“The weak only get eaten,” warns native girl Asirpa, upon learning that veteran Japanese soldier Saichi “Immortal” Sugimoto has been marked for hunting by a non-hibernating bear during winter. The encounter between Saichi, Asirpa, and the bear is an extended set piece that represents this book’s themes of survival, cooperation, and improvisation well.
Saichi is an infamous participant in the Russo-Japanese War who remained on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido to pan for gold. His childhood friend’s wife is in need of an eye operation, but getting her to see American doctors is prohibitively expensive. He hears a story from an old man about a hidden fortune of gold, stolen from an Ainu tribe and mapped with tattoos onto the skin of a group of prisoners. The prisoners have escaped, and word about the fortune has been spreading. Shortly after his informant is gutted by a bear, Saichi meets Asirpa, whose father was one of the Ainu men originally protecting the gold. Her hunting and tracking abilities make her an invaluable ally to her and Sugimoto’s combined quest.
The level of research that artist and writer Satoru Noda put into this book is exemplary. Diagrams between chapters specify the clothing and equipment Sugimoto and Asirpa use. Special care has been taken to get Ainu culture and practices correct, as evidenced by credits to the Hokkaido Ainu Association, an Ainu Language Supervisor, and a bibliography’s worth of reference materials and historical collections. Captions throughout the book explain the flora and fauna of Hokkaido, specifying why a certain plant is ideal for creating a smokescreen or how a special kind of throwing stick helps hunt rabbits. An explanation of The Blakiston Line accounts for how Hokkaido’s animals are larger than on Japan’s other islands. History is also a recurring factor in the story, with the latter years of the Meiji era marking the spread of Western culture to the edges of Japan. “Sugimoto, this is nice. This ‘pencil,’” Asirpa says while drawing one of the skin maps. A caption explains the spread and price of pencils in Japan.
These frequent mentions of history, geography, and culture would be an impediment to the story, except Noda’s art maintains a smooth pace in every chapter. Clear facial expressions and frequently wide panels combine to make each page easy to read as the plot leans into each of its life-or-death twists. Saichi respects the Ainus’ claim to the gold and wants to help Asirpa find it. He says so directly: “Let’s team up and find this gold together. It belongs to your people in the first place, so I won’t even ask for fifty-fifty. All I’m looking for is a small share.” Their partnership will have to survive encounters with each of the tattooed men as well as the Japanese military.
Heroism and villainy do not have much space in Golden Kamuy: there are simply the strong and the weak, among them helpers and dominators. This nuanced approach to characterization leads to some interesting character interactions, such as two characters willing to kill each other until they become drenched in freezing water and become quick allies. A soldier, upon finding and fighting Saichi, gives him an opportunity to walk away. “No amount of money is worth the life you’ve somehow held on to through the war. You have no idea what a dangerous game you’re playing,” the soldier warns while relaxing his combat pose to scratch the back of his head. With the possible exception of the mysterious man who killed the Ainu for their gold, there are no black-hearted psychopaths. Everyone has a somewhat relatable motive and attitude in addition to “survive.” Asirpa’s “No killing” rule goes a long way toward giving her gold-chasing rivals time to endear themselves to the reader, especially a body-contorting escape artist.
While an entertaining and informative series, Golden Kamuy is also mature in content. Swearing and violence are commonplace, especially the gutting of animals and bullets and bayonets going through people. The front cover is marked “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” and the rating on the back is “M For Mature.” However, as mature manga titles go, this one is far from gratuitous or senseless. Readers are just as likely to pick up on the rituals and practices of Ainu culture, such as repeating “Hinna, hinna” to show gratitude while eating. Fans of the historical viking tale Vinland Saga, particularly its battle-hardened protagonist trying to do right by others, will enjoy following Saichi through this history lesson, too.
In addition, readers who liked Vinland Saga’s huntress in the snowy wilds will find Asirpa a kindred spirit. As she puts it, “I’d rather be in the mountains than stay at home knitting.”
Golden Kamuy, vol. 1
by Satoru Noda
Publisher Age Rating: M