Golden Kamuy
Episode 21

by Rose Bridges,

How would you rate episode 21 of
Golden Kamuy (TV 2) ?

Golden Kamuy has a real knack for balancing the deadly serious and the deeply silly. The last few episodes have been an especially good case of this, ramping up the story's drama with some goofy moments of nudity and crude humor. Manga author Satoru Noda did supposedly say in an interview that the thing he wanted to emphasize most in his series was "the beautiful naked bodies of men," and it appears these last couple of episodes are trying their best to deliver on that front.

It helps that we finally get a reprieve from some of the main drama this week. There is one brief important scene about Wilk—more on that later—but the rest is basically a side story. Or so it seems, since it turns out that this latest small-time villain also has a connection to the larger story. Of course our characters can't even battle some bandits without finding out that the leader of their group is yet another tattooed Abashiri convict. Still, this group has an especially interesting story that plays into the larger socio-political drama of Hokkaido in the early 20th century.

To learn more about them, the gang need to stop at an onsen first. This is where all the essential, Male Ass comes in. Big burly muscle men do absolutely nothing for me, but I'm sure this moment relaxing in the onsen is a treat for those who feel differently—like Satoru Noda himself. Regardless of whether the persistent rumors that he spent his long career gap in the world of gei comi are true, the influence of this genre over Noda's art in these sections is obvious. Gei comi, unlike yaoi or BL, is aimed specifically at gay men, so it tends to feature bulkier and hairier body types, rather than the lithe bishonen of boys-love. So all the attention paid to these guys' beefy muscles is par for the course. If things get to be too much, they can always rely on the series' old censorship standby of Shiraishi's face. In Tanigaki's case, we also get an incredibly unsubtle mushroom.

You can't linger away from the plot for too long though, and pretty soon the bandits come knocking to force all the naked guys out of the hot spring. (That means if you're into all this male nudity, it continues even during the action scenes.) What's so remarkable about this group is that all of them are blind, due to the effects of sulfur gas on Mount Iwo. Warden Inudou insisted on using convicts to mine the sulfur there, despite the dangers forcing the prison to close the operation. All of Toni's men are escaped convict miners, swearing revenge on the wardens, especially Inudou, who cost them their eyesight.

They're fearsome and capable thanks to using a system of echolocation that involves clicking their tongues, and they seem to have developed their other senses as well—smelling blood from far away almost like a hound dog would. It is true that blind people are able to strengthen their other senses to get around in the world, so I thought this was a pretty innovative way to feature characters with a disability, giving them an asset over sighted people in this action-adventure show. Our heroes aren't able to anticipate the way that sound can be used to detect location until they're forced to outrun these guys just to survive. But how well can you hide or flee when your enemy can hear your every footstep and smell your blood? This idea of disability enabling people to adapt in unanticipated ways is something I wish I saw more of in media. All the same, it makes sense that Toni Anji and his group would so deeply resent the people who forced them into this position.

Besides Toni Anji being yet another tattoo-bearer, this crew is important for further illustrating the desperation and desolation of Hokkaido during this frontier era. Inudou seems like a particularly twisted bastard, but the idea of mining natural resources by any means necessary was common in areas of the world affected by sudden discoveries like this. It created an underclass, similar to the mistreatment of ex-soldiers that Golden Kamuy has explored in the past. Convicts were seen as disposable at the time, with no rights of their own. Inudou being able to secretly continue a project deemed too unsafe even for them isn't surprising—not many people were concerned enough to rein him in. Unfortunately, Toni Anji and the other convicts get caught in the crossfire and end up having to pay for their crimes long after their release via permanent disfigurement. It's not unlike how all the Abashiri convicts have their own wounds, but the others seem to be more psychological.

Speaking of disfigurement, we get another clue that Nopperabo may be Wilk, though it requires some reading between the lines of Inkarmat's recollections and near-death experience. Any time "death" isn't used as an exact word in a story like this, it's usually purposeful misdirection toward something else. When Inkarmat first parted ways with Wilk, he had given her his mother's shawl to identify her next time he saw her. However, Inkarmat predicted that she would never see Wilk's face again. She took this to mean that one of them would die first, and as she seems to be drowning, she thinks this is the death that she predicted. (Curiously, this suggests that despite what she told Asirpa last week, Inkarmat thinks Wilk might still be alive.) Yet Tanigaki saves her from drowning at the last minute, so she's still able to meet Wilk. If his face has been permanently disfigured like Nopperabo's, her prediction would still be correct, because she won't be seeing the same face that she remembers when next they meet. The facts already favored Kiroranke's interpretation, but this put another big log on that fire.

Even in an episode that feels like a diversion, Golden Kamuy keeps the central mystery chugging along. It also shows the series at its goofiest, especially during that onsen scene. The way that this show manages to juggle so many different tones is impressive. I still think that the ideal way to experience Golden Kamuy is the manga, given the anime's often fishy animation issues, but if you don't have the money to splurge on the volumes, this by-the-book adaptation is fine at delivering the things that the manga does best. This story of Asirpa and her growing legion of big hairy dads continues to be a rollicking good time.

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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