Immortal Sugimoto: a once legendary soldier who once fought on the frontline of the Japnese-Russo war. Now he works as a gold digger in order to save his dead comrade’s wife. However, Sugimoto hears a story of a prisoner who slew several Ainu people to claim their gold. When this prisoner was arrested, he tattooed the map to the gold’s location onto the bodies of several prisoners.
Sugimoto discovers a tattooed prisoner killed by a bear. Just as the bear returns, it attacks Sugimoto. He’s saved by Asirpa, an Ainu girl whose father was one of the men killed to claim the gold. Now Sugimoto and Asirpa are traveling all over Hokkaido in search of the other prisoners to reclaim the gold.
There’s a fascinating conflict of cultures that drives the story of Golden Kamuy forward. Both Sugimoto and Asirpa hold a naïve curiosity towards the other, coming from two different cultures. You’re there right alongside Sugimoto, learning about Ainu culture, the honor that comes from eating squirrel brains, how the Ainu raise bear cubs without parents, and you’re drawn in by this entire culture that has existed in Japan for all this time but no one discusses for whatever reason. Meanwhile, even though Asirpa has grown up with Japanese culture all her life, there are still moments where her lack of knowledge comes to light. Even though Miso is commonplace in Japan, it’s weird to her that Sugimoto would eat it considering how much it looks like poop. Things that seem normal to the dominant culture of an area are totally bizarre to someone on the outside looking in.
But it’s the setting of Golden Kamuy that’s the real highlight of the series. The cold, desolate forests of Hokkaido are the secret “3rd main character” of the series. When Sugimoto is on the run from the 7th Division, he’s forced to dive into the den of a bear, using prior advice from Asirpa that bears won’t attack anyone who’s inside their den. Sugimoto’s leap of faith and trust in Asirpa ’s words keeps him alive and drives the bear out of its den, killing the soldiers for him. Golden Kamuy is, at its heart, about the brutality of nature, and you can either resist it or work with it.
However, there is one issue that’s very difficult to overlook: the animation. We won’t go in-depth with the baffling CG bears, as it’s been discussed to death. If it was just the bears, it would be easy to ignore. But the rest of the series is very stiff and janky, which goes against the very raw atmosphere of the plot. There’s a scene in episode 2 where Sugimoto is freezing to death with another prisoner in a river. As Sugimoto swims, his strokes are disconnected with the speed of his movement, and it looks like the animators just dragged his character model across the screen in order to animate the movement. There are tons of little issues like this, and it shows a real lack of polish. It’s an unfortunate issue in an otherwise great series.
If you can look past the poor production values, Golden Kamuy is a compelling watch. If not, the manga is a better alternative and worth reading. In that regard, Golden Kamuy is at least doing its job as an advertisement for the manga.