I’m a big fan of historical manga with Vinland Saga being one of the best of the bunch. That’s because these sprawling epics can reveal incredible historical moments in vivid detail that aren’t normally explored in TV or movies. Set in 1904, Golden Kamuy follows a soldier who can’t be killed–or so we he thinks–searching for hidden gold in the northern-most island of Japan. Defected and on the hunt for riches, he’ll do whatever it takes to find it, which includes befriending a young Ainu girl.
Story and Art by: Satoru Noda
Publisher: Viz Media
So what’s it about?
The official summary reads:
In the early twentieth century, Russo-Japanese War veteran Saichi “Immortal” Sugimoto scratches out a meager existence during the postwar gold rush on the wild frontier of Hokkaido. When he stumbles across a map to a fortune in hidden Ainu gold, he sets off on a treacherous quest to find it. But Sugimoto is not the only interested party, and everyone who knows about the gold will kill to possess it! Faced with the harsh conditions of the northern wilderness, ruthless criminals and rogue Japanese soldiers, Sugimoto will need all his skills and luck—and the help of an Ainu girl named Asirpa—to survive.
Why does this book matter?
Not only set in an unusual time and place, Satoru Noda has gone to great lengths to fill this manga with interesting information and details. How fast a bear runs, how snares work, what kind of bark to use to create smoke…these are all details you’ll learn when reading this manga. That’s because the Ainu girl, Asirpa, spends a good deal of time showing Sugimoto how to survive in the snow covered wilderness. It’s also to add a bit of context to understand how hard it is to survive.
Fine, you have my attention. What’s good about it?
Courtesy GOLDEN KAMUY © 2014 by Satoru Noda/SHUEISHA Inc.
This is a cleverly written manga that keeps you on your toes and changes things on the fly. Opening on a battlefield, Saichi “Immortal” Sugimoto is an incredible killer and drawn as if he’s a demon. We get a glimpse of his survival skills as he cuts through the enemy to stay alive for another day. It then cuts to a calm river bank where he attempts to pan for gold. We soon learn many details about his fellow man who tells a tale of prisoners who hid a treasure map to a hidden store of gold. Along the journey, series creator Satoru Noda reveals truths about Sugimoto that humanize the character. Given the opening, you’d think he was an evil maniac, but truth be told there’s a kind heart within. By the end of the volume Noda has effectively set up the stakes, the villain, and created a tight knit bond between Asirpa and Sugimoto that readers will want a lot more of.
Speaking of Asirpa, Noda does a great job fleshing out this small yet fearless warrior. She’s drawn almost like a manga goddess in her furs and gear. Incredibly confident and ready to fight in a moment’s notice, Noda creates a character you respect instantly. Sugimoto seems to do the same and given his ability to stay alive and her ability to survive in the wilderness, they seem to be a good team. They also have a common cause to work together for, though for different reasons.
There’s some truly gorgeous art in this manga and it’s right up there in quality with Vinland Saga. The attention to detail in the trees, animals, and villages are incredible. Between chapters we get cool rundowns of the gear each character possesses which further shows how much time was spent getting every detail right. It’s these details that help remind us how authentic and well crafted the manga is to be a closely historical work of fiction. While the nature is gorgeous, the gore and violence are incredibly graphic. This is certainly not for young children, with blades going through folks and eyes being gouged out, especially to start the volume. It’s clear the detail in this regard intends to remind us this is real life and anything can happen.
My favorite element of this manga however is the detailed facts you receive via captions. In this single volume you learn so much, from survival techniques to the history of the island and its people. By the end of the volume you’ll feel like you learned a lot, which you can’t say for most manga (or comic books, for that matter) today.
GOLDEN KAMUY © 2014 by Satoru Noda/SHUEISHA Inc.
It can’t be perfect can it?
While the facts are certainly interesting and helpful, they can feel like a distraction at inopportune times. Particularly in more action heavy moments, an aside about how to light a fire can slow down an otherwise fast paced and high tension scene. Generally this isn’t a problem, but it did put a hamper on pace here and there.
Is It Good?
This is an incredible manga due to its highly detailed art, the delivery of many interesting facts, and a compelling setup in a foreign time and place. The historical nature of the story is right up there with greats like Vinland Saga. Golden Kamuy is an incredible mix of graphic action, intrigue, and characters, led by Satoru Noda’s strong vision of the early 20th century.