What’s it about? Saichi Sugimoto is a veteran of the Russo-Japanese war, desperate for money in order to keep his last promise to his childhood friend. He hears the seemingly tall tale of a man who murdered a group of Ainu men, stole 20 kan of gold (about 165 lbs), hid it in Hokkaido before his arrest, and then tattooed a treasure map on the bodies of his fellow death-row inmates. Trying to protect one piece of the map from a bear, Sugimoto meets Asirpa, the daughter of one of the murdered men. Finding their goals have parallel tracks, the two become a team.
Content Warning: Violence (some graphic); animal death.
Golden Kamuy has been the darling of certain anime-and-manga circles for a while, and this adaptation might be one of the most hotly anticipated premieres of the season. Given that, I feel a bit redundant as I nod my head and say, “Yup, it’s real good.”
It’s easy to see why the series is turning heads: it takes place during a period of history not often explored in popular manga and highlights the Ainu, a marginalized community of indigenous Japanese peoples that most western audiences had probably never heard of. It’s incredibly rare to see anime and manga discuss Japan’s own marginalized ethnicities—Samurai Champloo is the only other series I could think of (main character Mugen hailed from the Ryukyu Islands)—which alone makes this premise downright revolutionary.
I can’t comment on the nuances of how well the Ainu are portrayed, though allegedly the series has been well-received and has a foundation of strong research and consultation with living experts. The premiere episode straightforwardly mentions that the Ainu were oppressed by the government and had their lands taken, but hasn’t yet explored it further (if there are any Ainu readers who would like to speak on the subject, please pitch to us!).
Asirpa herself is a fantastically charming young heroine, active and capable—and honestly, it’s sort of a relief to see that she’s too young to be shoehorned into the role of love interest. Instead, the premiere seems to set up an uneasy alliance that might lead to a sibling sort of bond, which we could definitely use more of in fiction. Sugimoto is no slouch either, gruff and determined but with a wry sense of humor.
This is quite a bloody first episode, so squeamish viewers take care. There are a few graphic scenes of wartime violence and hunting is a big part of the story, with a lot of focus on practical and non-wasteful usage of dead animals. While there’s not a truly grizzly amount of detail, there’s plenty of blood, meat, and a short scene of a corpse being skinned.
None of it feels sensational or wasteful, which is another draw. There’s a strong focus on surviving when one is surrounded by death and brutality, and the title would suggest an exploration of how people become monsters in the pursuit of this treasure, but the writing doesn’t treat the topic lightly—nor is it so bleak that watching feels like a hopeless slog.
Living animals do look a little bit wonky, as they’re done in a stiff CGI that’s not very well-integrated with the overall art design. While it does gives an uncanniness to the Wenkamuy (a bear who has eaten human flesh and become an evil god), it just makes the ordinary brown bear look like it wandered over from a 10-year-old video game. Retar, the wolf that comes to Aspira’s aid, also looks almost painfully out of place.
Visual hiccups aside, this is a strong premiere with two likable leads and an excellent narrative hook. Golden Kamuy has all the makings of a truly special experience.