If you missed it a couple years back, there was an anime that came out called Golden Kamuy, adapted from a historical fiction manga by the same name. I ended up missing out when it came around the anime circuit but at the behest of a friend, I decided to give the manga a shot. Boy howdy, am I glad I did. This series is a really interesting story set in a unique backdrop filled with history and intrigue.
Set after the Russo-Japanese War at the beginning of the 20th century, Golden Kamuy is about a Japanese veteran of the war, Saichi “Immortal” Sugimoto, meagerly getting by through gold panning when he stumbles across a secret story about a lost treasure. After finding a native Ainu girl, Asirpa, whose family was killed for the very same treasure, the two team up to find it, facing off against escaped convicts, soldiers, and many more to find the reward. The trouble is, the only “map” to their reward was split into multiple pieces, each one tattooed onto escaped convicts that need to be tracked down in order to solve the puzzle.
The premise sounds very adventurous, similar to what might be found in Westerns or Globe-trotting Indiana Jones-style movies. However, the setting makes this a very different beast entirely. All key players and places reside in the northernmost island of Japan, Hokkaido, after the Russo-Japanese war. Hokkaido is in the midst of winter and its geography is covered in snow, ice, and deadly animals outside of just the human variety. Given how often and detailed the discussion comes up, this series might also double for a “Survivalist’s Guide to Northern Japan”, with hunting, trap-making, and wildlife knowledge being the key to Sugimoto and Asirpa staying alive.
For one thing, I’m a huge sucker for historical fiction and historical pieces in general. While it makes for a fantastic backdrop for the story, in the case of Golden Kamuy, it directly impacts all of the characters and their struggles throughout the story. Sugimoto feels compelled to use the treasure to take care of his best friend’s wife after losing that friend brutally in the Russo-Japanese war, and so sets out on this journey. Asirpa wants penance for her family who were killed off for the treasure, something that is unfortunately common for her native people during this time. And in an interesting twist, not only is it just fictional characters, but Yoshitake Shiraishi, based off of famous master escape artist Yoshi Shiratori, who masterfully escaped from every prison he was in using amazing feats, is after the gold for a nice cut of the profits after escaping yet again from prison. This time frame is the lifeblood of all of these characters and directly affects their actions, rather than just being an interesting setting to play in.
However, moreso than the historical setting, what I loved about this series was the dedication to discussing the Ainu people, and the persecution they faced (and continued to face) in Northern Japan. Sugimoto is very open-minded and gives Asirpa and her people the respect they deserve as they continue to help him survive in this harsh, frozen land of Winter Hokkaido. Because of this, he listens much more than he explains, and allows the audience to learn a great deal about Asirpa and her people’s way of life. The mangaka treats their culture with a lot of respect and I loved the positive explanation of a native group I hadn’t known about before. This very quickly became a stand-out favorite part of this series for me, and since I’ve only read twenty chapters or so, I’m excited to hear more about this great group of peoples that, at their height, covered half of Japan and parts of Russia.
My history nerd self aside, the story is done really well, with a cast of characters that gets larger as it goes, all having their own reasons for wanting the treasure, and all stopping at nothing to get it. This causes a varied caste that keeps the reader guessing on what’s going to happen next and who’s going after whom, as various groups start crossing paths. The intrigue is palpable and I’m very much enjoying this story. As crazy as it sounds, even with twenty or so chapters read, it still feels like I’ve only just started on this story, as it keeps adding more to itself as it goes.
If you like history, adventurous tales, and/or hardy survival guides, this is the story for you. It’s a fun ride with big stakes and even bigger rewards as everyone makes a mad dash to find the hidden treasure. Stay warm, stay moving, and always remember that it’s impolite to the Ainu to not eat the brains.