Interview: Takeshi Fukunaga on the Power of Community in “Ainu Mosir”

In spite of growing up not far from Lake Akan, Takeshi Fukunaga had been largely unaware of the Ainu Kotan, a village of 36 houses that has become a tourist attraction in recent years where traditional ceremonial dances are performed and a legacy of finely crafted woodwork to buy draws visitors from the cities. Like far too many indigenous communities around the world, the Ainu were largely neglected throughout their history and as a result, can only depend on each other, making Fukunaga’s tale of a 14-year-old named Kanto (Kanto Shimokura) particularly compelling when he’s at the age to start making decisions for himself about the future, which has been thrown into question after the recent loss of his father. Fond of the electric guitar when the community still plays centuries’ old string instruments, it isn’t a given that he’ll stay to help run the shop his mother (Emi Shimokura) keeps or that he wants to engage in traditions he doesn’t necessarily see the ongoing value in, such as the sacrifice of a bear that it’s said his father would’ve wanted when it goes back for generations.

Although Fukunaga wouldn’t presume to claim to have any perspective on the Ainu experience, instead developing his latest film “Ainu Mosir” in cooperation with the Ainu community for its authenticity, he nonetheless brings an intimate touch, not only in the sensitivity he shows in guiding a cast of mostly native non-actors to bring their lives to the screen so vividly, but the ability to invest himself personally in the story of someone who feels the cultural pressure to conform. A similar feeling contributed to his desire to attend film school in America, and while Fukunaga’s moving debut feature, “Out of My Hand” explored the restlessness of having one’s identity so closely tied to where they happened to be born through the story of a New York cabbie who sought to put his past in Liberia in the rearview mirror, one senses that the unexpected and sudden loss of that film’s cinematographer Ryo Murakami, one of Fukunaga’s closest collaborators, inspired some of the even deeper soul searching in “Ainu Mosir” when Kanto’s attitude towards what he owes to the culture he grew up in versus charting his own path in the world is tinged with feelings of loss that he can’t entirely get his arms around.

“Ainu Mosir” may be about the void that’s left behind in the wake of a loved one’s death, but it is full of heart, revealing what the world as a whole has lost when communities such as the Ainu have been sidelined and appropriated from, and while Kanto is entirely justified in wanting to be his own person, the pull of his heritage with its richness of spirit makes it a most difficult choice. Like “Out of My Hand,” the good folks at ARRAY are making Fukunaga’s film available far and wide on Netflix and with the film now streaming, the writer/director spoke of his collaboration with the Ainu community to make the tender drama, the cultural awakening that inspired him to make the film and getting the weather to cooperate with the production which carried over three seasons.

How did this come about?

I started thinking about making a movie about [the] Ainu when I was graduating film school back in 2007 and like the first feature, I decided to work with non-actors — the Ainu people and cast them as the main [actors] of the movie because it was an important part of this project. This is the first fiction movie about the Ainu starring Ainu people, and at first, they had to know me and they had to know what I’m trying to do with the film. They have a history of having people from outside coming to them and then someone [as a filmmaker] didn’t behave well, so some of the people were suspicious, but they trusted me and gave me support. Over time, they were very friendly and very welcoming.

You can tell from how the names of the characters reflect the names of the cast in real life that they were given ownership over the characters. What was it like developing the film around the people you met in the Ainu community?

At first, it was starting to getting to know each other and getting trust and then after that, all the characters based on those people, so I was in close contact with them throughout developing the script, making sure they were happy and that they felt like they are represented in the right way. Then on top of that when we shot it, I didn’t ask them to memorize their lines. Of course, they read the script, so they understood the context, but I asked them to speak freely as much as possible aside from those key lines to construct the story, so it’s a close collaboration with Ainu actors.

The last thing I wanted to do was impose my own preconceived ideas on them and portray them in an inappropriate way or different [from who they are]. But because I gave them freedom to bring real persona as much as possible, there are so many lines and so many actions that I never expected and I could’ve never written by myself. Those moments are my favorite in the movie because it went beyond my imagination.

How do you find this wonderful young man Kanto?

I was super lucky to find him. His mother who also played his mother in the movie, Emi, was my first contact in Akan, so every time I’d go there, she was the one who put me in touch with other people. Kanto was always around, and at first, the main character was a young adult, so I wasn’t thinking about him as being in the movie, but as soon as I changed the [scenario] and I could make the story about a boy, he was the only one I wanted to work with.

You’re able to bring in the legendary Lily Franky, a staple of the Kore-eda films, in as one of the few professional members of the cast. What was it like to have him on set?

To portray the community and the place and the people in a more three-dimensional way, we needed to have an objective perspective that embodied in those characters from outside. The journalist was one of the key characters and I couldn’t imagine working with a real journalist because the character needed to give a more nuanced performance. [Lily Franky] is one of the very few brilliant actors who can be present, but at the same time has a great presence, so I couldn’t have thought about many other actors who could pull it off.

The weather in Akan adds so much to the emotional texture of the film – could you build the shoot around the climate?

Shooting in three seasons was always a plan to give nature a great character, which is a great part of Ainu culture and spirituality. But as far as the weather, it’s something we can’t really control. Obviously, we don’t have rain machines, so it just kept raining [one day] and we had to shoot something and we just went for it and then changed the whole thing into a raining scene. But we were very lucky in the winter, because it was mid-December and depending on the year, we don’t have snow and if we didn’t have any snow, it wouldn’t have been great, so we just had to be patient and lucky really.

Was it special for you to return to Japan to shoot a feature?

Yes, in many ways. Hokkaido is where I’m born and although Akan is not the town where I was born and raised, shooting in the place I was born into and grew up in was a very special experience.

I understand it was actually being in America and finding out about the indigenous people here that inspired you to look into this. What was that awakening like?

Although I was in Hokkaido, unfortunately and very shamefully, growing up, I never had a proper education about Ainu. It was just a few sentences in the history textbook and there was no other opportunity to learn about them, so I never had a clear idea of who Ainu people are and the historical fact that the land was taken from them. It was only after I moved to the U.S. and [learning] the similar history that happened to Native Americans and the similarities [between the indigenous communities] as far as the concept that nobody can own land, land is not something a human can own, that’s built into Ainu people’s culture and spirituality, that made me realize who Ainu people are and gave me a chance to understand what happened.

Have you had a chance to show the film to the Ainu community yet? I know COVID-19 may have complicated it.

Things are pretty calm in Japan and as soon as I finished editing the movie last year, I brought it to the community and had a screening. We got approval from them because obviously without that, I couldn’t have released the movie and after that, its theatrical release started in Japan in October and it’s still going strong in Tokyo. Screenings are starting in other parts of Japan and there’s plans to be screened at over 50 theaters throughout the country, so it’s going pretty well. Unfortunately, the recognition of Ainu people in Japan by Japanese people is still not there, but many people are learning a lot from the movie.

“Ainu Mosir” starts streaming on Netflix on November 17th.

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