Private Project

Songs of Kamui

More than anything, brilliant Teru longs to attend school with other girls. But in early 20th-century Japan, Teru is excluded, because she is Ainu. Instead of writing, the Ainu—an indigenous people from Japan’s Hokkaido island—pass down their traditions through yukar (oral poems). When Teru meets a Tokyo professor who has devoted his life to decoding yukar, Teru discovers a chance not only to prove her brilliance but to rewrite the fate of the Ainu. Based on a true story.

  • Hiroshi Sugawara
    Shashin Koshien Summer in 0.5 Seconds, Fireflies: River of Light, Hayazaki no Hana, Seven Days War
  • Hiroshi Sugawara
    Shashin Koshien Summer in 0.5 Seconds
  • Kiyoko Sakuma
    Shashin Koshien Summer in 0.5 Seconds
  • Mizuki Yoshida
    Key Cast
    "Teru Kitazato"
    Atsui Munasawagi
  • Ayumu Mochizuki
    Key Cast
  • Kaho Shimada
    Key Cast
    Les Miserables the Musical
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  • Runtime:
    2 hours 15 minutes
  • Production Budget:
    25,000,000 JPY
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Distribution Information
  • Triple Up
    Country: Japan
    Rights: Theatrical
Director Biography - Hiroshi Sugawara

Hiroshi Sugawara’s directorial debut, Seven Days War (1988), received critical attention, won a Japanese Academy Award, and was selected among Japan's Top 100 Films. Fireflies: River of Light (2004) was an official selection of the 16th Annual Tokyo International Film Festival. Hayazaki No Hana (2006) was an official selection of the 19th Annual Tokyo International Film Festival and received critical acclaim at home and abroad. He was the first Japanese student to attend the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and graduated cum laude with a concentration in film production.

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Director Statement

Even as the past decades have seen a rise of interest in celebrating the histories and cultures of indigenous people in Australia, Europe, the United States, and the Canadian-Alaskan Inuit, Japan has remained alarmingly ignorant of and indifferent to its own indigenous peoples. The Ainu people have called Hokkaido – my birthplace – home for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until the 2010s that the Japanese government finally recognized them as the region’s “official” indigenous culture; the Ainu are still fighting for the right to fish their traditional waters. Untaught in our schools, Ainu culture risks erasure if it’s not recorded and conveyed to future generations.

Based on a true story, my film, “Songs of Kamui,” is a coming-of-age tale about the headstrong and brilliant Teru, who longs to attend school with the other girls. But in early 20th-century Japan, Teru is excluded because she is Ainu. Because the Ainu culture transmits its traditions through “yukar” (oral poems) instead of writing, it is dismissed as rudimentary by the Japanese elite. But when Teru meets a Tokyo professor who has devoted his life to decoding yukar, Teru seizes her chance to not only prove her brilliance, but also to rewrite the fate of her people.

God is in the details. In “Songs of Kamui,” I am committed to portraying the Ainu with cinematic truth; every image should reflect the world, environment, and traditions of early 20th-century Hokkaido. Filmed over three years, “Songs of Kamui” captures Hokkaido’s majestic but harsh beauty. In the coldest months of the early 20th-century, the Ainu were often forced to haul heavy loads of herring from the fishing villages to the ship in shoulder carriers called “mokko.” To recapture these grueling winter conditions, we filmed during the herring fishing season from January and March. Our non-Ainu actors studied the Ainu language and spent time in Ainu villages; many grew their hair and beards long for a year and lost weight to realistically represent the Ainu of a hundred years ago. The conditions challenged both actors and crew, but I dare say that our methods created an authenticity you can feel when you watch the film.

From costumes to make-up to the tiniest details of the straw shoes, care was taken to recreate the actual attire and language of Ainu with accuracy and loving attention. Many previous TV dramas and movies express Ainu culture through costumes that “signify” indigenousness but lack the power of researched detail. We worked to answer the questions: how did the Ainu wardrobe change from working clothes to ceremonial clothes? Or as a young Ainu became a respected elder? I found that there is great power to authentic reproduction.

Our story also aims to hew as closely as possible to truth. Teru was inspired by the life of Yukie Chisato, who – although she died tragically young at the age of 19 – contributed to the spread and appreciation of Ainu culture by translating yukar into Japanese for the first time. Because the Ainu are a people without a written language, the publication of the translated and collected yukar helped the wider Japanese world begin to understand the rich history of the Ainu. My challenge was to unravel Yukie’s goals, feelings, and thoughts and translating them into a story that a modern audience would find compelling.

Even the desire to authentically reproduce the yukar themselves proved to be a challenge. Yukar are traditionally performed in song, but the Ainu transmit these melodies from generation to generation by word of mouth; without sheet music – and given the varying nuances from one performer to another – reproducing the yukar requires an arduous process. The normal process is to first record an Ainu elder singing the yukar, transcribe sheet music, re-record the yukar in a sound studio, and, finally, synch the song with the appropriate footage. However, that process divorces the emotion of the song from the emotions of the on-screen actors. So, instead, I asked our actors to sing on the spot. This was a challenge – and our actors often felt vulnerable – but the result was visceral and emotional.

Our values change with the times. It is critical to understand how discrimination and ignorance caused persecution in the past so that we can better avoid similar mistakes in the present. And, of course, prejudice against the Ainu is far from eradicated. Many Ainu people still hide their heritage for fear of facing bias.

Teru’s story is one of triumph and overcoming adversity. Dismissed and overlooked, Teru’s determination to go to school and elevate her culture is an inspiring story about resilience in the face of overwhelming obstacles. “Songs of Kamui” is a film about people coming together as a community to share strength and inspire hope. I believe it is a work laden with important meaning, especially for our younger generation who must continue the fight to end discrimination.