Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Golden Kamuy Season One [Limited Edition]
Once known as the “Invincible Sugimoto” for his feats in the Russo-Japanese War, Saichi Sugimoto now spends his days panning for gold in the frigid north, seeking his fortune in order to pay old war debts. But one day, a drunken prisoner tells him of a story that might be the answer to his prayers - a story of stolen Ainu gold, a dramatic prison break, and a map split into a series of tattoos, spread across a group of desperate, dangerous criminals. Joining together with the young Ainu woman Asirpa, Sugimoto will hunt these criminals, and work to reconstruct the map they share. But Sugimoto is not the only person seeking gold in Hokkaido - and some debts can only be repaid in blood.
The Golden Kamuy anime arrived on a wave of buzz and anticipation, courtesy of its popular original manga. Though Kamuy is generous in its fight scenes and propulsive in its plotting, its distinctive setting and dramatic priorities set it apart from its genre contemporaries. Far more grounded in history than much action manga, Kamuy takes place in the chilly forests of northern Hokkaido, just after the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War. And Kamuy doesn't just use its setting and historical moment as window dressing - it's a genuine period piece, committed to exploring the culture and worldviews of the time, and uniquely invested in the lifestyles of Japan's Ainu population. But first of all, what is Kamuy actually about?
Golden Kamuy is centered on Saichi Sugimoto, a man also known as the “Invincible Sugimoto” for his exploits in the Russo-Japanese War. Having returned to civilian life without a penny to his name, and committed to caring for the wife and child of an old war companion, he's reduced to panning for gold in the Hokkaido forest - until a drunken escapee tells him of a cache of stolen Ainu gold, and a map tattooed across the backs of other escaped prisoners. Thus begins a combined treasure and manhunt across the northern reaches of Japan, as Sugimoto is joined by a young Ainu hunter named Asirpa, and they work to track down the fleeing prisoners, and ultimately the gold itself.
As I mentioned, much of what makes Golden Kamuy unique comes down to its cultural inquisitiveness. Sugimoto and Asirpa's relationship is central to Kamuy's appeal, and a great deal of their bonding is conveyed through Asirpa introducing Sugimoto to the mechanics of not just Ainu hunting, but also fashion, cuisine, spirituality, and much else besides. Golden Kamuy features lengthy sequences dedicated to exploring traditional Ainu culture, and though the show can at times feel a little labored in its historical exposition, the overall effect results in an informative story with a rich sense of place, and a cast of characters who feel genuinely attached to their homes and family.
At the same time, Golden Kamuy is also a punchy action vehicle. The show's initial prisoner-hunting conceit offers a natural opportunity to create engaging monster-of-the-week conflicts, as Sugimoto, Asirpa, and their growing team of compatriots work to track down individual escapees, each with their own distinctive personalities and talents. Drawn from town to town by the hunt for map fragments, Kamuy falls naturally into the classic “quest shonen” sphere of stories like Fullmetal Alchemist, InuYasha, or Coffin Princess Chaika.
Kamuy's writing elevates it above your average shonen, though, with the story featuring strong character writing, ambitious plotting, and even some things to say about the nature of war. Sugimoto is not the only person seeking the Ainu gold - as the season progresses, we're introduced to both a violent splinter group of the official Japanese army, and even a third group led by a former Shinsengumi commander.
The show eventually builds up to an ambitious web of characters with both contrasting and overlapping motivations, embracing the complexity of its characters' ties to both their current organizations and original homes. This complex stew of variables naturally points to the impossibility of returning to your former self after undergoing something as devastating as wartime service; simultaneously, Satoru Noda's plotting makes terrific use of all these contrasting forces, with episodes like the “murder mystery house” highlight demonstrating great cleverness in their construction and contrasting of characters. That episode also demonstrates another of Kamuy's strengths: its humor. Characters in this show have genuine chemistry, jokes are rarely overplayed, and though the expression work can't match up to the specificity of the source manga, Kamuy is still a highly expressive show.
Now here's the bad news: though Golden Kamuy's characters and narrative are excellent, its visual production is tragically mediocre. The show's animation is completely bare-bones, and there are virtually no genuinely impressive cuts of action animation across this season's entire run. Its backgrounds and art design are also strictly functional, with scenes generally striving for simply clarity, and rarely approaching genuine beauty. There's also no real directorial vision here, either; it always feels clear that rather than attempt to take advantage of the unique strengths of animation, Kamuy is simply translating the manga panel by panel.
At times, the anime's production falls short of “strictly functional” and into “actively distracting,” like with the horrendous CG bear from the very first episode. But CG bears aside, there's frankly not one action scene within this action series that looks genuinely good - it's largely a series of static images, carried entirely by the story's strong characters and plotting.
Fortunately, those narrative elements really do carry a lot of weight. Golden Kamuy is cleverly constructed, brimming with interesting characters, and given a sense of poignant emotional consequence through its consistent interrogation of the lingering horrors of war. Sugimoto is “powerful” in a way that never feels joyous or fantastical - he and his fellow seekers of glory have been deeply scarred by their past, and some of this show's finest sequences capitalize on how Asirpa and the rest of his new family are truly giving him a path forward. Visual frustrations aside, Kamuy is a just plain excellent story.
Golden Kamuy comes in a sturdy chipboard case, which also houses a character postcard and generous art book. Along with plentiful character and background art, this art book also features a variety of interviews with the show's cast, along with a round table featuring both the director and the voices of the two leads. There's also a discussion of the adaptation process with character designer Kenichi Onuki, and even a series of brief comments from the show's side cast, as they explain their own impressions of their characters. Finally, in keeping with the show's general fascination with and respect for Ainu culture, the art book features an overview of the Ainu people written by Hiroshi Nakagawa, a professor and expert in Ainu culture, as well as a glossary of Ainu terms and other historical references.
The extra features continue on the discs themselves, which feature not just commercials and commentary tracks, but also a series of anime shorts based on the original manga's chapter intros, which give the show's endearing cast a chance to enjoy some less high-stress adventures. And of course, there's also an included dub, lead by convincing performances from both Ian Sinclair and Monica Rial. All in all, this limited release is an excellent collection that absolutely does this fascinating show justice.
On the whole, Golden Kamuy is an entertaining and smartly written show that I certainly recommend, even in spite of its visual weaknesses. While it's disappointing to consider the truly great show this could have been, a great story told plainly is still a fine experience. From its interesting cultural insights to its charming cast and cleverly tangled narrative web, there's a whole lot to enjoy here, and a fascinating larger story yet to be told. If you're interested in a uniquely thoughtful sort of action drama, give Golden Kamuy a shot.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : A-
Animation : C
Art : B-
Music : B
+ An inventive and smartly written adventure with a terrific cast of characters, and a welcome fascination with its cultural context and historical moment.
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