Hi guys, I’m putting out a back to back anime thoughts on two recent anime I’ve watched. The other is on Beastars. This one is about Golden Kamuy, an anime that takes place right after the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905) and involves gold, war trauma, toilet humor, and fan service (for the ladies~). It’s a bit all over the place but it is an interesting one! Read on, to find out more. [Updated as of March 18, 2022]
I. The Story of an Unlikely Alliance
Golden Kamuy follows a former Russo-Japanese war veteran by the name of Saichi Sugimoto who also known as “Immortal Sugimoto” for his durability in the war. He is in search of gold hidden by a man only known as Nopperabo. This Nopperabo fellow tattooed the location of the gold on the skin of 24 escaped convicts from the prison he’s being held in.
Sugimoto is aided by an Ainu girl named Asirpa who believes she can seek revenge against this Nopperabo who holds the secret to her father’s death. The two are joined by the self-proclaimed “Escape King,” Yoshitake Shiraishi (rather reluctantly at first) who is one of the escaped tattooed convicts. The three are soon join by allies and foes alike. Who can say where their journey across the Hokkaido landscape will take them? I can say that so far it’s been an adventure of intrigue, humor, and nostalgia.
It may not sound interesting at first. I surely don’t believe I would have been as interested as I was if I hadn’t happened to stumble on my brother watching the second episode and sticking around to watch it for curiosity’s sake. Yet, it turned out to be one of my favorites at the time of watching. I even prioritized it over Demon Slayer which I STILL need to get back to.
II. The Ainu & the History Behind Golden Kamuy
I think the main selling point for me was the omnipresence of the Ainu culture being featured in this anime. I don’t think I’ve heard of an another anime that showcases the Ainu culture of Hokkaido where the anime primarily takes place.
I don’t know much about the Ainu, but I do know that they are a native society in Japan similar to the Native Americans in America. I believe as native cultures go, the Ainu are dying out which is a shame but a reality for most native/indigenous cultures in the world. Click the picture below if you want to read a short article about the Ainu.
After updating this post, I also found a Japan Times article published recently on how Japan is trying to preserve the culture and language of the Ainu. It’s definitely worth a read.
I did get really curious as to the background of the mangaka aka the creator of Golden Kamuy since I wondered why he would pick such a topic to write about. Now, I know I got this info on Wikipedia but bare with me.
The mangaka, Satoshi Noda, was actually born in Hokkaido. His great-grandfather was actually a veteran of the Russo-Japanese war and eventually settled in Hokkaido afterwards. Saichi Sugimoto is apparently named after him. It is also important to note that Noda admits to doing historical research for the manga but historical accuracy isn’t a priority and there is no strict policy binding him to that. If you want to learn more about his research process and his thoughts on including the Ainu culture in his manga, then please read this translated interview by “no tone” aka piduai on tumbler here.
I mean, one big historical inaccuracy in the anime is the presence of Hijikata Toshizou. He’s a very important secondary character who is based on the real life Hijikata of the same name. Hijikata was the vice-commander of the Shinsengumi, a real life police force of the Meiji Era of Japan. It was very short-lived and Hijikata himself dies in Hakodate (in Hokkaido!) in 1869, so way before the turn of the century.
So, if you’re a stickler for history, then I would say either hold your tongue back for this anime or don’t watch it. Though it would be a shame if you didn’t because I would highly recommend it. I enjoyed it more so than I thought I would and find myself binging a handful of episodes per day before I finished the last and 36th episode of the series. However, it has been recently announced the 4th season is coming!
I am eagerly looking forward to feasting my eyes on another batch of 12 episodes of Golden Kamuy goodness~
III. The Asirpa-Sugimoto Dynamic
I really found myself liking both Asirpa and Sugimoto as characters and their relationship with each other as it grew from one being a partnership to a solid friendship. I know others who have watched or read Golden Kamuy may feel their relationship is more like father-daughter, and I wouldn’t disagree, but in my perspective, I feel their friendship is deeper.
As for the other characters, well, everyone is pretty weird but in a good way. Sort of…some characters were weird in the bad way. Like this one taxidermist in the beginning of season 2 who I hoped wouldn’t make it by the end of the episode and I actually got my wish. Some episodes are dedicated to filling us in on the back story of some of the other characters.
When I initially published this post, I didn’t include the characters outside of the holy trio and that’s a crime! There are too many wonderful characters to talk about. Perhaps I wanted to keep this review short, but that should have been no excuse! So here they are in quick succession.
IV. The Colorful Cast of Golden Kamuy
Besides the three mentioned above we have:
Kiroranke (CV: Terasoma Masaki)
A long-time friend of Asirpa’s father and a former member of the 7th division (before Tsurumi took over). He is helping Asirpa to find the gold, but he has his own secrets as well.
Tanigaki Genjirou (CV: Hosoya Yoshimasa)
Originally part of Lieutenant Tsurumi’s 7th division before being taken in by Asirpa’s kotan while he was severely injured. He joins Sugimoto and Asirpa’s group initially out of consideration of Asirpa’s grandmother who cared for him.
Inkarmat (CV: Noto Mamiko)
A suspiciously accurate fortune teller who knew Asirpa’s father when she was younger. She follows the group here and there and even though Asirpa’s wary of her, Inkarmat works to help the group.
Chikapasi (CV: Watanabe Akeno) and Ryuu
An orphaned boy from Asirpa’s kotan who ends up following Tanigaki and Inkarmat to the rest of the Sugimoto crew. Ryuu was a dog originally owned by one of the escaped convicts, Testuzo Nihei, who was killed by Retar. Ryuu ends up following the group as well.
I mentioned Hijikata before. He has his own group that he has established to help his own questionable goals.
Shinpachi Nagakura (CV: Sugou Takayuki)
Hijikata’s old comrade in arms who is helping him find the gold to help build another Republic of Ezo in Hokkaido. Based on the real Nagakura Shinpachi.
Ushiyama Tatsuuma (CV: Nomura Kenji)
One of the escaped convicts. He is allies with Hijikata but doesn’t share his ambitious tendencies for a new republic. He’s kind of just in it for the ride.
Ogata Hyakunosuke (CV: Tsuda Kenjiro)
A neko sniper. No, just kidding though a lot of the fandom likens him to a cat, so I’m still right. Ogata is indeed a sniper, formerly of the 7th division before he betrays them to join Hijikata’s group. He later aligns himself with Sugimoto’s group before going along with Kiroranke in pursuit of the gold. His motives to find the gold are unclear.
The Hokkaido 7th Division
This division is part of the Imperial Japanese Army originally and is headed by lieutenant Tsurumi Tokushiro who is equally, if not more so questionable in his actions.
Tsurumi Tokushirou (CV: Ootsuka Houchuu)
The flamboyant charismatic lieutenant of the 7th division. Everyone loves this guy. Not loving this guy is nothing short of blasphemy. He has a colorful past but all you need to know is he is looking for the gold as well. Due to the Japanese failure of getting remunerations from Russia after the war, he decided to take matters into his own hands. He wears the ceramic plate on his head due to a brain injury which can cause him to have mood swings and violent outbursts, but we love him for it anyway.
Tsukishima Hajime (CV: Hosoya Yoshimasa)
A sergeant in the 7th division who is loyal to Tsurumi to a fault. He is the cold stoic one but has moments where he softens up a bit. Pretty fluent in Russian so he ends up being the translator of the group when they head up north towards Karafuto.
Nikaido Kouhei (CV: Sugita Tomokazu)
A private within the 7th division who had a twin, Youhei, who was killed by Sugimoto. He seeks revenge for his brother’s death but is unsuccessful thus far as usually pays the price by losing a body part or two.
Koito Otonoshin (CV: Konishi Katsuyuki)
A second lieutenant in the 7th division from Satsuma. He is a bit eccentric especially when he dives into his Satsuma accent, but he is a very capable fighter and leader when needs be. Also, is very in love with lieutenant Tsurumi.
A cool article I found on kamuycentral.wordpress.com explains the real life models for the tattooed convicts featured in the series. Check it out here. Mind you, a couple of the escaped convicts featured on the list seem to be manga only so be aware of that.
Speaking of the manga…
V. The Manga and its Slight Differences
As mentioned before, the anime is 36 episodes long as each season of Golden Kamuy is 12 episodes. The last season just finished up back in December of 2020 and a fourth season is in the works. But what about the manga?
At the time of writing, in America, there are 28 volumes with over 270 chapters and counting that has been published. It is still ongoing but it has been confirmed that the manga is entering its final arc.
I would say the main difference so far that I’ve found in the manga vs. the anime is Sugimoto’s motivation for finding the gold. Now, I’m not saying his reason is completely different, it’s not really, but the back story as to why is more explained in the manga (because of course it is). In the anime it’s mentioned once than glossed over, so it’s easy to forget.
Do you know Umeko? Umeko is the name of Sugimoto’s friend’s wife. Back during the war, Sugimoto and his friend were in the same regiment and fought alongside each other until his friend became mortally wounded and passed away.
Before that, he made Sugimoto promise to look out for his wife because she is slowly becoming blind. A blind widow who is a single mother is sadly not a very enticing women to marry for many. She would have to live well all alone which is nigh impossible.
And so, Sugimoto promises he will do his best to take care of her. This was his main motivation for finding the gold. That changes a bit once he meets Asirpa and his relationship deepens with the young Ainu girl.
This actually doesn’t sound that much different from the anime. However, in the manga, an extra layer of motivation is added to Sugimoto once we learn that he was in love with Ume before the war and still is during the events of the manga.
Unfortunately, he never properly acted out on his love due to the fact that he deemed himself dangerous and bad news to be around considering his whole family was wiped out by tuberculosis. Another fact that the anime didn’t touch on.
Miraculously, he survived (he’s not called Immortal Sugimoto for nothing), but he still kept his distance from Umeko and even pushed his friend as the better husband to her. Even after the war, Sugimoto found himself unable to connect with her as lovers because the war had changed him. Umeko herself didn’t recognize him as she had already gone mostly blind and his scent (for she relied on smells at this point) was different. He left her and subsequently goes on to find the gold for her, the woman he loves.
None of this is found in the anime. Though it is understandable that they would have had to cut out a few things during production. Still, it would have been interesting to see this side of Sugimoto more, but it’s a nitpick that isn’t a devastating blow to my evaluation of the anime.
Honestly though, I find Sugimoto as a character rather sadder in the manga than the anime. Though, the anime does a good job translating the internal struggle of Sugimoto as a war-scarred individual. In the anime, the reason he wants to find the gold comes across more as fulfilling the wish of a dying friend than helping the woman he loves.
There is also one part in the anime that I starkly remember really showed just how broken Sugimoto actually is though I suppose that is exacerbated by the fact a part of his brain (possibly the frontal lobe?) had to be taken out due to him getting shot in the head, but I won’t spoil that too much.
VI. Conclusion and the Importance of FOOD!
Overall, if you’re on the fence with Golden Kamuy, I would say just watch the first two episodes at least and see how you find it. It’s pretty humorous, engaging, and emotional at times. You will also learn a bit more about a native culture of Japan and may even be compelled to do your own research into Ainu culture. I know I will.
Also, I can’t believe I was about to leave this out, but the food that you’ll see in this anime may make your mouth water a bit. I mean, sure, a lot of it is wild animal brains, intestines, lungs and the sort, but somehow they (or really, Asirpa), makes it look so appealing.
Speaking of, I have a little glossary of important Ainu words you should learn as some are said pretty often in the anime/manga. It’s at the end of this post.
Anyways, that’s it for this quick “review.” Stay tuned for more anime thoughts in the future – both good and bad.
Oh, and one more thing, the facial expressions in Golden Kamuy truly are something else. I die nearly every time. I present a gallery of some, but not all, of the best ones:
VII. Asirpa’s Important Ainu Vocabulary
Asirpa (pronounced ‘Ashirpa’): means “new year” or “future.” An Ainu woman for a new age.
(Fun fact: All Ainu children have disgusting or gross sounding names until the age of 6 because it is said to ward off bad and evil spirits. Asirpa’s name used to be “Ekasiotonpuy” or “Grandfather’s butthole”).
Retar: a white wolf that is very fond of Asirpa. His name means “white.”
Kamuy: meaning “god.” Very important in Ainu culture.
Related terms: Kamuy mosir “land of the gods,” Wen Kamuy “evil god,” Horkew kamuy literally “howling god” but also means “wolf,” Kimun kamuy “bear.”
Sisam: A non-Ainu Japanese person (so someone like Sugimoto and co.)
Chitatap: A dish made out of raw meat or fish. It sort of carries the meaning of “we mince together” which refers to the practice of mincing the meat together with those who you will share the meal with. VERY IMPORTANT TO SAY “chitatap” when mincing meat or carry the sin of not doing it to your grave.
Hinna: a phrase used to show appreciation for the food (almost like the Ainu version of “itadakimasu.” Usually said while having some good chitatap or osoma (miso).
Osoma: meaning “poop.” Asirpa thought miso was osoma for the longest time hence her reluctance to try it at first. To be fair, I can see why she thought that. See above again if you forgot. Curry is also a osoma looking dish Asirpa was reluctant to have at first.
Aca: “father.” This is said a lot due to Asirpa constantly reminiscing over the short time she had with her father.
Huci: “grandmother.” You will hear this a lot since Asirpa’s grandmother is referred in this way throughout the anime/manga.
Kotan: “village.” (Another frequently used word, so remember it!)
There are plenty more words but I think those are the most important. Please, give this anime a try or if you prefer reading, then please read the manga. Both are pretty good~
And one last thing:
Thanks for reading!