When Disney announced that they were making a film adaptation of Marvel’s Big Hero Six, I was excited. Then I was extremely disappointed and irritated to discover that Fred, who was Ainu in the comics, was whitewashed. How often do we have an indigenous character in animation? Not a lot in America, and not very much in Japan either.
Probably the most well-known Ainu characters are Horokeu (“Horohoro”) and Pirika Usui from Shaman King. The anime actually depicts an entire tribe and uses Ainu symbols in the characters’ outfits. Furthermore, Horohoro’s guardian spirit, Kororo, is based on a race of tiny people in Ainu folklore called the koro-pok-guru. The struggles of Shaman King‘s Ainu (as depicted in the manga) center less on oppression and more on the conflict between their conservationist lifestyle and the incoming Japanese developers.
Pirika, Horohoro, and Kororo. From mewpudding101.
Samurai Champloo, on the other hand, does address the oppression of the Ainu in the two parter, “Lullabies of the Lost”. Although his ethnicity is not explicity stated, Okuru wears clothing similar to traditional Ainu garb. He lost his due to an epidemic and torching by the Matsumae clan, which in reality did come into conflict with the Ainu. Despite being an antagonist, Okuru is portrayed sympathetically.
The Matsumae also make an appearance in the manga and film, The Dagger of Kamui. Its main character, Jiro, is a half-Japanese, half-Ainu young man who desires to learn about his parentage. Part of his journey brings him face-to-face with the oppression of the Ainu. Going a step further, the series address the oppression of Native Americans when Jiro goes abroad and meets a half-French, half-Native American girl.
Leave it to the Father of Manga, Osamu Tezuka, to write stories about the Ainu. The first of such manga is Brave Dan about a boy named Kotan Nakamaru who has trained to be his people’s savior. Along with a tiger named Dan, he searches for the lost Ainu treasure.
Kotan and Dan. From Tezuka in English.
I couldn’t find much about Shumari, other than that it is another adventure story and is about the reclamation of Hokkaido.
Oftentimes Princess Mononoke‘s Ashitaka and his people are attributed to being Ainu. They are actually Emishi, an indigenous group from northern Honshu. There has been scholarly debate over whether they are related to the Ainu. Hayao Miyazaki sides with those who connect the Emishi to the Jomon, and thus it can be inferred that he portrays Ashitaka’s people as such.
However, Miyazaki is connected to another anime with an Ainu character. His solo directorial debut was with the adaptation of the manga, Yuki’s Sun. The heroine, Yuki, befriends an Ainu boy named Ryuuta and also meets an Ainu man named Akarupa who is connected with her. Only the pilot was ever created.
These were the anime and manga that I could find information on. I’m sure there are more, but there remains a serious lack of representation. It’s a big issue in both Japanese and American media, and we can only hope that through awareness will this improve in the future.
Listening to: “Sakhalin Rock” by OKI DUB AINU BAND