Ainu Culture in Kuma Miko

This season’s Kuma Miko is a delightfully light-hearted comedy following a middle school girl. This sounds pretty generic at the get go, but the show brings in some unique flavors in a few different ways:

  • Machi is also a priestess for a shrine devoted to the god of the mountain, thought to be a bear
  • The current bear is tame, named “Natsu”, lives with Machi, and talks like a human
  • Machi’s shrine garb is influenced by Ainu culture that is visually and verbally referenced

Shintoism is frequently used in anime, and I’ve become accustomed to its influences on various worlds and characters. This is actually the first series I’ve seen that brings up the Ainu people and their culture, which like Shintoism is animistic (think Pocahontas and the spirits in all things) . The next closest suggestion are the Emishi people of Mononke Hime, who were banished and thought lost by most of the country. There are arguments in many of the sources I’ve read, but the general consensus is that the Emishi and Ainu are both hunter-gatherers indigenous to Japan, and descendants of the prehistoric Jomon people.

The very first episode of Kuma Miko touches on the foundation of the shrine and its legend–long ago, the villagers sacrificed a virgin to Mount Kumade’s man-eating bear, who in turn laid with the woman and spawned children who were to become the Kumai clan. Since then, the humans and bears of the mountain have lived side-by-side in harmony. Machi and Natsu are the current generation of priestess and bear, though their antics show a relationship closer to parent and child.

This friendliness is odd when compared to the Ainu’s reverence for bears, and subsequent hunting and consuming of their meat. Since Kuma Miko is thoroughly cute and light, there is no mention of killing (though there’re plenty of surprisingly sexual jabs); the closest to violence we get is Natsu’s confession of his own neutering.

This watering down of the original traditions extends to Machi’s daily shrine garb. Her head wrap and top coat are decorated with blue and red Ainu patterns hand crafted by the locals. When the villagers attempt to revitalize her clothing for the summer and drop the indigenous influences, Machi reacts with a startling indignation, particularly for someone her age who wants to leave the mountain for the city. Perhaps the designers’ disregard for the Ainu symbols was a simple mistake, or an innocent attempt for a modern look, but like Machi, I found myself annoyed at the silent insult.

Feel free to share any other references to the Ainu or Emishi that you’ve noticed in popular media, and let me know what you think about Kuma Miko so far!

Additional reading on the Ainu:

3 thoughts on “Ainu Culture in Kuma Miko

  1. Whoa. Just noticed this!

    Interesting post….

    I have been enjoying the series (Machi is an engaging lead character thus far), so background information like this is a plus.

    Many thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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