A young boy tries to learn of the old ways in Takeshi Fukunaga’s meditative drama.
“Why do you want to be anywhere but here?”
“Well, this town is tiny. And it’s not normal.”
Trying to get a child to connect with your history is always a difficult task, and when your culture is locked in a small subsection of Japan’s most northern island, in a small village away from cities and modern life, the struggle is all too real. The Ainu, indigenous people of Japan’s Hokkaido region, live those lives in their small communities, in which it is estimated there are only 20,000 people.
Kanto (Kanto Shimokura) is a teenager raised in the small Ainu village of Akan, at an age where he considers his heritage kind of lame, and doesn’t find any interest in it. As Kanto’s father has recently passed away, an Ainu elder named Debo (Debo Akibe) decides to take Kanto under his wing, teaching the initially reluctant boy about the many facts of Ainu life. At the same time, the Ainu elders are planning for a major celebration, and are considering bringing back the controversial ritual of Iomante, which involves the sacrifice of a bear.
For most of Ainu Mosir’s runtime, you might be forgiven for constantly forgetting that the movie is, in fact, a scripted drama. From writer-director Takeshi Fukunaga’s natural dialogue to his often fly-on-the-wall style of shooting, the film is purposefully presented as something real – only really faltering when a camera angle gets a little too creative. There were a few times where I found myself, despite its obviously constructed three-act story and occasional ghost dad, believing fully in this documentary-style semi-fictional world.
I say semi-fictional because a lot of Ainu Mosir is pretty real. The characters all share names with their actors, and actors Kanto and Eri Shimokura are real-life mother and son. Akan, meaning “unchanging”, is a real village in south-east Hokkaido. Despite the scripted nature of its story, Ainu Mosir is a film very much grounded in reality. I’m reminded a lot of films like Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, which used a lot of non-actors in its main roles while reminding you that it is fact fictional whenever Ken Takakura, or in this case Lily Franky, appear.
The film is relatively slow paced, but only runs for 80 minutes without credits. While this might feel like there’s little room for actual content, Ainu Mosir manages to squeeze a lot into its runtime even if it means that Kanto has to make big character changes pretty fast. The otherwise slow, contemplative pace is an obviously good choice: reflecting the ancient nature of all of the Ainu traditions and rituals. Anka is a slow-moving village, and watching the film feels reflective of life there. Now, I’m a city boy and always have been. The hustle and bustle of a metropolis has always been my preferred style of living, but I’ll be damned if Ainu Mosir doesn’t make a great case for village life.
The movie’s biggest selling point – other than the many adorable shots of the bear cub Chibi – is of the seemingly endless forests and natural spectacles around. When Debo is teaching Kanto of his Ainu heritage in the forest, it begins to rain. The scene that follows, which consists mostly of shots of trees and rain, I could loop for hours. I’d say the cinematography was great, but that would be undermining the fact that the location and weather are doing pretty much all the heavy lifting here.
All of this is to say that, oddly enough, Ainu Mosir is probably at its weakest when it tries to tell a traditional story. The pacing and subject don’t really fit the typical three-act formula, and whenever it tries to squeeze its narrative to fit this pattern, Fukunaga stumbles more than he succeeds. It’s not like those moments are bad or anything, but they do interrupt one of the most peaceful bits of cinema I’ve seen since In Between Mountains and Ocean. But in the end, even those scenes are loaded with great moments of traditional Ainu practises, shots of the village and surrounding nature, and plenty of subtle but gripping acting.
Kanto’s ultimate feelings are left a touch ambiguous, allowing the audience to make up their own mind about the Ainu, where they fit within Japan’s ever-modernising and integrated society, how they’re viewed by the people they share a country with, and whether the old, sometimes brutal, ways should be laid to rest or celebrated.
Verdict: Fukunaga’s blend of real and fiction makes for a compelling dive into the world of an oft-misunderstood and overlooked people.
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Violence: 4/10, all against bears
Silliest shot: Dead bear POV
Saddest shot: The old VHS clips of the Iomante
Ainu Mosir (2020)
Also known as: アイヌモシㇼ, lit. ’the land of the Ainu; Hokkaido’
Director: Takeshi Fukunaga
Writer: Takeshi Fukunaga
Kanto Shimokura – Kanto
Debo Akibe – Debo
Emi Shimokura – Emi
Lily Franky – Journalist