Golden Kamuy
Episode 4

by Rose Bridges,

How would you rate episode 4 of
Golden Kamuy ?

Golden Kamuy's biggest strength continues to be its plot. Even when the series feels like it's starting to slow down, it quickly yanks you back in for another twist. Even though I've read to this point in the source material by now, I still feel constantly on the edge of my seat watching the anime. It's good that Golden Kamuy's writing is so strong, because it still struggles in other areas.

This episode has a strong beginning and a suspenseful end, with a bit of lull in the middle. It's the good kind of lull, a breather that lets you learn more about Asirpa and her people. We meet more Ainu elders who tell us about her relationship with her deceased father, and the wolf Retar, who seems to protect her in his place. For a series that's fond of expository monologues, Golden Kamuy is good at making sure they feel satisfying. What we learn about Retar sets up the episode's second half well, when the wolf has to track down and save Sugimoto. If we get a speech that's not setting up later plot points, it's usually a broader Ainu cultural insight that deepens Asirpa's character.

The only problem is that breather time is always where the animation struggles most. Where many anime slip up in motion, this poor show fumbles even during static shots, making its artistic mistakes even more noticeable. I kept seeing melty faces in the scenes at the Ainu village, where background characters looked almost inhuman and changed facial proportions between shots, and this disease would occasionally infect the main characters as well. It's one thing to mess up a face when it's in the background, but when it's the focal point, it can really detract from the tone.

At least these village scenes allowed for more bonding between Asirpa's family and Sugimoto. The most pivotal moments are between Sugimoto and her grandmother, particularly his last conversation with her. However, this plays out differently from the manga in a way that makes it slightly less effective. In the manga version of the scene, Asirpa's grandmother's dialogue is left untranslated. The audience only gets Sugimoto's assumption that she wants Asirpa to stay behind and for him to leave. Only after Sugimoto leaves does the reader learn that she said the opposite: she wants him to "always be there for" Asirpa. The anime version just translates her lines right away. Granted, we know that Sugimoto does not speak Ainu and would keep that in mind interpreting the scene, but I think it robs the moment of some of its dramatic effect. Movies and TV leave other languages untranslated all the time, but if they didn't want to go that route, they could have shown the conversation from a more distant angle where her dialogue wasn't audible and maintained the original intent that way. Dealing with language barriers can be very different between mediums without sound and those that rely heavily on sound, so it will be interesting to see how Golden Kamuy tackles this challenge going forward.

Regardless, Sugimoto is a doofus for his ultimate decision. While they've helped each other on their journey plenty, Asirpa has been the one saving his ass far more than the other way around. She knows the natural landscape of Hokkaido and how to deal with it far better than he does. So why on Earth is he going forward without her? Despite her family's feelings, he knows that this mission is important to her, and that she struggles to fit in with her village's expectations as it is. I'm certain that the duo will get back together soon, but this is still a terrible decision on his part. I hope that arbitrary separations don't become a pattern in this story.

Mere hours after going off on his own, Sugimoto finds himself in a trap. He goes around town asking about a guy with a tattoo and quickly gets captured by Tsurumi's gang. Tsurumi is a sick and twisted bastard, but he's not crazy enough to fall for Sugimoto's attempt to hide his identity. Interestingly, they don't just torture him, but ask him to join them. I'm curious to know what this group's greater motivations will be. Not that anyone needs a specific "reason" to get their hands on a heap of gold, but I suspect there's more to this operation than making a tidy profit. Tsurumi is a creepy character, but there's a lot of potential in this conflict. I hope in the future, it's heavier on the explanations and lighter on Tsurumi's cartoonish bloodthirst.

Unfortunately, this diversion doesn't have very high stakes. If this was episode 11, maybe we could fret about the fate of Sugimoto, but we know he's going to get out of this just fine to reunite with Asirpa. It's too early to sideline the protagonist yet, so the real hook is what role the 7th Division and Tsurumi will ultimately play in this struggle. Will they continue to be such fearsome adversaries? Will they team up? Will Sugimoto and Asirpa take them all out? Half the fun of watching Sugimoto and Asirpa deal with their rivals is learning each foe's motivations in the first place. It seems like everyone in Hokkaido has some complicated backstory to justify their quest for gold.

It's a good thing there's still so much fuel left in this story's engine. Golden Kamuy's animation problems aren't really improving, bright spots like last episode aside. Even the usually excellent music is lagging this week, falling back on clichés that other anime have done better. (There's a cue during Tsurumi's grilling of Sugimoto that's always used in the same types of scenes—to underscore that our heroes are in peril.) Even if the presentation could be more attractive, the content of Golden Kamuy remains strong. It needs to cross its fingers that viewers will stick around for that strength.

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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