The Ainu, an indigenous people who live mainly in Hokkaido, have long been a marginal presence in Japanese cinema. And the rare Ainu characters, found in such films as Tomu Uchida’s “The Outsiders” (1958) and Lee Sang-il’s “Unforgiven” (2013), are mostly portrayed, albeit sympathetically, by Japanese actors.

But in his second dramatic feature, “Ainu Mosir,” Takeshi Fukunaga not only makes the Ainu central to the story, but has also cast nonactors of Ainu ancestry to play the leading Ainu roles, making his film an outlier indeed.

Fukunaga did something similar in his 2015 debut feature, “Out of My Hand,” which told stories of Liberian immigrants in New York and included a cast of Liberian nonactors. His focus in both films, brilliantly realized, was to give an insider’s perspective to his stories of marginalized communities.

Ainu Mosir (Ainu Moshiri)
Run Time 84 min.
Language Japanese and Ainu
Opens Oct. 17

And yet as closely as it hews to the actual lives of Ainu in the village of Akanko Ainu Kotan in Hokkaido, “Ainu Mosir” is not a docudrama. The story, developed by Fukunaga in collaboration with his actors and the local community, is fictional yet deeply rooted in traditional Ainu customs and beliefs, which the Japanese government tried to extinguish through policies of forcible assimilation during the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

As with many other indigenous peoples, the Ainu have faced social discrimination and economic hardship in their own land, as well as an acute identity crisis in Japanese society, which loudly proclaims its homogeneity. That crisis is the film’s central theme: What does it mean to be an Ainu today, especially in a town that functions as a kind of theme park, selling an idealized version of the culture to tourists?

The film’s soft-spoken, sharp-eyed 14-year-old protagonist, Kanto (Kanto Shimokura), is fed up with the whole Ainu thing. After seeing his kind-hearted mother (Emi Shimokura) deal with condescending customers at her gift shop (sample comment: “Your Japanese is so good!”) on a daily basis, he wants to go somewhere far away.

Drawing him back is Debo (Debo Akibe), a full-bearded, broad-shouldered family friend who acquaints Kanto with Ainu customs and beliefs, beginning with a hole in a cluster of massive rocks that Debo says is the gateway to the world of the dead, where Kanto’s father now dwells. Debo also introduces the teen to a bear cub he is secretly raising and asks Kanto to help him. He doesn’t tell the boy that he plans for the bear to be sacrificed in a ritual called iomante as an offering of thanks to the gods.

First, though, Debo has to persuade the village leaders. More than a few are worried that the ritual, which has not been held in Akanko Ainu Kotan since 1975, will damage their tourist business. Debo stoutly defends it as vital to their Ainu identity and wins the argument. This sets him and the community on a collision course with Kanto, who has come to love the now-doomed cub.

Half-expecting overwrought theatrics from this point, I was relieved to see the film stay true to its naturalistic beginnings, while presenting the ritual respectfully, minus exoticizing. And for those worried about animal cruelty, I should add, without giving anything away about the climax, that no real blood is shed on screen.

Also, Kanto is an appealingly intense presence and Debo is a likable, larger-than-life figure. They and the rest of the Ainu cast help make “Ainu Mosir” a memorable one-of-a-kind experience and, as I’m sure the community intended, an excellent incentive to visit Akanko Ainu Kotan.

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