Have you ever felt like an outsider within your own community? While I’m sure that many people may have experienced this isolation in one form or another (whether it be from personal opinions to political differences), it’s an entirely different matter when you exist within a society that is both similar yet alien to the dominant culture. It’s difficult to come up with an American example of this that relates specifically to the subjects of Ainu Mosir, but think of it as not too different from how Native Americans exist within North America as curiosities within the 21st century.
I’m aware that that statement is a gross oversimplification of the parallels between the Ainu and an ethnic group we may be more familiar with, but Ainu Mosir is focused on providing a mostly authentic representation of the Ainu people within Japan, for better or worse. Yes, this is one of those movies where the more about the subject matter you know going into it, the more you’re probably going to enjoy it. It just so happens that, as an outsider looking in, I can’t help but feel indifferent towards what I watched.
Director: Takeshi Fukunaga
Release Date: April 15, 2020 (Tribeca Film Festival)
Kanto (Kanto Shimokura) is a 14-year-old Japanese boy who is also of Ainu descent. He lives in a small little tourist trap known as “Ainu Village” where most of adults sell chachkies and advertise themselves for both English and Japanese tourists as a subsect of Japanese society. Kanto wants to break away from it all, especially after his father recently died, but a family friend named Debo (Debo Akibe) gives Kanto an opportunity to raise a bear cub together to get his mind off of everything. All the while, the community is preparing for a religious event known as the Iomante, which unbeknownst to Kanto, involves the killing and sacrifice of the bear he’s been raising.
To give credit where credit is due, Ainu Mosir does a very good job at giving us a broad look at some of the difficulties within the Ainu culture. While they are Japanese, they’re still seen as a strange ethnic sub group where their religious practices are viewed as quirky and are meant to be gawked at. The adults lead ceremonies while the children are taught Ainu beliefs, play Ainu instruments, and stay within their very tiny community. Kanto, and most of the other children, want to break free from that Ainu label and live their own life, free from the stifling culture they are a part of. It’s telling that they speak Japanese, but a good percentage of the adults speak Ainu.
By the end of the movie, I understood exactly what Ainu Mosir was trying to go for, portraying a battle of traditionalism versus modernism. Sadlym the movie almost seems to introduce the concept yet do nothing with it. The first half of the movie is dedicated to Kanto’s struggle and eventual uplift when he begins to raise the bear, who him and Debo call Chibi. The second half is then a more uncompromising examination of Ainu culture. It’s not a condemnation or a glorification, but instead a realistic depiction of what the Iomante ritual is for the Ainu, complete with footage from an Iomante from the 70s.
The shift is understandable as we get closer and closer to the ritual itself, but something wasn’t sitting well with me by the time the movie ended. I suppose if it could be summed up in one word, it would be “understated.” The Iomante ritual is taboo and forbidden by the Japanese government, but it never comes across as that. The controversial nature of the ritual is palpable, with several residents of the village unsure whether or not to participate in it, but by the time it eventually happens it feels kind of blase. It happens, that’s the end, and everyone moves on with their lives. Even Kanto, who has the most difficult time coming to terms with it given that he raised Chibi, doesn’t seem too torn up about it.
I’m not asking for pulse pounding tension, but Ainu Mosir has a problem justifying its existence as a movie. As an educational piece, I did learn quite a bit about the Ainu and the life they live within Japan, though the accuracy of their depiction is better left to experts and not a man who studied the Cold War and infectious diseases. As a piece of entertainment, Ainu Mosir is a bit lacking. Maybe if the movie shifted to be a documentary about the revival of the Iomante that would be one thing, but I’m here to review the movie I got, not the film that I want.
As it stands, Ainu Mosir is perfectly fine, but that’s about it.