Golden Kamuy
Episodes 1-2

by Rose Bridges,

How would you rate episode 1 of
Golden Kamuy ?

How would you rate episode 2 of
Golden Kamuy ?

Anime doesn't often dip into the world of straight-up historical fiction. The medium's forays into the past are usually fantasy analogues like Fullmetal Alchemist, or they take magical liberties like any number of Sengoku-era series. Golden Kamuy stands apart as a more faithful account of a specific time in Japan's real-world history.

At the same time, much of Golden Kamuy will be familiar to anime fans with a love of the medium's many action-survival stories, especially when it's two people against the world. Golden Kamuy has all the trappings of great action-adventure anime: larger-than-life characters, intrepid fight sequences, and an intriguing central mystery. What kind of person is the man who hid the gold? Can Sugimoto and Asirpa find all the tattooed prisoners? What challenges will they have to overcome to get there? Its drama has just enough fantastical flavor to keep fantasy fans engaged, and its twisting fast-paced plot is easy to get caught up in.

Saichi "Immortal" Sugimoto is a veteran of the Russo-Japanese War, searching for hidden gold in Hokkaido as part of a promise to a deceased friend. Because Sugimoto's experience in the war is so essential to the show's story, it's worth digging into that history. The Russo-Japanese War took place from 1904-1905, primarily in Manchuria (a region in northeastern China) and Korea. It was essentially a clash of empires over territory: Russia wanted a port on the Pacific Ocean that would not freeze over in the winter, while Japan wanted to expand its sphere of influence in China and Korea. Russia refused to give into Japanese bargaining over these lands, leading Japan to declare war. Japan's decisive victory was a shock to Europe, who had underestimated the military capacity of non-European countries. Historians now view the Russo-Japanese War as a key moment in Japan's emergence as a major imperial power, which would ultimately culminate in World War II. Tsar Nicholas II's miscalculation in the war partially inspired the 1905 Revolution in Russia, as one of many mistakes he made that would lead to the toppling of the Romanov dynasty in 1917. In short, this was a pretty important moment in both nations' histories, a moment that was key to setting up the major world powers of the 20th century.

Golden Kamuy takes place after the war has ended, but it's clear that the conflict's impact looms large over the show. After being introduced to Sugimoto's fighting experience and apparent trauma, we meet another division of the wartime army from Hokkaido, famed as the toughest fighters. They are also after the gold for their own yet-unknown purposes. Golden Kamuy is setting up a theme here of how soldiers rebuild their lives after a war. Despite Japan's victory, the Russo-Japanese War left many soldiers adrift, with their years away hurting their chances for stability at home. This was a time when people were just starting to understand the effects that war had on veterans, so the gold is a symbol of opportunity and second chances for these wandering souls.

They share this in common with the people the gold was originally from: the Ainu, represented by Asirpa. She shows a lot of potential as a character, largely because her story does not shy away from her cultural experience. The Ainu are an indigenous ethnic group from Hokkaido who have experienced oppression from the Yamato Japanese not dissimilar from that of Native Americans or other indigenous groups worldwide. (They were also reportedly the inspiration for the Ishvalan culture in Fullmetal Alchemist; mangaka Hiromu Arakawa hails from Hokkaido.) Today, their culture has been so wholly displaced that there could be fewer than 10 native speakers of the Ainu language remaining. Golden Kamuy sees the Ainu at the very beginning of their forced assimilation into Japanese culture, so Asirpa still has a strong connection to her native traditions and language. While the show gets some humor out of differences in Ainu and Yamato customs—like Sugimoto's reaction to the food Asirpa serves him—it is overall respectful so far. Ainu culture is shown as an equally valid way of navigating the world that shows far greater awareness of the climate and landscape of Hokkaido. It could be argued that this plays into stereotypes of indigenous people as "closer to the earth," but so far I have faith in the show's representational choices, especially since the Ainu character is a co-protagonist. The Golden Kamuy manga also lists Ainu cultural organizations consulted for the story, so at the very least, the creators valued this element enough to invest in careful research.

Sugimoto and Asirpa are both archetypal characters so far: the gruff ex-soldier and the spirited tomboy. It's only episode two though, so there's plenty of potential for future development. This most recent episode has already given us hints about how Asirpa doesn't fit in with expectations about Ainu women, particularly from Yamato Japanese. Sugimoto's past also keeps showing up in unexpected ways, so there is definitely room for growth all around. I am interested in how Golden Kamuy deals with these two and their relationship, since there's so much room for things to change during their journey to the gold.

So at the very least, Golden Kamuy is a show with strong writing. This anime is also an extremely faithful adaptation of the manga so far. So the major things this anime could bring to the table are based in production values, which unfortunately aren't much to write home about. Golden Kamuy's visuals really struggle with keeping characters on model most of the time. This is most noticeable in motion, but even in static scenes (like as Sugimoto watches Asirpa gather animals from traps), their faces just look "off." Hopefully Golden Kamuy is able to improve this issue, but artistic problems have a tendency to worsen rather than improve during an anime's run, and the second episode does look worse than the first.

Unfortunately, this is most obvious in the fight scenes, which include some of the most vibrant and detailed art in the manga. Ideally, the anime should be able to make these moments even bigger, giving them a specific kind of immersion that static images cannot replicate. Instead, the fights mostly just highlight the awkward stilted-ness of Golden Kamuy's animation. It is the show's weakest point when it should be its strength, and Golden Kamuy really needs to fix this problem as soon as possible.

Golden Kamuy is a refreshing stand-out in this loaded spring season. It's both strikingly different and yet wholly familiar for anime viewers, a meticulously researched historical survival adventure. The story is incredibly suspenseful, constantly building on its central mystery and never boring the viewer for a second. Unfortunately, its animation struggles threaten to bring the whole ship down if they continue to degrade. Given how faithful this series is to the manga, it does seem like the original version is the best way to experience this story unless the anime pulls itself together soon.

Rating: B

Golden Kamuy is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

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

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