Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
As Sugimoto and Asirpa continue on their journey to find the map to the lost gold, Sugimoto learns more about both the Ainu way of life and the motives of the men who are after him. Asirpa takes him to her village to rest, where he meets her grandmother and uncle. After he hears about her past, Sugimoto decides to leave the girl behind and continue alone – too bad Asirpa has other ideas.
This series has everything – fascinating Ainu culture, engrossing recipes and flavors, giant wolves, and a guy getting his face ripped off by an enraged bear. It's absolutely not for the faint of heart, because Satoru Noda pulls exactly zero punches when it comes to gore, but it's also a good adventure story in the vein of pulp magazines from the 1920s – clear-cut heroes and villains on an unbelievable journey through a frozen wilderness.
This second volume picks up after Sugimoto and Asirpa have both fought the first enraged bear of the series and realized that they're being followed by rogue soldiers. Of course, the soldiers are also looking for the tattooed skins that will lead to the hidden gold, but their motives are decidedly less pure than either Sugimoto's (eye surgery for his childhood sweetheart/friend's widow) or Asirpa's (revenge for her father) – they want to buy weapons in order to stage an uprising and take over Hokkaido. Their reasons are familiar: the men were heroes on the battlefield, fighting for Emperor and country, only to return and find that the lands they've been granted are worthless and their lives equally so. Rather than return as conquerors, they're considered extraneous in a society no longer at war. This hardship combined with PTSD (as well as a much more physical brain injury in the case of one man) has driven them to an extreme course of action. To a degree, it's an understandable journey – with mental healthcare all but nonexistent at the time, soldiers were essentially on their own to deal with their crippling issues. It's not hard to believe that a group would fall under the influence of a charismatic leader through the camaraderie they remembered from better days.
The contrast between these men and Sugimoto is striking, although it isn't dwelt on much in this volume. Sugimoto, perhaps by virtue of his astounding survival rate, is more concerned with other people, specifically his childhood love Ume, but it's also evident in how he acts around Asirpa, who he treats with both respect and kindness. When a tiny bear cub is orphaned, his first thought is to raise it and worry that Asirpa might want to eat it – he values life over death. To Asirpa, this sometimes seems like a sad lack of common sense, which makes their interactions highlights of the book. From her utter conviction that miso paste is poop (although why she thinks Sugimoto is carrying around a canister of poo she declines to say; maybe sisam are just gross that way in her mind) to her gleeful insistence that he eat the “best parts” of their prey, such as eyeballs and brains, when she knows it makes him uncomfortable, Asirpa is both a trickster child and a valuable ally. Of course, her granny thinks she's on the verge of becoming an unmarriable old maid (we don't have a firm age; my guess would be between thirteen and fifteen), and she sees Sugimoto as her last best chance at a grandson-in-law. Fortunately for all concerned, Granny only speaks the native Ainu tongue, so Sugimoto misses that part of his visit to the village – with Asirpa's help, of course.
The information about Ainu culture is another wonderful aspect of the volume. There's even more here than in volume one, and while at times it can feel like Noda wanders off track in his enthusiasm for the study, it's still fascinating. More importantly, it informs the title of the series – “kamuy” is the Ainu word for “god” (or something equivalent), so the title of Golden Kamuy indicates that everyone thinks they are chasing after something divine. But most of the kamuy we meet in this volume are animals or related to air or water – none of them belong to inanimate objects yet, and in fact Asirpa mentions that panning for gold is strongly discouraged because it pollutes the river. Therefore, it seems possible that this particular kamuy everyone is chasing is manmade – a substance imbued with power only because everybody thinks it possesses some. There may be a metaphor there for the “civilized” world versus cultures that live in more harmony with nature; historically speaking, finding gold where indigenous people live rarely turns out well.
Of course, alongside all of this history and anthropology is the kind of man versus other man versus nature story that helped make Jack London and James Oliver Curwood famous. Golden Kamuy reads like an illustrated combination of the two men's work – it has Curwood's respect for the natural world and people who live with it, combined with London's sense of gritty, blood-soaked adventure. Noda continues not to hold back on the violence, and there's a second man vs. bear scene that's much more of a win for the bear. Bullets tear through skulls, cranial fluid drips from open wounds, and a guy's face gets torn mostly off, leaving his exposed skull with his face flapping by a scrap of skin like a mask. It's gross, but it does serve the style of the story, so it doesn't feel too gratuitous.
If you're in the mood for something dark, bloody, and surprisingly anthropological, Golden Kamuy's second volume will continue to be just that. Asirpa isn't the kind of heroine who will stand meekly by while Sugimoto tries to be noble, and the bad guys are not going to give up just because Sugimoto refuses to die when they kill him. Plus there's a giant wolf who likes tummy rubs. What more could you want in an adventure story?
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A-
+ Great details in the art, some nice moments of humor, good action, use of gore, and information about Ainu culture
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