The Spring 2018 Anime Preview Guide
Golden Kamuy

How would you rate episode 1 of
Golden Kamuy ?

What is this?

In November 1904, during the Russo-Japanese War, Saichi Sugimoto earned the nickname “Immortal Sugimoto” by surviving a charge on entrenched Russians during the pivotal Battle of 203 Meter Hill. Acting on a promise to a friend, he heads to Hokkaido to pan for gold and pay for medical attention that his friend's wife needs. There he hears a curious story about stolen Ainu gold, hidden away with the only clue to its whereabouts tattooed on the backs of escaped prisoners. Saichi doesn't believe the story until he actually discovers the tattoos on one such man after his death. While fending off a bear attack, Saichi also encounters the Ainu girl Asirpu, whose father was slain when their gold was stolen. As they work together to kill a man-eating bear who's after the prisoner's corpse, Saichi offers to team up with Asirpu to find the lost gold for both their sakes. Golden Kamuy is based on a manga and streams on Crunchyroll, Mondays at 12:30 PM EST.

How was the first episode?

Rebecca Silverman

Rating: 4

One of the most engaging elements of the original Golden Kamuy manga is how well it captures the feel of the old pulp adventure stories. From the fact that Sugimoto is a former soldier to the legend of gold in the rivers of Hokkaido and The One Big Haul, fans of authors like Jack London, James Oliver Curwood, and H. Rider Haggard can find a lot to like. So far that's true of the anime as well – albeit in a somewhat condensed form, which you may not even notice if you haven't read the source material. It's still got all of those classic pulp adventure elements, plus two exciting bear fights. (With a third in the offing a few episodes down the line, if you really like bear fights.) So far, Golden Kamuy appears capable of living up to its manga.

It is significantly less gross than the original, which for some viewers may make it an easier watch. Not that it's ever fun to see guys bayoneted through the face or an evil bear kill a cub, but the toning down of the manga does work to still convey the sense of lawlessness needed without reveling in gore. The scenes of the Russo-Japanese War are the grimmest thus far, with both bear battles staying relatively clean, and even Asirpa's butchering scenes being mostly bloodless. There are a few good details left to drive the point home, such as the condition of the photo Sugimoto has of his friend's family and the juxtaposition between he and Toraji sitting in the trench and what was really going on, nightmare style. For the most part, however, this is pretty cleaned up.

This is very much a set-up episode, introducing us to Sugimoto, the concept of the skin map to the gold, and Asirpa, and it does a good job of making things appealing. While there is a bit of the exotic Other to Asirpa, her practicality that at this point looks like badassery to Sugimoto is impressive, and it's neat to hear the Ainu language spoken aloud, with clear effort made to use its hard consonants. Sugimoto's supposed immortality isn't much touched on, but he does use it to his advantage in a confrontation, and it's clear that he's not entirely sure whether or not it's a real thing – and that he might feel some serious survivor's guilt either way. Both this and the tragedies of Asirpa's father and the treatment of the Ainu (briefly mentioned in the opening voice over) give the story firm ground to build on.

The visuals aren't terrific, which is a disappointment, with the major sticking point being the animals. They're obviously rendered in CG, presumably with the intent of making them look more realistic, especially the bears. It kind of works, but mostly it just feels awkward, and given the role that animals play in the early part of the story, that's not great. All in all, though, Golden Kamuy is off to a good start, and I'm looking forward to seeing if it continues in that vein.

James Beckett

Rating: 4

Golden Kamuy is the kind of show that gets a whole mess of brownie points from me based purely on the strength of its setting and premise. Exploring conflicts such as the Russo-Japanese War in Meiji-era Japan is already a strong enough pitch, but then we meet our protagonist, a veteran named Saichi Sugimuto, nicknamed “the Immortal” for his fearsome prowess in battle, who winds up hunting for the map to a secret treasure that's been tattooed on the backs of escaped criminals. This premise is astoundingly cool, and it only gets better when you toss in what the Ainu girl Asirpa adds to the mix. Altogether, we have a promising setting populated with immediately interesting characters following one heck of a badass plotline. That easily earns Golden Kamuy my attention.

On a purely script-related level, this premiere lives up to the promise set up by Golden Kamuy's opening moments. Saichi makes for an excellent protagonist, a genuinely decent man who's trying to do right by his deceased friend's family and earn some extra coin, but he's also capable of engaging in exceptional violence if necessary. Asirpa is a little more enigmatic, but she's immediately intriguing in representing a minority demographic in Japan, the indigenous Ainu. So far she's mostly just shared esoteric hunting knowledge and bits of Ainu trivia, which leaves me a little worried that she could be treated the same way that American media treats Native characters. But there's also a spark of personality and hardened determinism to her character that is admirable in its own right, especially when you play her pacifism against the ease with which Saichi is willing to skin fools for the pieces to the treasure map.

The visuals are where we run into problems. The horrendous CGI bear that serves as this episode's major antagonistic force has already become something of a meme for good reason, because it's one of the more downright embarrassing uses of CG I've seen all season, with Fist of the Blue Sky being the only worse example I can think of. Outside of the bear, however, dubious aesthetic elements run rampant, from the conspicuous use of computer-generated fire to the generally stilted quality of the character art. The two-dimensional animation isn't bad, but it is inconsistent, never straying too far off model but varying wildly in the effectiveness of its color palette and cinematography.

With all of that, you'd think my score would be lower, but the story that runs through these haphazard visuals is just so damned cool that I can't help but remain enthusiastic for whatever comes next. Some series need stellar visuals to properly function within their chosen genre; Golden Kamuy could certainly benefit from a slicker coat of paint, but I'm more than willing to forgive less-than-stellar artwork in this case. We'll see if that lenience will last all season, but for now I'm keeping a close eye on Golden Kamuy.

Paul Jensen

Rating: 4

This is starting to look like a good season for gritty action shows. Between Golden Kamuy and Megalobox, we've now had a couple of strong premieres boasting intensely physical fight scenes. Despite its Japanese setting, the first episode of Golden Kamuy reminds me of a gritty Western film (the genre, not the geographic region). We've got a tough ex-soldier back from a war, a tall tale about a fortune in gold, and an indigenous girl who reluctantly agrees to join him in his quest for the treasure. Swap out Hokkaido for the American Southwest and you've got yourself a John Wayne movie. It's a style and tone we don't often see in anime, and that fresh approach is backed up by strong writing and direction.

Over the course of this episode, Saichi finds a comfortable middle ground between “indestructible badass” and “sympathetic human being.” He's strong and confident enough to fit his role as the unstoppable protagonist without being boring in his invincibility; we're given the impression that he's genuinely worried about fighting the man-eating bear, but he still manages to kill it in spectacular fashion. He also has a relatively noble motivation for wanting to get rich quick, which makes it easier to root for him. Asirpa is impressively competent as well, though her late arrival in this episode means that there's not much time to develop her personality beyond “straightforward survivor.” That said, her moral stance on killing people looks like it could make her a good foil for Saichi's ruthless pragmatism. Given a little more downtime to get to know one another, the two of them should easily develop into a charismatic leading duo.

Golden Kamuy also does a good job of establishing the stakes of the gold hunt early on. The premise of the coded prison tattoos is grim enough on its own, and having Saichi's mining buddy try to kill him after telling the story confirms both its credibility and the lengths to which people will go to acquire the treasure. The subsequent fights with the two bears are an intense and compelling way of showing that nature itself will be a powerful antagonist, though I'm a little disappointed by the use of CG animation for the animals. It's not bad, but it doesn't measure up to the production values in the rest of the episode.

This looks very much like the dark and visceral story it's been built up as, and while that tone won't necessarily work for everyone, it has me hooked. The core narrative is simple yet engaging, and the show has done a good job of presenting the life-or-death stakes without wallowing too much in blood and gore. I'm hoping future episodes will develop the protagonists' personalities alongside their survival skills, but I already like both of them well enough to be emotionally invested in their journey.

Theron Martin

Rating: 4.5

Golden Kamuy was one of my most anticipated shows of the season, as I was greatly looking forward to how it would combine its Russo-Japanese War background with Ainu heritage. With the exception of one issue, the first episode doesn't disappoint. It's sharp pacing quickly establishes an intriguing premise, engaging characters, and thrilling action scenes, all backed by generally strong technical merits. If this is a sign of things to come, then I could easily see this being one of the biggest non-sequel hits of the season.

For all my heightened expectations, the first episode still surprised me with how engaging Saichi was as a protagonist. During the opening battle sequence, he gives the initial impression of being a gung-ho soldier, but as the episode progresses, it becomes clear that Saichi simply possesses a fierce love for life in general. His commitment to doing what he can for his fallen friend's wife, his remarks about having first-class accommodations in hell, and his quick realization that most of the gold should go to Asirpu and her people speak well to his heart of gold; even his decision to skin a man's corpse for his tattoo comes across as a matter of practicality rather than cruelty. By comparison, the more dry-witted Asirpu doesn't have much personality yet, but she'll be able to get by for a while on her combination of cuteness and badassery. The story will have to be careful about using her as an exposition mouthpiece, but at least she and Saichi have already got a solid rapport going.

This feeds into the other strong draw of this episode, which is how well these two work together from the start. Neither is stupid or prejudiced enough not to acknowledge the capabilities of the other, and both quickly take advantage of their advantages as a team, such as in the climactic bear fight where Asirpu trusts Saichi to take the kill shot under pressure. That kind of attitude is refreshing, and I definitely look forward to seeing more of it. The series also works well as action-adventure, with the promise of much more excitement to come in the pursuit of the golden treasure. The little details about Ainu culture are also neat, and the portrayal of the Battle of 203 Meter Hill is accurate to historical accounts.

The visuals, though mostly sharp, are a mixed bag. Asirpu might be the character design highlight of the season, with her compact frame and distinctive clothing, but the wolf is also well-drawn and animated. The big issues comes from the bears. Their detailed CG models don't integrate with the regular animation well at all, and they're even more incongruous with the 2D wolf. Still, everything else is done well enough by Geno Studio (Kokkoku, Genocidal Organ) that I'm willing to tolerate it for now. Sadly, we'll have to wait until next episode for the opener by MAN WITH A MISSION.

So in short, there are a couple of worrisome quirks in this premiere, but otherwise this is probably going to be one of my top-priority views for the season.

Nick Creamer

Rating: 3

You know, up until this moment in life, I realize I've never had a least favorite bear. There have been bears I've been fond of and bears I've disliked, but no single bear has ignited my ire enough to clearly distinguish itself as the worst bear in my life. On this day, that changes. Today, the bear from Golden Kamuy earns the unqualified honor of being my least favorite bear.

I was relatively excited for Golden Kamuy heading into this season. I'd only read a couple chapters of the manga, but those chapters were good, and the combination of strong recommendations from friends and the presumed quality of this adaptation had me excited for more Hokkaido adventures. Unfortunately, while the story of Golden Kamuy is still engrossing, the visual quality of this adaptation leaves a lot to be desired.

The biggest issue here is the show's incredibly ill-fitting CG animals. Not only are they just unconvincing CG models, but they also clash terribly with Kamuy's traditionally animated characters and more fancifully illustrated background art. The fight with a bear that should be this episode's highlight is a maddening mix of solid pacing, excellent quips, energetic framing, and incredibly intrusive, mood-destroying CG. A pox upon your house, terrible CG bear.

It's not all the CG's fault, though. Golden Kamuy also suffers from a generally conservative adaptation, which seems to prefer following the manga panel-by-panel over translating Kamuy into a style more suitable to animation. This choice leads to a lot of stiff shots of flatly-shaded characters talking, which means a fair amount of this episode is just not visually interesting. There are some inspired single shots, but many of this episode's scenes felt like wasted potential to me, with the occasional glimmers of the stark reality these characters inhabit only underlining the fact that the show itself is no more visually energetic than a multi-camera sitcom.

Even for all that bellyaching, I'm still giving Golden Kamuy a tentative recommendation. Visual failings aside, this is still a pretty gripping story, and the tactically-focused nature of Saichi and Asirpa's fight with the Worst Bear Ever gives me great hope for the journey to come. If you can grab the manga, that's almost certainly the definitive way to experience this story. Otherwise, a good story told poorly still isn't the worst thing.

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