A soldier holding his detached face. Toothpicks shoved through one cheek and out the other. Numerous soldiers shot and killed at point-blank range. Golden Kamuy has no shortage of violent scenes in almost each and every episode. As with Game of Thrones, that’s part of the appeal of the show (though it’s also a darn good series even without the shock and awe). But I noticed this—the violence in Golden Kamuy, as shocking as it is (and I would describe it as “shocking” rather than “graphic”), doesn’t impact me as I thought it would. I’ve always been sensitive to violence, and while Golden Kamuy does follow that line and affect me somewhat, it’s more with a stir than a full shake.
When I reflected on all this, I reminisced on some of the most graphically violent anime I’ve sat through:
- Elfen Lied
- Ninja Scroll
And the same with live-action films:
- Kill Bill
- Saving Private Ryan
- The Wild Bunch
All those works had much more immediate and powerful impacts on me than Golden Kamuy does. For sure, the level of violence in most of those examples is much stronger than this series (watching Saving Private Ryan in a theater, for instance, was a powerful and painful experience), but Golden Kamuy still has its moments. The toothpick scene is a pretty unsettling one and its matched by others.
But what does that all mean? I wonder…have I become desensitized to violence?
I think I have, at least in terms of media. And that could be a bad thing. The worry that many have is that when we consume so much violent media, we aren’t as concerned about real violence, like what happened down the road from in Santa Fe, Texas last week. The worst case is that many will celebrate and glorify violence, becoming desensitized in a different way, and commit atrocious acts upon others.
I don’t know about all that (I do always think about my obsession with Grand Theft Auto and an immediate temptation to drive wildly on the road), but I do know how violence in media affects me—often negatively. But my conclusion is that even so, Golden Kamuy is worth watching.
Years ago, I watched Elfen Lied, and its violence—the way it wanted its audience to revel in gore—had a profound impact on me. While watching the series, I dwelled on violent things and I couldn’t get certain emotions or feelings out of my mind. Also, Elfen Lied sucks. There was no quality in it that I felt redeemed the anime enough for me to finish the series.
But Golden Kamuy, at least so far, is different. There is some glorification of violence—there always is—but it portrays a violent, harsh world; it doesn’t promote it. And the relationship developing between characters, particularly between Sugimoto and Asirpa, is meaningful. The culture and historical context is also interesting and thought-provoking—I can’t think of an anime quite like this one. It’s been a marvel.
And that, ultimately, is why I’ll continue to anticipate each episode. I refuse to apply a stringent morality for series that fall in that huge spectrum of shows that can judged in any number of ways. Golden Kamuy checks off the “violent box,” but so, too, does it the “strong relationships,” “cultural understanding,” and “exciting story” ones. And those positives are as important as the negatives. I want stories that are meaningful, that challenge me, and that usually reinforce what I believe to be true.
And sometimes that means watching shows that I might traditionally not—even ones where bears tear off soldiers’ faces.