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Tomu Uchida: Part 7

April 24th, 2008 (12:20 am)

Movie #7: The Outsiders (Mori to mizuumi no matsuri). Uchida moves to the edge...

© 2008 D. Gordon

Uchida's movies often take detailed looks at Japanese life and social structures. His 1958 film The Outsiders is a bit of a departure, looking instead at the indigenous Ainu of Hokkaido, living under discrimination on the outskirts of Japanese society.

The story is fictional - to my knowledge, Uchida never made a documentary - but the details are carefully constructed to be as truthful as possible. There's the beautiful cinematography of Hokkaido, capturing summer / early fall in small towns and the surrounding mountains and lakes. (This was the director's third color films, and there's a hint of leaf-turning at the very tops of the peaks.) In addition, Ainu costumes and customs are heavily featured (in fact, the movie employed an expert on Ainu culture, most likely a first). Several scenes cover Ainu ceremonies, home life, poverty, and the pressures they face in their interactions with society, and the climax takes place during an annual Ainu festival. But despite all the attention to the visuals, I'm not sure that Uchida really depicted Ainu interior lives.

The story basically starts with a trip by Professor Ike of Sapporo University, an expert on the Ainu, and his friend Yukiko Saeki, an artist from Tokyo. Ike makes regular trips to the region; this time around his friend has come along for inspiration from the area landscapes. Ike has to return to his classes, but Saeki stays a bit longer, coming across and becoming more involved with the Ainu and the happenings in the community.

The lives of the Ainu then takes center stage, and this is where Uchida may have done them a disservice. It makes perfect sense that the Ainu are suspicious of the shamu (Japanese) outsiders, no matter how well-intentioned, and that the young Ainu girl Saeki first meets warns her non-Ainu boyfriend off marriage and the resulting ostracism. But some of the other characterizations don't ring as true. The old woman repeatedly talking about the old times, when the forests were filled with deer and the waters teemed with fish sound more like a cipher than anything else. The boy questioning the existence of the kamuy, the old gods, without as much as a rebuke from his elders seems forced. But the radical activist Byakki at the heart of the story, and what his aims and goals are, seem the most problematic.

Ichitaro Kazamori, or Byakki ("phoenix" in the Ainu language), is the self-styled champion of the Ainu, a sort of a Robin Hood for the community. He takes from the "rich" - the shamu contributing money, especially through Professor Ike, for Ainu public works projects - to give to the "poor" - although he uses the money as he sees appropriate. He harasses half-castes and Ainus passing as Japanese, trying to terrorize them into acknowledging their heritage and helping the community. And he commits a stunning act of violence against the artist Saeki. Yet he brings rice to the villages and books to the children, helping them to find out about the world beyond their borders, and works to get jobs for the Ainu at the local fishery, which refuses to hire them.

It's not clear quite what Uchida's getting at with Byakki. Is he meant to play the noble savage? Or to let Uchida laugh in the face of that characterization? Is he the only Ainu able to fight for rights, or is he a lose cannon? Uchida raises some important issues about the treatment and status of the Ainu in Japanese society - minorities in general do not have a good time of it even today - but Byakki is a less than shining example, sometimes more like a petulant child.

To be fair, there are few "good guys" in the tale. Professor Ike may spend his career trying to make their lives better, but his Ainu ex-wife left him because he treated her like one of his artifacts. His friend Saeki disregards the Ainu's customs to further her art. Byakki's sister was abandoned by her shamu lover; in return, she came close to having her brother kill him. Everyone has a secret - including, it turns out, Byakki - although he doesn't know it yet...

In the midst of this conflict, Uchida's answer seems to be to assimilate, to forget old customs, intermarry, and live peacefully. For some characters, this might be an option; but for others it implies an obsolescence, a disappearing into the sunset, a form of self-destruction. I don't see where surrendering a heritage to the museums helps the community at all.

I completely give Uchida credit for tackling an issue that rarely, if ever, sees the light of day; but I'm not sure that his solution, like the professor's, isn't equivalent to making a culture into an artifact.