As with most groups referred to as “indigenous,” Japan’s Ainu, who tend to be associated with the northern island of Hokkaido, are greatly misunderstood and mostly marginalized by their non-indigenous fellow citizens. The tricky part of this dynamic is that, more often than not, the indigenous people are relatively ambivalent about being understood, because if being understood means a constant attention that trivializes the cultural aspects of one’s everyday life, then it might be better to just be left alone, but, of course, that tends to be impossible everywhere. In the case of the Ainu, the government of Japan has restricted their activities in such a way that traditional hunting and fishing practices are significantly curtailed, and since those practices are central to their culture, the culture struggles to survive.
But even if reduced, the culture endures and people adapt the best they can. Filmmaker Takeshi Fukunaga, who is not Ainu, made the bold move to try to tell a story about an adolescent who has grown up in an Ainu community and what that might be like. Unsurprisingly, the boy, named Kanto (Kanto Shimokura), isn’t completely happy with his circumstances, but much of that dissatisfaction has to do with normal teenage angst. His father having recently died, he is being raised by his suddenly single mother, who works at a tourist gift shop in the Ainu enclave of Akan Kotan, a UNESCO World Heritage site that sometimes seems more like a theme park than a village with its own heritage and history. Since the film doesn’t range outside this village very much, there’s little opportunity to sample the kind of discrimination that the Ainu are famously subjected to, but you get the idea that their existence is, at the very least, a curiosity to the rest of Japan. At one point, a tourist marvels that Kanto’s mother actually speaks Japanese.
Kanto himself seems to find more fulfillment playing Western rock’n’roll in his middle school combo than he does learning about his own heritage and traditions, and the stifling situation of always being reminded that one belongs to a “tribe” becomes too much. He tells his school counselor he wants to get out as soon as possible, another common reaction to small town living that you’ll find among adolescents the world over, but one Fukunaga presents with special poignance; and for a while during this economical film, you get the feeeling that the director’s purpose is to say, “Look, growing up in an indigenous culture is really no different,” though he knows enough to make what is different bittersweet in the grander scheme of things.
But matters change when Kanto is mentored by a man named Debo (Debo Akibe), who comes across as a middle aged hippie in that he is fully invested in Ainu lore and culture—i.e., a friend of the earth before being a friend of man. At first, Debo is the father figure Kanto desires, but as he learns more intimately about his heritage and what it actually means, he starts to grow up, at least mentally. The connection to Ainu culture gives him his first experience with a living philosophy, one that connects his life not only with the world around him, but with those who came before him. His trust is rewarded with a task, which is to take care of a bear cub that Debo is raising for a specific reason. However, when Kanto finds out what the reason is, he is thrust back into doubt, and having had a taste of belonging to something larger than himself, he struggles with the seeming contradictions.
Though I’m not completely sure I buy the equivocation implicit in Kanto’s moral dilemma, Fukunaga handles it with a clear understanding of its dramatic imperative. Those of us who live outside the Ainu community cannot rightly judge this dilemma, but we can see what it means to those who do live inside at this particular moment in time. It’s no small accomplishment.
In Japanese. Now playing in Tokyo at Euro Space Shibuya (03-3461-0211).
Ainu Mosir home page in Japanese
photo (c) Ainu Mosir LLC/Booster Project