The hunt is on! All the hunts, in fact. Following from Golden Kamuy Volume 1, Saichi and Asirpa are still tracking down tattooed renegades in search of hidden gold. Survival in snowy Hokkaido means awareness of creatures and their habits, predator and prey alike. Bears, wolves, fish, and deer are all hunted, but the most dangerous game remains people. Lieutenant Tsurumi of Japan’s 7th Division wants the gold, as do the remaining tattooed renegades, some of whom are beginning to team up with each other.
The gold, of course, is simply a MacGuffin that keeps the players motivated. Golden Kamuy volumes 2 and 3 are much more concerned with ecosystems and habits than chasing down the shiny loot. At one point, unlikely ally and expert escape artist Shiraishi shouts at Saichi, “Don’t forget the whole reason we’re here!” If you’ve ever been distracted during a story with questions about what the characters eat during a journey, this series will more than satisfy your curiosity. You will see characters use their culinary skills on animals’ hearts, blood, brains, eyes, skulls, livers, and other apparently delicious components, along with many vegetables, seasonings, and sauces. Characters’ tastes in each meal range from cultural appreciation to humorous rejections. For example, there is a running gag that Asirpa believes miso to be made from feces, and nobody can stand the bitter taste of hupca leaves.
Between the adventuring and the meal breaks, there are four main narratives explored in these two volumes. All of these narratives involve partnerships and shared motivations, and serve to fill out each character’s profile into a well-rounded personality. Hunter-turned-soldier Tanigaki must reconcile his duty against his calling: “When I came to the mountains, it felt like a poison deep inside me was slowly seeping away.” The tattooed hunter Nihei, whose skin carries a portion of a map to the ever-popular gold pile, becomes more endearing as his conviction and worldview are revealed. His enjoyment of hunting being frequently referred to like an erection – “My hard-on is out of control,” “My hunter’s spirit is absolutely throbbing!” – paints his outdoor expertise in a different light than Asirpa’s dignified reverence for all living things.
These books are rated M for Mature, and there is plenty of content to justify that rating. Four-letter words, gruesome stab and gunshot wounds all over characters’ bodies, graphic depictions of skinning and organ removal, and a bear ripping a guy’s face off are all regular occurrences. What sets Satoru Noda’s writing and art apart is the execution of these elements alongside softening and humorous moments. The fights and swearing and injuries and death take place within a story that provides context for how characters feel, react, and interact. At one point, Saichi retrieves a baby bear cub from its den, and every page involving this bear is heart-achingly cute. Asirpa explains her village’s approach to raising and ultimately killing bears found in such a manner, leading to an emotionally complex resolution that is somehow both tragic and respectful. By contrast, Asirpa’s endangered Eza wolf Retar (see the cover to Volume 2) is a force of nature that can break legs with its jaws and also loves belly rubs, and Noda knows better than to bond the reader to an animal only to break that bond soon after. (Personal note: Retar had better survive Volume 4.)
Noda’s knack for human expression makes all his protagonists—are there really any heroes or villains here?—a joy to behold. Saichi is the cocky “Immortal Sugimoto,” but he also loses his nerve when he looks a fleeing deer in the eye, and laughs when he sees Asirpa dislikes hupca as much as he does. Characterization runs deep or shallow according to the eyes – Noda tends to draw grunt soldiers with solid black pupils, giving them an uncanny valley effect. Hijikata, an antagonist still a ways away from meeting the central protagonists, is an elderly sword wielder capable of joy, swagger, stern judgment, and an intense killer’s glare. Scenes of characters eating often involve distinct expressions of curiosity, doubt, outrage, defeat, and glittery release, sometimes within the same two-page spread.
As was the case with Volume 1, Golden Kamuy continues to be a high-quality title for mature manga readers. Readers who enjoy the frequent recipe breakdowns in Delicious In Dungeon will relish each “what’s for dinner?” detour here. Others looking for nonstop action may be disappointed in the shifting narrative and frequent reminders to respect nature, but when fights do go down, they are not for the faint of heart. This is a thoughtful, compassionate manga that’s as sweet as frozen tree sap and brutal as a snapped neck.
The anime version of Golden Kamuy is available on CrunchyRoll.
Golden Kamuy, vols 2-3
by Satoru Noda
Volume 2 ISBN: 9781421594897
Volume 3 ISBN: 9781421594903
Publisher Age Rating: M