The Fight for Self-Representation: Ainu Imaginary, Ethnicity and Assimilation
Marcos P. Centeno Martín
Abstract: Film representation of the Ainu people is as old as cinema but it has not remained stable over time. From the origins of cinema, Ainu people were an object of interest for Japanese and foreign explorers who portrayed them as an Other, savage and isolated from the modern world. The notion of “otherness” was slightly modified during wartime, as the Ainu were represented as Japanese subjects within the “imperial family”, and at the end of the fifties when entertainment cinema presented the Ainu according to the codes of the Hollywood Western on the one hand; and Mikio Naruse proposed a new portrayal focusing on the Ainu as a long-discriminated social collective rather than as an ethnic group, on the other. However, Tadayoshi Himeda’s series of seven documentaries following the Ainu leader Shigeru Kayano’s activities marked a significant shift in Ainu iconography. Himeda challenged both the postwar institutional discourse on the inexistence of minorities in Japan, and the touristic and ahistorical image that concealed the Ainu’s cultural assimilation to Japanese culture. The proposed films do not try to show an exotic people but a conventional people struggling to recover their collective past.