Golden Kamuy
Episodes 13-14

by Rose Bridges,

How would you rate episode 13 of
Golden Kamuy (TV 2) ?

How would you rate episode 14 of
Golden Kamuy (TV 2) ?

Golden Kamuy is back for another season, and it's getting right back into the action. For better or worse, this show is acting like no time has passed; there's no attempt to reintroduce you to its major characters or conflict, just the expectation that reviewers have refreshed their memory some other way. It even introduces a new character in the form of Edogai, a creepy but weirdly endearing taxidermist who likes mounting human skins as much as animal ones. If you're caught up with the manga, Golden Kamuy's jump right back into the deep end of the pool might feel refreshing, but if you haven't thought about it since the first cour wrapped in June, you might be feeling in over your head.

Luckily, episode 14 does fill in the blanks a little, as all the characters exposit on each other's motivations in a way that should ease the more casual viewer back into all this. We've got Lt. Tsurumi and his group, whose beef is with the way the military treated them after the Russo-Japanese War—but Tsurumi's ego also factors into their manifesto. Hijikata's group aims to restore the Republic of Ezo, while Nopperabo, Asirpa's mysterious father, is working with Hijikata but harbors his own agenda. And of course, there's our ragtag group of heroes: Sugimoto, Asirpa, Shiraishi and now Kiroranke. But Shiraishi is also helping Hijikata. It's complicated.

So at least our new addition to the cast—however briefly, since he's killed in episode 14—is relatively uncomplicated. Edogai likes making weird yet meticulous clothes out of human skin. He also likes making actual taxidermy models of both animals and humans who have been significant in his life, and he seems to think he can hear their voices. The character is obviously based on both real-life "human trophy collecting" serial killer Ed Gein—just sound out their names—but also fictional killers like Leatherface and Norman Bates. The reveal about him "hearing" his mother's voice is straight out of the classic film "Psycho". The anime skims over this a bit, but in the manga, we learn more about Edogai's backstory and how abusive and domineering his mother was, making the whole thing all the more Freudian and Hitchcockian.

Edogai's one of many characters in Golden Kamuy who are built out of references like this. Satoru Noda clearly has a thing for both "true crime" and classic slasher horror. I like some of these movies too, so I don't mind his affectionate nods—but they're also a little too blindly affectionate. As much as various classes of social outsiders love horror for its transgressive qualities, it also has a history of pathologizing its villains in ways that can be pretty dated and uncomfortable. For example, there's the strong implication that Edogai is gay for Tsurumi. I feel like his feelings are a more complicated mix where he also sees Tsurumi as a fatherly figure, but even that mix plays right into old discredited ideas about homosexuality. Also, there's the whole "domineering mom" thing, which has been used as justification for conversion therapy. I feel like Satoru Noda doesn't hold ill will toward his villains, queer-coded or not, but replicating old horror movie tropes without variation means replicating their themes unchanged. As a result, Edogai is now the third character who's coded as both queer and in some way deviant because of it. When it comes to referencing older media, it's wise to consider how it plays to modern audiences and consider changing things up—even if just for the sake of avoiding lazy writing.

Thankfully, Edogai breaks the mold in other ways. For one thing, he's not actually a killer, despite his initial instinct to do the deed when someone discovers his secret. He's just weirdly obsessed with finding creative uses for dead bodies, I guess. His childlike innocence, crush on Tsurumi, and eventual heroic sacrifice make him a more fun and sympathetic character than some of his predecessors. I was sorry to see him go, even if I can't really imagine what more Golden Kamuy could have done with him at this point. The fake skins have been made and delivered, and they're already beginning their seismic impact on the plot. Their creator could potentially get in the way if he survived, dragging us down his own plot cul-de-sac. So I can see why they wrote him out, but I'll miss him in a weird way all the same.

In the meantime, we get a thrilling chase/fight scene through a mine shaft, along with more butt and dick jokes. (I'm glad we're not leaving "Dick-sensei" behind in the new season.) But the real thematic meat of these two episodes comes from the shifting of alliances as the series moves into its next stage. The first cour was all about fleshing out our main factions, and the second cour is about developing the battle between them.

In that way, things could not have ended more perfectly. Ienaga settles the squabbling between Hijikata's group, our rogue soldier Ogata, and Sugimoto and friends by making everybody delicious stew. We get a fun visual of these characters all laid out like the Last Supper. There's a strong through-line of food being a way to unite people in Golden Kamuy. It even does this across cultures, like when Sugimoto and Asirpa share their dishes with each other and realize they're tasty even if they might look like poop. Now they're breaking bread—or, rather, ladling stew—across some even deeper and uglier divides. Maybe the teams that end up uniting and winning the race for the gold will be those who can learn to eat at the same table.

While it takes a while to get going, these two episodes were a strong reminder of why I found Golden Kamuy so compelling in its first cour. It's a little disorienting how much our main characters were pushed to the background, as the action shifted to Hijikata's and Tsurumi's plans. But the show was never boring, even if at times it felt confusing. Golden Kamuy always has a new trick up its sleeve to keep you gripped in its frontier gold chase. Based on this premiere, the new season is set to get even weirder and more thrilling.

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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