The gently observed drama “Ainu Mosir” unfolds in Hokkaido, a northern island of Japan, where a community of Ainu people live and work in a small town. By day, the residents welcome boatfuls of tourists to explore their village, survey their traditions and purchase souvenirs. Behind the image it sells to visitors, the community struggles to preserve authentic Ainu culture.
The film, streaming on Netflix, follows the teenager Kanto (Kanto Shimokura) as he grapples with the loss of his father and an emerging crisis of identity. He lives with his mother, who runs a local shop, but when considering high schools, Kanto expresses his wish to look outside the Ainu community, which he finds constraining. He appears freest when making music with his garage band, coming up with original song lyrics or belting “Johnny B. Goode” alongside his friends.
Noticing Kanto’s distress, the community leader Debo (Debo Akibe) begins to mentor the teen in Ainu beliefs, including the culture’s close relationship to nature. He introduces Kanto to a bear cub and invites him to care for the animal, though Debo fails to disclose that the bear must soon be sacrificed as part of a resurrected Ainu ritual.
“Ainu Mosir” struggles with perspective; the story seems torn between Kanto’s coming-of-age and the stresses facing his community, making the camera’s view of each more distant than intimate. Still, as the seasons change and the village nears the day of the ceremony, the writer-director Takeshi Fukunaga demonstrates an admirable control of mood. Rather than relying on dialogue, Fukunaga allows emotion to shine through musical performances — a school anthem, folk songs, drunken karaoke. These scenes speak for themselves, and they build upon the story with quiet power.
Not rated. In Japanese and Ainu, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 24 minutes. Watch on Netflix.