Although the lakeside village of Akan Ainu Kotan in northern Japan lures tourists from cities across the country, the 14-year-old Kanto (Kanto Shimokura) is eager to forge the reverse course in “Ainu Mosir,” soon having a choice to leave town in order to continue his education. He has likely tired of the droning announcement that plays throughout the day over a loud speaker that permeates the main street that traditional wooden crafts and tapestries made by the local indigenous community are for sale, with the souvenir shop run by his mother (Emi Shimokura) one of the chief destinations. At this point, he isn’t the only one in the village to grow wary of routine when tradition has been commodified to the point where concerts continue to be performed for financial sustenance rather than the spiritual, and in Takeshi Fukunaga’s spellbinding second feature, frustration with one’s place in the world, both for Kanto and the community that he thinks he’d like to leave behind, takes fascinating forms.
While Kanto can be heard playing “Johnny Be Good” with a local band, there are other rebellious acts afoot in the Akan Ainu Kotan when Debo (Debo Akibe), an elder in the village begins to agitate at community meetings to revive the tradition of lomante, a sacrifice of a bear that hasn’t been practiced since the 1970s. Both are driven by a desire to do right by Kanto’s father, who passed away some time ago and had hoped that the community would get back in touch with its roots – thanks to one early, fleeting glance of the memorial that sits in Kanto’s house provided by Sean Price Williams’ wonderfully elusive cinematography, his influence lingers over the film exactly as much as it does in the minds of the characters. Word has traveled to a regional reporter (Lily Franky) that the ritual may commence, but it hasn’t gotten to Kanto, who Debo has introduced to Chibi, the cub in question, to feed in seclusion after sensing the responsibility could be nourishing for the young man.
Inevitably, there’s a reckoning when Debo’s plans are put into motion, but the confrontations in “Ainu Mosir” refreshingly happen less between separate characters than resolving who they want to be individually, evaluating which parts of the past are worth carrying with them into the future and what should be left there. As much as Kanto has to decide what he owes to his hometown versus himself in pondering what his next steps will be, Fukunaga establishes such a strong sense of community in peppering in occasional scenes of group activities and quietly observing relationships that run so deep that you realize how the very notion of straying could be yanking at the string that undoes everything. Yet the writer/director inventively weaves together his struggle to carve out his own identity with that of Akan Ainu Kotan as a whole so vividly that Kanto’s personal journey is elevated to the epic and the town’s myriad concerns feel intimate, having the best qualities of both rub off on one another just as you’d hope for the characters as they find their way forward in the world.