Golden Kamuy has to be one of the most exciting first manga volumes I’ve ever read because of its approach to the story. It’s not only about the characters, the setting, and the art, but also filling the reader in on rich cultural history and survival tips. Nearly every page has some factoid or tip, which gives the story more value overall. History buffs will love this approach and the value increases exponentially because of the details.
So what’s it about?
The official summary reads:
In the early 20th century, Russo-Japanese War veteran Saichi Sugimoto searches the wilderness of the Japanese frontier of Hokkaido for a hoard of hidden gold. With only a cryptic map and a native Ainu girl to help him, Saichi must also deal with every murderous cutthroat, bandit and rogue who knows about the treasure! On the trail of a hoard of hidden gold, Saichi “Immortal” Sugimoto and the Ainu girl Asirpa have already tracked down some of the escaped prisoners whose tattoos form a map to the lost treasure. But their search has caught the attention of a group of rogue Japanese soldiers from the legendary 7th Division. Their leader, the utterly cold-blooded and driven Lieutenant Tsurumi, will stop at nothing to find the gold. And Tsurumi is not the only formidable opponent Saichi and Asirpa must deal with–a former samurai who escaped with the prisoners is carving his own path to the loot. These enemies will put Saichi’s “Immortal” nickname to the test…
Why does this matter?
Like Vinland Saga before it, this manga is a historical fiction loosely based on real life people and locations, which sets it apart from the many fantasy and science fiction manga on stands today. Aside from this unique feature, it’s also beautifully drawn by Satoru Noda with a keen sense of detail of the great outdoors and the animals within it. Its narrative choice of explaining facts and culture gives the book an even more thorough approach than any historical manga that came before it.
Fine, you have my attention. What’s good about it?
At times this manga feels like it’s portraying an entirely new world because the survival skills, factoids, or cultural aspects are so foreign and new. This is in part because the manga is set in a time and place relatively undocumented, at least to American audiences, as it is set on the northernmost island of Japan called Hokkaido. This was a place where Russian and Japanese people coexisted, and a tribe of Native American-like people existed between them. With little knowledge of this area or this time in history I found myself captivated by historical factoids dropped via captions.
Noda works interesting details into the narrative very well too–like a scene where villains chase the heroes on skis, which we learn have seal fur on them to help with traction–and for the most part you’ll enjoy every detail that’s revealed. The narrative avoids being a history lesson on every page by always having the plot move forward. Noda does this well as Sugimoto and Asirpa attempt to escape soldiers looking for hidden gold, encounter a wild bear, and face the threat of a general who lost part of his brain.
Much of this volume focuses on Asirpa and her village. Once there, Noda reveals cultural beliefs, tales they tell about certain animals, and how they hunt. It’s fascinating to read if you’ve ever had interest in ancient people who live off the land because there’s a lot of ingenuity going on to maintain their survival. There’s a strong relationship being built between Asirpa and Sugimoto and Noda utilizes the perspective of Asirpa’s grandmother and another villager to add some outside perspective to heat things up. Will they be romantic? Are they just friends? Isn’t Asirpa too young for Sugimoto?! These are all questions you’ll be asking, which add a nice character layer to the story.
The art is fantastic too. Double page spreads of forests look beautiful, and the clothes, buildings, and animals all look photorealistic. It’s a gorgeous looking book. Surprisingly Noda goes all in with some gory scenes which certainly add a frightening element to the story. I won’t spoil it, but value your lower jaw and skin people!
It can’t be perfect can it?
Some folks might find all the facts being dropped as preachy or annoying. At times they can pull you out of a scene as Noda will focus on something seemingly arbitrary or at least not important enough to focus in on. The skis for example, are a neat factoid, but considering the bad guys are on them so briefly it doesn’t seem all that important. For the most part these didn’t bother me, although when Noda takes the reader to Asirpa’s village things do get a little too preachy. Asirpa ends up monologuing at Sugimoto over and over either about how her people cook, what they believe, or some other seemingly obtuse notion. Clearly, Noda finds all these facts and historical elements fascinating–and truth be told they are–but when they’re delivered one after the other for long stretches it can be exhausting. At the very least they drag the story down.
That brings us to another gripe from this volume and that’s the fact that the plot doesn’t move forward very quickly. The last volume opened the reader to the world and characters as well as the plot, but this volume moves incredibly slowly. The character drama is good, but in hindsight, you’ll reflect on this volume and realize nearly nothing has changed since the first volume. The facts add a layer of interesting entertainment, but it’s safe to say the plot is dragging.
Is It Good?
Golden Kamuy is a fine example of how manga can transport readers anywhere. Not only is it entertaining, but it’s incredibly rewarding for anyone interested in history or survival skills.