Golden Kamuy
Episode 17

by Rose Bridges,

How would you rate episode 17 of
Golden Kamuy (TV 2) ?

Golden Kamuy sure knows how to juggle a diverse array of moods. In the last few minutes of this episode, we get one of the series' most tender moments, as Sugimoto reminisces about the effect war has on soldiers and what he left behind when he went off to fight. Asirpa talks about wanting to go to his homeland to try the food he likes—dried persimmons—while Sugimoto finally cries. Then, after the ending credits, we get a brief shot of Shiraishi awakening confused in a deer butt. If that juxtaposition isn't the essence of Golden Kamuy, I don't know what is.

If only the show could learn how to juggle other aspects so well—namely the animation. While the show still has a lot of the animation struggles that plagued its first half, it's generally getting better at making them less noticeable. Its action scenes have generally become much more watchable, but that wasn't the case this week, with the fight between Lt. Tsurumi's forces and Sugimoto's group trying to escape on a hot air balloon delivering glaringly off-model characters in the foreground. Poor Lt. Koito's unusually handsome face should have fared better. At least he got some good close-ups when he was standing still.

Anyway, it's exciting to see language and cultural differences become the focus this week from a new region of Japan. Satsuma is now part of Kagoshima Prefecture in Kyushu, but it had been its own province before the Meiji Restoration, only a few decades before the events of this story. Disaffected samurai in Satsuma fought a failed rebellion in 1877 against the Meiji government. The region is known in Japan for its sweet potatoes, pottery and Mandarin oranges—often called "satsumas." It's interesting how Lt. Koito is portrayed as having darker skin than the other characters. I wonder if that's meant to indicate that he's from further south; it's not something you see so much in anime depictions of modern characters living in Kyushu. Perhaps it's to suggest he's related to the Ryukyuan people, since Satsuma Domain controlled some northern Ryukyu Islands beginning in 1609.

Either way, I hope the Satsuma dialect continues being part of Golden Kamuy. Also called the Kagoshima dialect, it's mutually unintelligible even to other Kyushu dialects—which differ enough on their own from standard Japanese. I had predicted that Suzukawa would be able to understand the dialect when it suddenly became important for him to do so, since the guy seems to constantly have more tricks up his sleeve, but I knew it wouldn't be so easy for them to get out of there. So while him suddenly giving a wrong answer felt like a surprise, it wasn't a major one. He's not a character I can say I'm sorry to see go, since he was never developed beyond being the ace up Hijikata's sleeve, and as Sugimoto says to Asirpa later, he's clearly a "bad man." There are far more interesting bad men for us to follow in this story.

Sugimoto's insight into those "bad men" in his final scene with Asirpa cements my view of Golden Kamuy as an anti-war story. Sugimoto basically tells Asirpa that you have to sacrifice some of your humanity in order to successfully go to war—if not that, then the humanity of others. He had to see the Russians as just "bad men" in order to be able to kill them and survive without going insane, even though he must have rationally known that they were as little at fault for the conflict as he was. She asks if people can go back to the way they were, and Sugimoto thinks they might be able to, if they come home to their families. But we know from this show that some of them can't do that. Some of the men stuck in the war who are now in Hokkaido did try to go back and couldn't. War destroys the humanity of the winners too, not just the bodies stacked up on the battlefield. Most of Sugimoto and Asirpa's enemies, and even some of their allies, are just deeply damaged by the war. Some of the war's impact is more direct—like Lt. Tsurumi's head injury that affects his brain—and some less so. Sugimoto's friendship and paternal role toward Asirpa suggests a possibility of redemption for him.

Another cool theme in this episode is the presence of the Ainu kamuy, which allows the story to indulge in magical realism with them. It leaves you unsure how much Shiraishi's brief bout of madness is due to hypothermia, which can lead to confusion or even paradoxical undressing, and how much is due to possession by the Pawci Kamuy that Asirpa describes. On the other hand, the similarity to hypothermia symptoms is likely why the Ainu developed that legend, as a supernatural explanation for natural phenomena. However, there have been times that Golden Kamuy pushed the limits of its realism in ways that make you question what you're seeing. Shiraishi's symptoms do seem to progress quickly compared to everyone else, after all. At least he snaps out of it as soon as he warms up inside that deer carcass.

There's a lot to unpack in this episode, which testifies to the richness of Golden Kamuy's story. I haven't even gone into the reveal about Shiraishi's "betrayal," and the significance of Sugimoto taking a bullet for him after many episodes of Shiraishi fearing he'd kill him. And Lt. Tsurumi is barely in this episode, but so much of its thematic subtext is about him. The story of this show continues to be compelling, so it's too bad that it struggles to translate this material into fluid animation.

Rating: B+

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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