Review: Golden Kamuy, volume 1

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By TOBIAS MCNABB

I’m going to be honest here—I’ve never been much of a manga reader. Some attempts have been made over the years, first with Chrono Crusade, then with Naruto, and more recently Berserk, but some kind of mental block has always prevented me from really diving into that aspect of the hobby wholesale. I think that’s going to change soon, with Golden Kamuy being the catalyst.

If you’re active on Twitter at all, I highly recommend following @MinovskyArticle. He’s become one of my favorite “influencers” in the mangasphere lately, one that pushes series that aren’t your typical shounen fair. To be fair, I’ve known about the various age groups in anime and manga for years now, but seinen and josei get so little love compared to the superhero fantasies for the younger audience, that I’ve never found it easy to jump in without a bunch of research and digging up series from 10 or more years ago. The last recommendation I followed was Attack on Titan, and while that has gotten considerable popularity since the anime adaptation, I’ve never enjoyed it personally. I figured manga would just be something to pay attention to for new anime fodder, but nothing I would really get into.

Luckily, Golden Kamuy proved there is hope yet for my lack of taste and experience. As someone who’s not usually into historical fiction, I didn’t think the story would hold my interest: a veteran of the Russo-Japanese War, Sugimoto is in search of a hoard of gold, the map to which is supposedly tattooed on the skins of several escaped prisoners. Aside from the challenges posed by other groups looking for this haul, he also has the wilderness of Hokkaido to contend with. Luckily, he meets the young Ainu hunter Asirpa, who is at least able to keep him alive through a vicious bear attack and teaches him how to survive in the wild.

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Historical fiction isn’t my favorite genre, so how was Golden Kamuy able to keep me turning pages? It certainly ascribes to “show, don’t tell”: rather than giving a list of dates of battles and events, we see them. The first chapter begins with Sugimoto charging into combat on 203 Hill. We see, in several depictions of violence, what savage acts people can commit during war. As he recounts the last request of a dying comrade, we see memories mix as one relatively-lighthearted scene gives way to a depiction of the mangled body of his friend. And whereas Attack on Titan can often depict violence for violence’s sake, the graphic scenes in Golden Kamuy are meant to make you stop and pay attention, just as if you’re seeing this with your own eyes.

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Since we’re discussing the setting, let’s also focus on Hokkaido itself. As Westerners, we naturally see a lot of Japan in anime, but rarely the island of Hokkaido in the north. The snowy climate and relative closeness to Russia creates a setting that distinguishes itself from other manga series: instead of showing a densely packed cityscape or wandering ronin caught in the middle of a socio-political shift, we have characters just focusing on surviving in the wilderness. And this setting allows for another interesting trait of Golden Kamuy: the Ainu.

I know I’m not alone when I say I didn’t know much about the Ainu going into the manga, but boy, did that change. Asirpa serves as our window into Ainu culture, and the reader gets a glimpse and their clothing, their language, and their relationship with their natural surroundings. The reader can’t help but chant “citatap citatap” along with her or grimace with Sugimoto at some of the … culinary choices she presents him. Her pragmatism in dealing with the harsh neutrality of nature keep Sugimoto alive and on his toes.

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As of this writing, the first two volumes are available in English by Viz, with the third set to release on December 19th. If you’re looking for an adventure with great characters, set in historical Japan rather than a fantasical anime world, I would highly recommend Golden Kamuy. If manga isn’t your thing, an anime adaptation has been announced, produced by Geno Studio, which we’ll probably see in later 2018.

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