The Spring 2017 Manga Guide
Golden Kamuy Vol. 1
What's It About?
Golden Kamuy is an original manga by Satoru Noda. A historical adventure series, Golden Kamuy follows Saichi “Immortal” Sugimoto, a disgraced former soldier of the Russo-Japanese War seeking to make money to care for his friend's widow. Sugimoto learns of a thief who killed and stole gold from a group of Ainu, the indigenous people of the Hokkaido region. After hiding the gold, the thief was captured and imprisoned, and left directions to how to find the gold in a complex code tattooed across twenty-four inmates’ bodies. Sugimoto sets out to track down the escaped inmates through Japan's northern wilderness, aided by Asirpa, a young Ainu girl whose father was murdered by the thief. Together they struggle to survive while enduring the elements, wild bears, and others who seek the treasure themselves.
Golden Kamuy volume 1 (6/20/2017) is available for $12.99 from Viz Media.
Is It Worth Reading?
As much as I'd love to just spend the next three paragraphs gushing about the bear fight, there's so much else to mention that's great about this manga. Golden Kamuy begins by immediately jumping into a fight scene, setting the bar for all to follow with an intense, eye-catching, and brutal example of Sugimoto's actions during his time as a soldier. That type of opening might normally be a warning sign that the series is doomed to be nothing more than a gorefest, but it turns out to merely be a demonstration of the level of violence to come. Sugimoto is much cleverer and more resourceful than this one barbaric rampage would indicate, and most of the fight scenes in the series strike a nice balance between well-planned strategy and desperate struggle. Every fight is unique, pitting Sugimoto against a different type of foe each time and requiring him to fight in different ways.
The fights in Golden Kamuy are clearly its main selling point, but the manga hits every other note it goes for perfectly. The characters are basic but well-defined, with Sugimoto and Asirpa's interaction working especially well because of the balance of traits between the two of them. Despite the one being a former soldier and the other an adolescent, it's usually Sugimoto who's the idealist and Asirpa the pragmatist between them in a nice defiance of expectations. There's just the right amount of comic relief, which is actually really funny for a series that appears so grim at first. Lastly, the manga is extremely detailed, making note of all the minor issues that the two have to deal with in order to survive the wild, such as having shelter and hunting for food. If there's one problem with the series, and it's a minor one, it's that Noda can be a bit too eager to show off how much research he's done to create the manga. The series is interspersed with narration to explain the intricacies of characters’ actions, historical events, and traits of the Hokkaido area. This can be very helpful when it comes to explaining Ainu language and culture, but it's a bit annoying when, say, a snow drift happens, and there's a short paragraph explaining that, in places it snows a lot, snow drifts happen.
The series reads like a hybrid of standard adventure manga and gritty Western, which combined with a rarely-seen setting for popular manga makes Golden Kamuy a unique and thrilling entity. There's so much varied content packed into just the first volume, and yet as I reached the end I desperately wanted more. Anyone looking for a slightly more mature action-adventure series should definitely look into it.
Have you ever wondered what a Jack London novel would be like if it were set in Hokkaido? Well, wonder no more – Golden Kamuy is that book! Or at least its first volume is – Satoru Noda's series thus far hits on a lot of London's themes, from survival in the frozen north to hunting to a less than subtle recreation of scenes from “To Build a Fire.” The great thing is that it works – Noda's story feels less like an obvious rip-off and more like an ode to the old pulps in a way that's both exciting and a little nostalgic if that's your preferred era of adventure fiction.
What the story's really got going for it right now even if you aren't a fan of treasure-hunting adventure stories is that it's one of the only (if not the only) manga I've read to feature an Ainu protagonist. Former soldier Sugimoto, whose miraculous habit of surviving has earned him the infamous nickname of “Immortal Sugimoto,” teams up with Asirpa, a young Ainu woman. Sugimoto's pursuit of a long-lost trove of gold dovetails with Asirpa's desire for vengeance against the Japanese man who slaughtered her father for that gold in the first place, and the two realize that working together is going to be better for both of them. It helps that Sugimoto, despite his bloody past, is willing to respect Asirpa and learn from her – he even eats a raw squirrel brain to prove that he's not looking down on her. (Yes, this book can get gross.) That's a marked difference from the other Japanese people Asirpa interacts with in the city of Otaru, who feel that she can be treated poorly because she's “uncivilized.” Readers of American literature about the same time period (the early 20th century) will recognize this attitude, and it's an ugly one that we rarely see represented in historical manga. It also helps to remind us that Sugimoto has not been tainted by the violence he's seen (although he does show some signs of PTSD) and remains a kind man at heart – in fact, he's after the gold so that he can send his best friend's wife to America to receive medical treatment.
Golden Kamuy looks like it will explore the reasons why men search for gold alongside Ainu culture (specifically how to survive in the wilderness in winter), but also the effects of war on soldiers. Sugimoto and Asirpa run into an elite soldier from a much more ruthless unit and the man who is said to have started this whole mess with the gold may be a survivor of the Shinsengumi – another soldier. The art isn't shy about brutality, which may make this difficult for more squeamish readers (and if you disapprove of hunting, you may want to steer clear), but the Ainu aspects are beautifully rendered and the pages easy to read. If you're a Jack London fan or just looking for a grittier historical manga with a cultural edge, this one is worth checking out.
Golden Kamuy practically projects survivalism, greed, and bloodthirstiness off the page. The “Immortal” Saichi Sugimoto and young Ainu Asirpa make for an odd but effective pair in a series set almost exclusively in the freezing forests of the frozen landscapes of Hokkaido. In just one volume, there are ravenous bears, insatiable greed, and a mystery that can only be solved by flaying twenty-four men. (Or, if more kindhearted like the hero and heroine, simply copying the pattern tattooed into their skin.) The tension rarely lets up and although it gets a bit repetitive when Sugimoto and Asirpa run into one tattooed convict after another within a short span of time, there's no reason to want to get off this wild ride until the truth about the Ainu murders, the hidden gold, and the many people after it is all laid bare. Although the audience is thrown right into the tale unfolding, there are enough flashbacks to get a clear picture of Sugimoto, a man who does nearly anything to survive but won't kill in cold blood. (He will kill in self-defense.) There's a reason he wants a fortune so badly—and he's not greedy enough to even want a yen more than he needs to fulfill his goal. Intelligent, skilled in hunting, and a pragmatist, Asirpa makes for a likable match with Sugimoto once they vow to join forces to track down the gold. She's not as fleshed out as Sugimoto, nor does she seem to have any character flaws or weaknesses to speak of, but it is only the first volume, and there should be time to develop her yet.
Noda's style is highly detailed and realistic for the most part—with the exception of the characters’ traditionally manga-style faces. (Only Asirpa's is overly cute, in contrast to her serious personality.) While the pacing is often tight without moving along too quickly, it's regularly impeded by glaringly long omniscient narration that steps in to explain historical significance of the events as well as Ainu culture. On the one hand, this information only accentuates one's understanding of the narrative, but it does slow down the proceedings and seems rather clinical at times. It might have been best served as footnotes, like this type of information more often is classified as in manga. While Golden Kamuy isn't much of a character-driven story, the plot alone is intriguing enough to make for an unputdownable first volume.
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