A young soldier survives the nightmarish Russo-Japanese War, returning to Japan in the hopes of supporting his dead comrade’s family. While panning for gold in the frigid wilderness of Hokkaido, he hears a story about a vast hoard of stolen wealth, and a map to its location tattoo’d onto the bodies of escaped prisoners. The soldier finds the body of one prisoner, but must now contend with a vicious man-eating bear trailing its kill. Aided by a young girl named Asirpa, the soldier must once more survive against terrible odds, and demonstrate how he earned the nickname, the “Immortal Sugimoto”.
Welcome to our Spring 2018 Rolling Review of Golden Kamuy – a crime drama/adventure set in the first decade of the 20th century, with a fictional story set to the backdrop of historical events and locations. We first open on the battle for 203 Hill during the Russo-Japanese war, where a soldier named Sugimoto loses his friend and only manages to survive by brutally slaughtering his enemies. It’s dramaticized, but the actual battle was extremely bloody and the Japanese victory came at a horrific cost, so the historical inspiration sets out on a decent footing.
When we return to Japan, Sugimoto has left the army and set out to Hokkaido in an attempt to make enough money to send his friend’s wife and child to America for medical care and a better life. There, he hears the tale of a mysterious criminal who stole a trove of gold from the local Ainu people, only to be captured and spend years refusing to tell his jailers the location of the treasure. Instead, he secretly tattoo’d a coded map to its location onto several other prisoners, who then escaped and fled in search of the gold themselves.
Okay, wow… there’s a lot going on, and we’re not even halfway through episode one. Kamuy sets up its premise in a hurry, and it’s not about to wait around for you. Add to this a bear attack and Sugimoto’s rescue by the Ainu girl, Asirpa, and the first chunk of this show is already extremely dense. We learn that Asirpa is also connected to the gold, because her father was one of those killed by the man who originally stole it from the Ainu. Her survival skills and Sugimoto’s ruthlessness keep them alive in the wilderness, and also make it disturbingly easy for them to decide that skinning a human being to get hold of a treasure map fragment is hunky-dory. To be fair, it’s less gory than it sounds, but it’s still unnerving at the least.
The characterization in the first episode is quite good, though we only have two characters to start with, so that makes it a bit easier to keep track of. Sugimoto is violent and callous, though his dedication to his friend’s memory helps humanize him a bit. Even so, he’s clearly not going to be any sort of heroic figure, considering that he’s dealing with vicious thieves and murderers. He’s not an idiot, though he is brash and quick to choose the most aggressive path. Fortunately, unlike many main characters who just seem to be jerks that we’re supposed to root for anyway, Sugimoto at least has enough violence and trauma in his background that his outlook makes a lot of sense.
Asirpa is much more grounded and clear-eyed, though she hasn’t had as much time to grow on me yet. She seems no-nonsense and is obviously knowledgeable about the wilderness and wildlife of her native Hokkaido, but those don’t make for a very compelling personality. Hopefully, we’ll get to see more sides of her as she and Sugimoto set out on their quest to secure the Ainu gold and take revenge for her father. In the meantime, her resourcefulness and explanations of Ainu beliefs and traditions are welcome for the audience. I just hope they don’t fall into the trap of leaving her as the wise, eternally patient native forced to play second fiddle to the brash but well-meaning colonizer.
If there’s one major weakness I see in this show, it’s that the production quality doesn’t quite match the ambition of the story being told. The animation is often stiff, and the relative lack of blood and gore outside of the war flashbacks makes the violent fights seem oddly sterile. Combined with the horrible out-of-place CG animals, it leaves the first episode feeling kind of cheap. I’ll admit that the CG bear is pretty terrifying, but it just doesn’t match up with the rest of the style that the show has established. Perhaps as the show goes on, the quality will improve as the artwork becomes more consistent, but I’m not going to hold my breath.
Before wrapping up, a quick aside – while it was the setting and bizarre crime drama premise that first attracted me to Golden Kamuy, it was the inclusion of the Ainu people that really grabbed my attention. The Ainu are a people indigenous to northern Japan and parts of western Russia. They posses their own distinct culture, but often came into conflict with other Japanese, especially during periods of social change or modernization.
The situation of the Ainu is similar to that of Native Americans or Aboriginal Australians, often finding themselves oppressed by the larger ethnic majority. Serei no Moribito featured a similar (if fictional) conflict between the native Yaku and the more-recently-arrived Yogo people, but I haven’t seen anything that actively tackled the historical position of the Ainu themselves. It’s a largely unexplored element of Japanese history that I look forward to seeing the show handle over time.
Golden Kamuy is a show with a solid hook and a lot of potential. I’m liking the wintry historical setting, and the real-world inspiration for its characters and events. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but I’ll take middling visuals if it means I get a compelling story. We’ll see how Golden Kamuy plays out over the next several weeks.