Golden Kamuy
Episode 16

by Rose Bridges,

How would you rate episode 16 of
Golden Kamuy (TV 2) ?

With a title like "The Great Plan to Infiltrate the Asahikawa 7th Division!!" (complete with exclamation points!!) you'd expect a lot more plot movement than we actually get this week. Episode 16 fully lives up to its title in that there's a lot more planning than actual infiltrating. Still, it's a pretty thrilling quarter-hour of planning, and even if all the characters end up in the same places they started (including poor Shiraishi), it's a harbinger of more excitement to come.

The episode bounces between our two main factions: Sugimoto/Hijikata's and Tsurumi's. (There's a brief detour to talk about Cikapasi's little found family, who are obviously going to become more Important as the story goes on.) This has been the case with most of the series so far, with a few episodes that zero in on one group over the other. What struck me about Golden Kamuy is how well it balances its moral universe with fleshing out its large and growing cast of characters. The show has done everything it can to make Tsurumi as interesting as possible, and I didn't always feel that way in past reviews. Still, you're never unsure of who you're "supposed to" root for among the characters. Tsurumi and Hijikata's motives are understandable, but not as sympathetic compared to Sugimoto and Asirpa's. They're still fundamentally twisted in their own ways, but we love learning more about Hijikata and especially Tsurumi's twistedness.

Case in point is the introduction of Lt. Gen. Anisaka in one of the 7th Division scenes. Anisaka is a genius weapons creator, and he's arrived with some new guns for Tsurumi's group. (He even makes a gun out of Nikaidou's new leg!) While Anisaka and Tsurumi joke about whether Anisaka's line of work is "cursed" or "beautiful", Sgt. Tsukishima begins to piece together a darker side of the 7th Division's goal. This is especially true after Anisaka reveals Tsurumi's previously secret goal of wanting to create poppies that survive in cold weather, all the better for making money off opium. Tsukishima realizes that centering Hokkaido's economy around items needed for war—guns for killing or morphine for wounded soldiers—would only mean bigger wars. It's dark enough subtext if you know what's to come in the 20th century, but also what happened before the events of the show. Golden Kamuy spells out that parallel for us when they mention how Britain's part in the opium trade had turned public opinion against it. What Tsukishima predicts is exactly what had happened in China throughout the 19th century, with Western imperialistic influence over the opium trade resulting in two wars. More recent to the time of Golden Kamuy was the Boxer Rebellion against that influence.

It's a reminder that Golden Kamuy is an explicitly anti-war narrative. For all that it revels in blood and gore, it's also clear that war has a destructive force on everyone involved. This can be forgotten sometimes because Golden Kamuy has such a dark sense of humor, which is on full display this week. After Tsurumi waxes rhapsodic about the "beauty" of blood spurting on the battlefield, Anisaka tells him that he's messed-up in the head. Tsurumi cheerfully responds that this is true, because he doesn't have his frontal lobe! These moments can seem like they make light of topics like war-induced brain injury, but the jokes also starkly remind us of the cost war has had even on its strongest proponents. Dark humor more often than not is a way for us to process the upsetting sides of life, and I think that Golden Kamuy's jokes follow in that tradition.

On Sugimoto and Hijikata's side of things, most of the episode is spent trying to rescue Shiraishi. While a lot of the group finds him irritating and might prefer not to have him around, Sugimoto disagrees, and they all realize he's still pretty useful even if they've traced his tattoos. He's the only one who can get them into Nopperabo, after all. The first attempt to rescue him is unfortunately met with failure, largely because of Shiraishi's lingering guilt about betraying Sugimoto, which keeps him from taking Kiroranke's offer of rescue quick enough. The 7th Division finds him anyway, and the group needs to find a new ally to help them break him out of Asahikawa. That comes in the form of Suzukawa, a "marriage fraudster" and another tattooed convict. They need to find someone who's important enough to gain that information about Shiraishi's location, without being so high up that he'd be instantly recognizable. They find the right guy in Hijikata's old enemy, the warden Inudou, and Suzukawa convincingly fakes him.

There are more reminders of how Sugimoto and Asirpa are slightly more "moral" than the rest of the group. While they disguise Suzukawa, Asirpa gets sleepy and winds up nodding off on Hijikata's lap. This causes Sugimoto to recognize Hijikata as the man in the herring longhouse and therefore realize Shiraishi's betrayal. Kiroranke says he thinks Shiraishi expects Sugimoto to kill him for it, and everyone else agrees that this is the sensible thing for Sugimoto to do once they find him. But Asirpa wakes up and reminds Sugimoto that he shouldn't kill anyone he doesn't need to, and while Sugimoto looks conflicted over it, I'm guessing he'll probably choose Asirpa's side over propagating more violence.

For all it gets done this week, perhaps the most important part of this episode of Golden Kamuy is how much it excites me for the rest of this season. The first few episodes felt like they were going through the motions, starting right where the last season stopped with no attempt to remind us why we were here. There are fewer and less-glaring animation mistakes, but other than that, not much change from what came before. While episode 16 is ultimately just more setup, its new developments pop with the action, thoughtfulness, and humor that initially got me invested in this series. Golden Kamuy is always full of new plot twists, but now that energy extends to the show as a whole.

Rating: A

Golden Kamuy is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

Rose is a Ph.D. student in musicology, who recently released a book about the music of Cowboy Bebop. You can also follow her on Twitter.

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