Whuh oh, hold up a second.
This isn’t a lewdness warning,
this is a gore warning.
This series features extreme violence.
If you don’t have the stomach for that sort of thing,
you may want to turn back.
How often do you find a manga that’s pretty much good in every single way?
Actually, here’s a little note: it may sound odd but this series is in fact so good that discussing it in-depth is hard. There are many aspects to it, so many that I may sound like I’m going over too much at some points. If you think “this is worth reading” at any time during this writing, then go read the series then and there and then come back for my closer examination of it.
Golden Kamuy (ゴールデンカムイ, AKA Golden Kamui. lit. “Golden God”) is an award-winning manga created by Noda Satoru (野田サトル) that depicts the grand tale of Russo-Japanese War veteran Sugimoto the Immortal and Ainu huntress Asirpa as they seek out a hidden treasure and cook a great deal of survivalist cuisine. It is a historical piece that takes place in early 20th Century Hokkaido, the cold northern lands of Japan, and is primarily an adventure/comedy/cooking/action series. It is not a romance, which is a big surprise and a plus in my book, and although it’s very obvious that Noda-sensei loves, loves, loves cheesy old action movies and fun/ridiculous cliches, overall the series is extremely unconventional and rather unpredictable. All in all, it’s fun and it’s a ride. Oftentimes you will ask “is the series really going there?” and the answer, as far as I know, is always “yes”. Pulpy, full of spirit, absurdly violent, gorgeous, crazy, wild, quirky, hilarious, and strange; Golden Kamuy is all of these things, and of course it goes without saying that it is completely excellent.
Golden Kamuy wastes no time letting you know that it can be gross. Our introduction to the protagonist (and the manga itself) features him eating an ant off of his finger due to being near-starved, and then wildly charging onto a battlefield as his comrades are gunned down, he’s shot through the neck, and he soldiers on through it all slaughtering the Russians before him like a man possessed. And shortly after all that we get this page:
And so there will be no surprises; this is the kind of thing we’re in for. The protagonist is Sugimoto Saichi, or Sugimoto the Immortal — so-called because he survived the truly horrible events of the Russo-Japanese War with truly horrible wounds that he always miraculously survived, even healing from what should have been fatal to any other man within a day. The fate of this incredibly triumphant soldier was an inglorious boot from the military due to gross misconduct (by his words, he “nearly killed an officer that pissed [him] off”); we meet him in the manga’s present day futilely panning a river in Hokkaido for gold while a drunkard rambles on the shore. The first pages of the manga, and the one above, were nightmares/flashbacks to his time in the war.
There’s a lot I could explain from hereon, since a lot is explained in this first chapter. I honestly don’t really want to since it’d be a pain (not a spoiler, since this is the premise), but I have to get some stuff across. Before I do, I’ll say that this first chapter had me hooked instantly to the series, even more when paired with chapter 2. The series is quick to get you interested in the main characters and the frankly crazy story. The setting isn’t one you see very often, the war discussed may be one you hadn’t really heard of, and, well, it has this kind of roller coaster pace that keeps up all the way to the conclusion of this introductory arc. I sometimes like to praise a manga for getting across everything it’s about in the first chapter. Golden Kamuy isn’t like that. For one, chapters 1 and 2 really feel like one chapter that had to be split because you usually can’t introduce your manga with an 80-page opening (which reminds me: this manga has a tendency to end chapters on “unusual” pages…you get used to it). For two, the true vibe and pace of Golden Kamuy takes a little while to settle in. This isn’t a bad thing though. Chapters 1 and 2 are kind of like how the series tends to feel when “shit pops off”, so in that regard it represents the series well. Essentially, it’s so damn exciting and fun you can’t help but want to keep reading.
Right, so, the premise. The premise of Golden Kamuy probably sounds complicated, but it’s pretty simple. Sugimoto is doing his useless thing out in Hokkaido, claiming that he needs money, when a drunk dude shares the legend that gets the series going. Basically, the Ainu (the native people of the island of Japan, like the Native Americans of…America) were gathering up a whole lot of gold (800,000,000 yen worth in modern currency, so like 8,000,000 USD) to buy weapons and rebel against their Japanese oppressors. One man murdered the hell out of all of them, stole/hid the gold, but was caught before he could get away and was thus thrown into the most secure and hardcore prison in Japan, Abashiri Prison. He devised a plan to tattoo his fellow inmates with a map that, should they escape, would lead them to the gold so long as they could find the people this guy wanted to get word to (at which point, he’d give up half the sum to the successful escapee). Soon enough, the guards and some greedy unit of the army figured out that the tattoos on the prisoners only made sense when the prisoners were together, so they gathered them all up to some remote location. Unsurprisingly the prisoners killed their captors and fled, scattering all throughout Hokkaido.
But wait, there’s more!
However before we get to more a small explanation of how our second protagonist gets caught up in this. See, Sugimoto ends up learning that the drunk who barfed that legend at him was actually one of the tattooed convicts, and he finds that out since after decking the guy with a rock said guy fucks off. Sugimoto finds him a minute later buried in a mysterious pile of snow. When he helps the guy out from there, he quickly learns that the man is dead, and that his stomach and guts have been removed.
Now if you’re an ignorant like me, your mind will probably start racing at this. Like, “did an insane killer scoop out his guts and bury him out in the open for talking too much?”, but the truth is quickly revealed that this is basically the “leftovers” of a brown bear attack. We learn that brown bears in Hokkaido will bury their kills if they can’t eat any more but want to save it for later. After this, Sugimoto sees the tattoo on the drunk’s body, gets excited since the legend is true, and drags the body away to prevent the bear from eating the tattooed man. After that a brown bear jumps out at him while he’s trying to get away, and then — then we meet Asirpa, who narrowly rescues Sugimoto from the bear.
Asirpa is obviously a very young girl, but she comes into the manga with a very level head, invaluable knowledge, and much-needed practical skill. She also comes with the final few revelations I must explain. Firstly, Asirpa confirms absolutely that the legend of the gold is true, as her father was one of the Ainu murdered for the treasure. Secondly, she discovers a twisty and screwy twist that I found morbidly delightful: the tattoos marked on the convicts bodies have been placed in a very specific way. They’re sectioned off and wrapped around in such a way that, clearly, you are not meant to just have the prisoners there to find the gold, you are meant to kill and skin them.
Chapter 1 ends with this revelation as well as the important revelation that the bear Asirpa killed is not the one that ate the drunkard; that bear is still out there and according to her must be particularly ferocious to have gone after a human (and indeed, we also see it cannibalizing a bear cub in the final pages). Brown bears also always, always come back for their stolen food or whoever it was that stole it so Sugimoto and Asirpa decide to take that bear on, aiming to kill it.
You may not believe it, but I actually didn’t summarize everything that happens in chapter 1. Still, that’s a lot huh? Yeah, a load of necessary information comes across and quickly in the introduction of this series, but it doesn’t feel like an exposition dump and it certainly never feels dull. Each little new bit of info feels just a little bit surprising, culminating in the extraordinarily dark full premise. That aside we have some displays of action — even more when we go on to chapter 2 — and though we don’t know much about her yet Asirpa has an intriguing, mysterious air to her. She also seems like a badass, which turns out to be true. Chapter 1 is like a pot rising to a boil, while 2 is like the lid just shot up through the ceiling.
It’s awesome. It barrels forward at this radical pace and leaves you satisfied at the finish.
Chapter 3 starts tiptoeing into “the usual Golden Kamuy” feeling with some survival facts and hints at what will be for dinner, but like hell I’m going to do chapter-per-chapter rundowns. We finally have a premise, so let’s talk about the manga in a more general sense.
Sugimoto and Asirpa decide to join forces officially after chapter 2. Sugimoto wants some (not all) of the gold because an old flame of his (who is also the widow of his best friend) has terrible eyes and his friend wanted to fix those for her (which would be expensive). Asirpa doesn’t want the gold, but wants to figure out who the person who killed her father was and hopefully rest assured that he’ll be executed. They have a decent bond to begin with, mutually respecting one another for bravery (Asirpa->Sugimoto) or ability (Sugimoto->Asirpa), but as time goes on they become true partners (which means more since they eventually have something of a traveling party).
When their third companion, Shiraishi Yoshitake, joins them, the manga is really in full swing, revealing that its “comedy” component is huge.
When we meet Sugimoto he seems like just a bit of a bumbling sort (at least when it comes to the wilds) who, despite that, is drenched and cloaked with death, and yet remains undying; a serious character. Similarly Asirpa comes across as a very subdued, proud and exotic type who’s no-nonsense and extremely practical; a serious character. Shiraishi is…hardly serious, I’ll say. He has a few — very few moments where something serious is happening with him but for the most part he is dedicated silly. By the time he shows up, we’ve also learned that both Sugimoto and Asirpa can be incredibly goofy. In fact, they usually are.
If I had to describe Sugimoto and Asirpa’s lighter elements, I’d say Asirpa can be very childish/vindictive (which makes sense, as she is a child, no matter how mature she seems in severe situations) and Sugimoto outside of battle or tension-filled atmosphere is, uh… a little meek and prissy, I suppose? Like how he doesn’t like killing innocent animals or eating strange animal parts. It’s quite hilarious when juxtaposed with just how scary he can be in other times.
Sugimoto and Asirpa stand out as particularly believable in Golden Kamuy‘s cast. The moments of levity add to that, and I’ll talk about it more later but Noda-sensei likes to play around with expectations and conventions for comedic effect, which works particularly well for our main characters. One small example is how Asirpa, who is a new generation Ainu, will interpret some tenets of Ainu belief. In one scene she might smartly analyze why certain legends and lessons are as they are in her culture, while in another she will frivolously cast aside her traditions, to which Sugimoto will react with concern.
And of course there is the fundamental tension between them in that, although they get along better and better over the course of the series, Sugimoto (being a soldier and thus a killer) regularly sees no issue in taking human life, whereas Asirpa wants to avoid killing people as often as possible, or otherwise avoid letting Sugimoto murder others. Basically, there’s a lot to them, as there is a lot to this manga. Their dynamic is interesting and you could read a hell of a lot into it, especially given Asirpa’s past/how Asirpa is a huntress even though Ainu women are never supposed to hunt (putting it really simply, Asirpa has a lot on her mind although she rarely shows it).
Now I won’t talk about him too much because there isn’t much to say, but let’s go over Shiraishi a bit.
Although he is a dumbass, a gambler, a louse; Shiraishi Yoshitake, The Escape King, is an invaluable asset to the crew.
Basically, his deal is that he’s one of the tattooed convicts, except his crime isn’t serious at all. He got jailed once for robbery and escaped. For escaping, he was jailed again, and again, and again. His sentence for prison escape eventually massively outweighed his original crime and he was sent to Abashiri Prison, where he couldn’t escape. Given this, you’d expect him to be quite silly, and he is.
His job for the vast majority of the series is to produce laughs by being an idiot, but when push comes to shove his uses are innumerable (he has many skills and tools to escape nearly any situation). I am fairly certain that Noda-sensei loves Shiraishi, for he is an endless well of comedy potential. Without giving much away, his uses of Shiraishi in the pursuit of laughs are…creative, to say the least.
And on that note I am going to talk a little more about Golden Kamuy‘s comedy, and the interesting ways Noda-sensei tries to make you laugh.
While a lot of Golden Kamuy‘s humor comes from character interaction and silly faces (and oh man, those faces… get to that in a bit) as well as “going there” when most stories wouldn’t, I would say just as much of the humor is…hm, I guess I’d call it “metatextual”. When I say “metatextual humor” I mean jokes that only work because of the medium, jokes that work in the context of typical conventions of fiction, and jokes that primarily work in an almost memetic sense from having seen certain things repeated several times over the series’ course. The above example is of a joke that only works because this is a manga. Here’s one of the “jokes” that, in my opinion, embodies all three kinds of “meta” humor.
This little funny repeats itself very often — pretty much whenever the gang is eating something new (I know I have not really talked about the cooking aspect yet). It, and pretty much all of the meta humor in this series, works particularly well since it isn’t explained at all. It’s “just funny”. When you begin Golden Kamuy, you probably wouldn’t expect such a funny/ridiculous series, but it’s like this a whole lot of the time and in so many ways. In that regard, I think some people could dislike this series since it’s not ALWAYS an action-packed, dark, crazy adventure, but is instead a manga that’s got a very quirky vibe and loves to put ridiculous faces on its characters that you’d probably never expect.
Well, more accurately it’s both: funny but also fucked up.
Action in the series tends to be either humans vs. humans or humans vs. animals, occasionally mixing it up where animals will suddenly come in on their own or animals will be used to devastate an enemy. Almost every engagement is incredibly brutal, sometimes to a really, really disgusting degree. I have no problem with it, despite not tending to like that kind of thing, since as one reader observed the series isn’t focused on gore and mostly employs a clean rather than a dirty art style.The impression of the series is therefore not near as grotesque as it could be. Furthermore, the action is always so vicious and ruthless and rushed — it’s too awesome to not like.
On that note: a little about the antagonists of the series. There are basically three “kinds” of enemies to Asirpa and Sugimoto’s group in Golden Kamuy: the tattooed convicts, the military unit that tried to round up the convicts and failed originally (the 7th Division — basically the best division of soldiers in the Japanese Army), and the remnants of the Bakumatsu and the Shinsengumi (special police for the old Tokugawa shogunate of Japan, which was silenced). The way they work is that, usually, a tattooed convict is up to some shit or minding their own business when rumors of their presence comes around. One of the groups seeking the gold (Sugimoto and co.’s included) will then try to get them. They don’t always skin them, however, and will settle on copying the tattoo instead if they want to keep the escapee alive. The process of trying to get the next tattoo usually is the basis of an arc (an arc that is usually off-the-wall and full of almost cinematic action), and of course the main goal of the series is getting all the tattoos and then finding the gold — at least at first.
The antagonists are all very interesting. Above is First Lieutenant Tsurumi, the man commanding the 7th Division. He is somewhat insane due to injuries sustained in battle, but he’s also very much a war hero. His command of the 7th was essential in finishing the Russo-Japanese War, but he’s been left very bitter about how that war was handled (the tactics he had to follow were extremely costly and he fought against their use, but in the end the 7th lost thousands of men — this is mainly the fault of the very real Siege of Port Arthur). He wants to use the gold to start an insurrection and a new government to repay the soldiers who are left, and were unfairly dishonored at the war’s end. His insanity makes him a very entertaining guy, but his best moments are surprises so I’ll leave seeing them to you. I like him, though he scares me.
This is Hijikata Toshizou, a real person who is larger than life in this manga. I don’t know how accurate his portrayal is in Golden Kamuy, but the merciless vice commander is almost stereotypically badass. With a sword in one hand and a gun in the other, he stylishly carves his way through battle and fiercely commands any men under him saying “if all you think about is survival then you may as well already be dead”. He’s old as hell but says and does tons of cool shit and acts like he’s in the prime of his life. He’s crazy. His goal, far as I can tell, is to reestablish “Ezo”, basically the name for Hokkaido from the Tokugawa regime. In pursuit of that goal, he seems ready to do just about anything, making him arguably more terrifying than Tsurumi. I must say, I’ve always been a fan of works that play with reality and fiction in this way — it almost gives the piece a “legendary” quality.
Both are joined by several other characters: a judoka, a Matagi hunter, a sniper, a samurai and so on. I’ll refrain from going into detail with them, but most of them are damn cool and some of them have genuine character arcs. The convicts, on the other hand, are all over the place, ranging from sickening to sympathetic. I think pretty much everyone likes this guy, for example:
He is a treasure.
Now then, I can finally start winding down on this series. Asirpa has a big, white wolf companion named Retar that helps her on his own whim (I posted him early in the article), and that kind of thing is always cool in my opinion. I also tend to like “native” cultures, myself, so Asirpa’s Ainu heritage is quite cool to me. The manga employs the actual Ainu language at times, either in full sentences or in vocabulary, and it’s quite obvious that the series is well-researched. If I recall correctly, Noda-sensei has an expert on Ainu culture helping him out.
Along with explanations from characters on many things, not only Ainu-related but just related to animals or to history in general, the series also has helpful info boxes that tell you more as you go along. This demonstrates that the whole of the manga is well-researched (Are you into guns? There’s gun trivia. Want to know about older cities in harsh, cold environments? You’ve got it. Combat tactics your thing? The authentic variety is on display). You actually learn quite a lot from this manga. Now, I won’t be giving it a proper and thorough look over, but the series also has plenty of survivalist techniques on display as well as, of course, cooking.
I’ll say it’s less about how you prepare these Ainu (and Japanese) dishes, but more like a tour of cuisine you may not ever try yourself.
And with that, I do believe I’ve gone over everything good about Golden Kamuy. I highly recommend it, of course.
The color pages look great… Also, the weird color pages (in old, stylish design) look great too.
Phew. I do hope all that was coherent.
The last thing I have to say is that the TL notes (translation notes) for this series are fantastic and thorough.
If a chapter contains some kind of reference, or a factoid, or whatever, most likely at the end of that chapter there will be a glossary page explaining stuff in a good amount of detail. Along with the information from the manga itself, the scanlation team’s job with the series practically makes Golden Kamuy a learning tool. It actually just so happens that every manga I’m reviewing this week has particularly amazing TL notes. Kooky!
That is all. Golden Kamuy is a manga that is fantastic on all fronts. Although it contains all these elements, they blend together excellently such that it doesn’t actually feel overwhelming. It’s just entertaining. Golden Kamuy is entertainment. Get to reading it and enjoy the ride.
See you next time when I talk about card games. Thanks for reading. Laters.