a fascinating insight and a strong exploration of changing culture. It feels refreshingly open and free of judgement. Things feel much more grounded than they would in some melodramatic story, yet rise well above simple ethnography. Ainu Mosir feels engaging, realistic, and original. It is a solid insight into a deeply underexposed indigenous culture, and a subtly powerful story of colliding ways of life.