Updated: Sep 7
By Sean Cabot
Satoru Noda’s award-winning “Golden Kamuy,” is an odd type of learning experience. What at first appears to be a historical action-drama comic quickly gives way to cooking tips and impromptu anthropology lessons.
Despite its strange presentation, it has found a dedicated fanbase, and dedication is absolutely warranted.
It’s a series that is at once focused and all over the place. And that’s its secret sauce.
The series follows Saichi Sugimoto, a veteran of the Russo-Japanese War whose prowess and
survivability on the battlefield earned him the title, “Sugimoto the Immortal.” Despite this reputation, he finds himself reduced to fruitless gold panning in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island.
One day, a drunken man tells him a story about an inhumanly large stash of gold stolen from a
massacred group of Ainu, Hokkaido’s indigenous people. He elaborates that it was hidden away by a faceless convict who tattooed pieces of a map to its location on the skin of several escaped prisoners.
Despite Sugimoto’s skepticism, the man’s attempt at fatally silencing him that night and subsequent death reveals tattoos that mark him as one of the escapees. Convinced of the gold’s existence, Sugimoto decides to pursue the other convicts to complete the map.
Joining him is Asirpa, whose father was among those murdered in the gold’s theft. She agrees to help him claim the gold under the pretense that the faceless man’s execution is being held off to wring out the gold’s location, and thus Ending it would lead to justice for her father.
However, they soon End that a rogue unit of Japanese soldiers is seeking the gold to fund a coup. As is Toshizo Hijikata – a historically disgraced samurai who seeks to stage his own coup.
And this is only scratching the surface of all of the bizarre characters they encounter.
Despite being a Japanese comic, “Golden Kamuy,” feels very much like a Western, and has been described as such both by commentators in both its home country and abroad. There’s an abundance of tense encounters, an emphasis on hunting and tracking, and a major focus on the land being traversed.
In fact, surviving the elements is one of the story’s major struggles. An early chapter sees Sugimoto trying to survive hypothermia after falling into a river.
Respect, fear, and awe of nature are some of the series’ most important themes, and this is inexorably tied with its portrayal of Ainu culture.
Much like Native Americans, the Ainu were an indigenous group with largely animistic religious beliefs who were met with explicit discrimination and outright genocide – in this case by the colonizing forces of the Japanese mainland.
But “Golden Kamuy” does not treat the Ainu as a superficial element – their culture and religion are both explained at length and major components of the story. The series not only has an Ainu language consultant and cooperation from the Hokkaido Ainu Association, but also extensively lists its reference material at the back of each volume.
This dedication to cultural and linguistic accuracy – especially for a language isolate that is critically endangered, is especially commendable. The result is a gripping story that explores the Ainu’s struggles with being caught between Japan and Russia’s territory disputes.
There are some parts that drag – oftentimes chapters wherein Sugimoto and Asirpa are simply trying to hunt their next meal feel like filler, though the obscure cooking facts are a nice touch.
Thankfully, the cast makes it all worth it – bringing together a variety of strange characters who can longingly salivate over a hot meal moments before engaging in horrific violence.
And topping it off, the artwork is gorgeous – representing snow-swept landscapes, ferocious brawls, and the various culinary marvels the cast partakes with incredible care. To be frank, the food is probably the best-looking part.
“Golden Kamuy” is all over the place, but aside from some minor pacing issues, it’s one of the best comics on sale today.
A: Satoru Noda has struck gold