Golden Kamuy
Episode 3

by Rose Bridges,

How would you rate episode 3 of
Golden Kamuy ?

If you had hoped that Golden Kamuy would bring more of Asirpa's home and culture into the story, this episode definitely delivers. Sugimoto and Asirpa make it all the way to her village, where they encounter her grandma and other friends and relatives. Of course, they don't get there without encountering a few problems first.

Sugimoto and Asirpa continue to run into the 7th Division, but luckily, she gets help from her white wolf protector, and Sugimoto also finds protection from an unlikely animal source. When Sugimoto considers hunting down a bear earlier in the episode, Asirpa tells him how her father would charge right into the cave with a poisoned arrow. He could do this because bears won't attack someone who enters their own cave—or so Asirpa claims. She turns out to be right this time, when Sugimoto desperately hides in the cave to escape the 7th Division. The bear comes charging out at the men firing guns into her cave, but she ignores Sugimoto, who once again lives up to his "immortal" nickname. After the mother bear dies, Sugimoto decides to save the cub, and Asirpa tells him they should take it back to their village.

Golden Kamuy gets more jokes out of the cultural clash between Sugimoto and the Ainu, but this time, Asirpa gives as good as she gets. While Sugimoto frowned at eating brains before, Asirpa reacts in disgust to the miso he adds to the soup she made because the paste looks like poop to her. It may be strange for Japanese viewers who think of miso as a staple ingredient, but it's an important reminder that cultural attitudes around anything—including food—are relative. For example, Americans generally find the idea of eating insects disgusting, but plenty of cultures do not—and in turn, many of those cultures are grossed out by food that seems standard to us, like shrimp or cinnamon. Coming from a hunting-based culture, it makes sense that Asirpa would be used to eating every type of meat, but she would easily be taken aback by soybean mush that looks like human waste.

It's this framing that allows Golden Kamuy to get away with its sense of humor. It would be different if Ainu culture was constantly depicted as unusual and weird, but the story also recognizes how strange Japanese customs that viewers take for granted may seem through a different lens, making its jokes seem good-natured. The humor comes from the more broad phenomenon of culture clash, not how different one culture is from an established norm. It also helps that Golden Kamuy balances these gags with more thoughtful examinations of Ainu culture, like the explanations Asirpa gives for her traditions like raising rescued bear cubs to be killed and eaten. The idea may seem cruel at first, but it makes a lot more sense when positioned in the context of both Ainu mythology and daily life.

Once again, all of this plot material is taken straight from the manga, but Golden Kamuy does better at justifying its anime adaptation this week. For starters, the animation is not nearly as bad as it was in the previous two episodes. The show has gotten better at keeping characters on-model, even the more unusual-looking additions. Granted, some of this could be because there wasn't as much action this week to animate, but there were a few sequences that rely on dynamic motion and came out fine. While still far from perfect, the show's clunkiness is not nearly as noticeable. I was impressed with how much better this week's bear looked compared to the one in the first episode, with more fluid motion and a better blend with the traditional elements around it.

This week also takes welcome advantage of the anime's aural elements. The show has had excellent music, but this week's soundtrack really stands out. There is much more electric (literally and figuratively) music in the action sequences; the twangy guitar adds some punch to those fights, especially when it slides between notes for a nice touch when the 7th Division slides in on skis. There was also some interesting use of the jawharp, probably best known to anime fans for its use in the Cowboy Bebop episode "Cowboy Funk." Golden Kamuy also uses it for comical purposes at first, when Sugimoto and Asirpa argue about food again, but it's redefined and made diegetic when they arrive at the Ainu village to see someone playing the instrument. It is a nice marriage between the show's aesthetics and Asirpa's culture, yet another reminder that the creators have really done their research.

Another great detail is the use of actual Ainu language in some village scenes. This has plot importance in that it allows for misunderstandings between these characters and Sugimoto, but representing these cultures faithfully is also important on its own merits, especially considering that this language is rapidly losing speakers. While the effects of "media representation" can be abstract and vague, this could have some concrete benefit if it sparks enough fan interest in the Ainu language to help preserve it for future generations.

That's not to put this show on a pedestal or say it lacks its own spate of problems. Sugimoto and Asirpa are still the only complex characters in the show, and even then, they could use some more development. It's understandable, since Golden Kamuy is less driven by character than plot, which continues to be as engrossing as ever. The bad guys pursuing them can be ultraviolent to a puzzling and shlocky degree, with creepy characters like Tsurumi feeling more like pulpy threats than people. And while the animation has improved this episode, it's still not good enough to inspire lasting confidence in this production. Finally, just because Golden Kamuy portray one underrepresented group respectfully doesn't mean there won't be awkward moments when dealing with the unique problems of historical fiction. Choices like Asirpa's grandma insisting that Sugimoto marry her granddaughter feel somewhat off, given how much Ainu assimilation was driven by Ainu women being forced to marry Japanese men. Asirpa's line about being a "new kind of Ainu woman" also rings hollow when we know the "modern era" she describes will result in the complete destruction of her culture. This could be the author's intent, of course, but that doesn't make it any less uncomfortable in the moment.

Still, I am glad to see Golden Kamuy got better this week. It dug into its strengths of character interactions, suspenseful plotting, and an engrossing depiction of the Ainu as a culture that often gets short-shift in Japanese media. Its improvements in animation and soundtracking also help to justify the show as an adaptation, so I'm hoping for even more improvement in future episodes.

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 her Twitter.


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