Ainu Neno An Ainu (アイヌネノアンアイヌ, Neo Sora & Laura Liverani, 2021)

Japanese society often presents itself as homogenous claiming a harmony born of a universal culture to which all subscribe, but in reality has sometimes sought to exclude or assimilate those it regards as different such as the still continuing prejudice against the burakumin underclass and towards the indigenous people of Hokkaido, the Ainu, who were only officially recognised by the Japanese government in 2008. Laura Liverani & Neo Sora’s documentary Ainu Neno An Ainu (アイヌネノアンアイヌ, lit. humanlike human) explores the realities of what it means to be Ainu in contemporary Japan as the community strives to recover and preserve its traditional culture in the face of increasing modernity. 

Japan annexed Hokkaido during the Meiji era largely through settler colonialism, later determining to “develop” the island which entailed confiscating Ainu lands along with banning their language and traditional practices such as tattooing in an act of forced assimilation. Many of the participants in the documentary have the same name but this is not necessarily because they are related as one explains, the entire town was in fact given the same surname inspired by the name of their settlement translated into Japanese when assimilated as Japanese citizens. While some aspects of traditional culture survived, many of the older residents lament that their parents preferred not to teach them the Ainu language in fear of social discrimination, something which is repeatedly cited by many as a reason some prefer not to disclose their Ainu identity after leaving for the cities. 

Nevertheless, some younger people are eagerly attempting to reclaim and preserve the Ainu language which is entirely oral and has no writing system. The main protagonist of the documentary, Maya, opens the film by teaching a traditional lullaby to a class of students later revealing that her father Kenji, who was not born Ainu, taught himself the language and has become passionate about passing it on. Language classes can also be heard on local radio while remnants of Ainu words pepper the local dialect even if many may not realise. Meanwhile, others relearn ancient lullabies not directly from their mothers but from archival tapes. 

Maya’s mother is also part of a stage performance showcasing traditional Ainu music for tourists from outside of the community, a Korean translator interpreting for a rapt audience each clutching pamphlets as they listen. A young man, Hibiki, who works for the Ainu museum admits that some feel ambivalent about the way they’ve chosen to commodify their culture in order to preserve it while others feel it’s a price worth paying in order to ensure that something at least survives. Some customs are perhaps harder to justify in the modern society such as the Iomante bear sacrifice which no longer takes place after successful campaigns by animal rights organisations. 

While some speak of divisions within the Ainu communities, others praise the local traditions of acceptance and hospitality in which it is normal to offer food, gifts, and shelter to others without expectation. Many who were not born Ainu have been accepted into the community, the Takanos for example who arrived from Tokyo in the 1960s and now run a store selling the Ainu handicrafts they have spent a lifetime learning, or Magi a transgender woman from Okinawa finding family and a place to belong among the Ainu. 

It is not in any case an either or situation, the local children cheerfully singing the theme from My Neighbour Totoro as they supervise the harvest as well as a Japanese folk song before they leave school for the day while at the end of the film introducing themselves in the Ainu language for a local radio host. Intended as a “family photo album” of the local community, an image which opens the film and recurs throughout in static captures of the various protagonists posed for a portrait, Ainu Neno An Ainu examines what it means to be a member of the Ainu community in the present society and uncovers with it a tremendous warmth and openness not only among the extended families as its centre but towards the wider society in the hope of preserving their culture through sharing it as widely as possible with all who wish to learn. 

Ainu Neno An Ainu streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

The photo project which sparked the documentary

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Ainu Mosir (アイヌモシㇼ, Takeshi Fukunaga, 2020)

Despite its continuing preoccupation with the conflict between tradition and modernity, Japanese cinema has often been reluctant to address the nation’s relationship with marginalised communities such as the Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido which was in essence the site of Japan’s first colonial expansion at the beginning of the Meiji era. Set very much in the present day, Takeshi Fukunaga’s Ainu Mosir (アイヌモシㇼ) takes its title from the indigenous name for the island and is both coming-of-age tale and exploration of the position of the Ainu people within the context of modern Japan. 

14-year-old Kanto (Kanto Shimokura) lives in the quaint Ainu tourist village of Akan and has not long lost his father. Questioned about his plans for the next stage of his education, Kanto replies that he’s fine with anything as long as it involves leaving Akan, later explaining to his understandably upset mother Emi (Emi Shimokura) that his desire to leave is because the town is “tiny” and “they make you do Ainu stuff”. Emi points out that neither she nor anyone else has ever forced him to participate in Ainu culture, but still the boy insists that he’d prefer to go somewhere more “normal” spending his time playing classic American rock on an electric guitar rather than engaging with his cultural roots. His attitude begins to change, however, when Debo (Debo Akibe), an elder acting as an uncle, begins introducing him to various aspects of Ainu culture such as the remote cave in the Forest of Light which leads to the land of the dead, teaching him how to catch and gut fish, and finally enlisting him in a project to look after a captive bear, Chibi, hidden in a cage in the woods. 

Bears are sacred in Ainu culture, but what Debo has not explained to the boy is that he’s raising Chibi as part of an ancient ritual last performed over forty years previously which involves sacrificing the bear in the belief that his spirit will then return to the land of the gods filled with tales of how wonderful humans are after being so lovingly looked after during his time in the mortal world. In a series of documentary-style sequences, Fukunaga captures the ambivalence present within the community on learning of Debo’s plan to carry out an Iomante ritual, pointing out that they live in different times and bear sacrifice is unlikely to be accepted by the outside world which will undoubtedly view it as primitive and cruel. Aside from a concern as to how the indigenous community is viewed by mainstream society, some of the council are acutely worried because they are economically dependent on the tourist trade. Young Kanto is frustrated by the idea of growing up in a museum, the town of Akan something like a theme park repackaging Ainu culture for curious Japanese tourists. His own mother works in a shop selling traditional crafts as souvenirs while appearing in a stage show adapting ancient ritual as entertainment for visiting audiences. 

A man in Emi’s shop stops to ask her if she herself is Ainu, but seems ambivalent on being told that yes she is while a female customer somewhat crassly compliments her on the quality of her Japanese which is particularly ironic as we’ve just seen her attending evening classes to relearn the Ainu language which is in constant danger of dying out. Warming to Ainu culture, Kanto is more receptive towards the idea of adding traditional instrumentation but his bandmate is, as he was, embarrassed by “Ainu stuff” and wants nothing to do with it. Debo’s betrayal sets Kanto on a collision course with his newly found appreciation for his indigenous roots in presenting him first hand with something dark and cruel that proves difficult for him to understand but perhaps finally allows him to come to terms both with his father’s death and with his own identity as a member of an indigenous community. 

Using a cast of mainly non-professional actors from the local area, Fukunaga switches between documentary-style capture of Ainu life and the cinematic naturalism of Kanto’s path towards self-acceptance filled as it is with the wonder of the natural world. Juxtaposing the reality of the Iomante ritual with the repackaged stage show, he shows us what it costs to preserve traditional culture within a surrounding modernity even as scholars descend to record the songs of the Ainu for prosperity badgering old women to offer up long forgotten lullabies for a lonely tape recorder. Kanto has however perhaps found his path in knowing he is not alone as he steps into a less innocent adulthood having integrated both sides of himself into a more complete whole. 

Ainu Mosir streams in Germany 1st to 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection. It is also available to stream in the UK (and possibly elsewhere) via Netflix.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Whistling in Kotan (コタンの口笛, Mikio Naruse, 1959)

vlcsnap-2016-08-03-02h37m50s119The Ainu have not been a frequent feature of Japanese filmmaking though they have made sporadic appearances. Adapted from a novel by Nobuo Ishimori, Whistling in Kotan (コタンの口笛, Kotan no Kuchibue, AKA Whistle in My Heart) provides ample material for the generally bleak Naruse who manages to mine its melodramatic set up for all of its heartrending tragedy. Rather than his usual female focus, Naruse tells the story of two resilient Ainu siblings facing not only social discrimination and mistreatment but also a series of personal misfortunes.

Masa and Yutaka are a teenage brother and sister living with their alcoholic father who has been unable to get things together since their mother passed away. They also have their grandmother and cousin, but otherwise they’re pretty much fending for themselves. At school, both children are shunned and picked on by some of their classmates solely for being Ainu. When one girl reports that her purse has gone missing, she immediately points to Masa and though another girl defends her, the obvious racial overtones continue to get to her. Similarly, Yutaka finds himself getting into trouble with one of the other boys after he beats him on a test. Yutaka pays a heavier price (at least physically) but both children are left wondering about their place in the world and what the future might hold for them.

Masa’s bright hope revolves around her art teacher who draws a picture of her at a local watering hole which he intends to enter into a competition. The teacher has his sights firmly set on a career as an artist in Tokyo but like everyone else’s dreams, it proves harder to realise than he might have hoped. Perpetually left behind, Masa’s dreams crumble too as do those of her friend who has her romantic hopes crushed firstly by her well meaning grandmother and then secondly by an unexpectedly racist action by someone who had always been seen as a friend. If all of these difficulties weren’t enough, fate is about to deal Masa and Yutaka a very cruel blow indeed which leaves them at the mercy of an evil uncle worthy of any Dickens novel.

Like much of Naruse’s work, the outlook is extremely bleak. The children face such a hopeless future that the most they can do is affect a kind of false cheerfulness to try and raise their spirits. Masa and Yutaka are both mistreated by the general population, leaving them with a lingering sense of anger and resentment towards those that seem incapable of treating them like regular human beings. Their cousin, Koji, has apparently come to the conclusion that he has to stand up against such mistreatment, however, the ultimate harm that is done to the pair is done by a member of their own family acting with total disregard their feelings and wellbeing. At this point Koji reconsiders and says he understands now that it isn’t about Ainu or Japanese, there are just awful people everywhere. An odd, if depressingly stoic, late in the game plea for empathy and tolerance, this ironically positive statement sits very well with Naruse’s general feelings on human nature.

Whistling in Kotan is not one of Naruse’s more subtle efforts. The tone is relentlessly bleak as the children experience ever more degrading treatment solely because of their ethnic group. Even their supposed ally eventually turns on them exposing the last lingering threads of prejudice among even those who portray themselves as forthright liberals. The message is one of forbearance and patience, that times have changed and will change more but that one has to grin and bear it while they do. Pragmatic as that is, it does let society of the hook when it comes to the refusal to acknowledge and deal with consistent prejudice. Filled with Naruse’s sense of despair, Whistling in Kotan is an uneven yet interesting exploration of this sensitive subject though perhaps undoes much of its good work with its ambiguous and often blunt approach to the material.