While the anime season is past the midpoint and rapidly nearing its end (already!), viewers like me have settled into the shows that they’ll watch all the way through. That list for me includes a series I took a flyer on when it first premiered, but which has kept me entertained throughout: Golden Kamuy. The series follows Sugimoto, a veteran of the Russo-Japanese War, and Asirpa, an Ainu girl, as they partner to try to find and unbury a massive stash of Ainu gold before other ruthless factions beat them to it.
At once brutal, sentimental, and humorous, Golden Kamuy is one of the more unique offerings of the season. Each episode is tapestry of complex elements that makes the series worth watching. In fact, episode seven (“Complication”) demonstrates eight of these strands that run throughout the show (the screen captures below are all from that episode) and make the case that you should be watching.
Note: There are some scenes of violence in the screen captures ahead.
1. It’s like The Revenant
The very first episode of the series led me to conclude that this was the anime version of The Revenant, the Academy Award-winning film from 2015 that depicted the struggle of a trapper to survive after he is mauled by a bear and left for dead. There are indeed lots of bears in Golden Kamuy, and lots of mauling, too. Some characters survive their confrontations with mother nature, but others do not, with many dying in painful ways (often cast in shadow and feeling more graphic than what’s actually shown—perhaps somewhat due to lacking CGI for the creatures). Like that live action film, this series lets you know how dangerous nature is, and how in the frontier—whether it’s near Yellowstone or in Hokkaido—we as humans are never in control.
2. It’s also like Game of Thrones
One of the things I most appreciate about Game of Thrones is that GRRM wrote his novels in such a way that it feels there could be no other outcome than what occurs, which often means that characters we grow to love must die. That sense of danger hangs around Golden Kamuy as well. We have a group of characters that we think will survive, but we’re never quite sure—and certainly the possibility that they won’t make it entirely intact is constantly a possibility. That fear adds a bit of an edge to the show, and makes it a scary experience as much as a purely entertaining one, as violence scenes mark each and every episode.
3. It’s a history lesson
While it of course ventures off into its own narrative territory, Golden Kamuy qualifies as historical fiction. The series opens on the battlefield during the Russo-Japanese War, whose repercussions set many events in motion, and from which many of the characters know or know of each other. Actual historical figures also figure into the story, as does the general transformation of Japan during this time period. There’s lots to learn here, as long as you’re willing to connect dots through research instead of accepting everything shown as fact.
4. It’s about the poop jokes
But it’s not all serious. There is time for laughs in just about every episode, and even a character or two whose function is mostly to serve as comedy relief in this cold world. The most famous joke has to do with poop. Asirpa, having never eaten miso, mistakes it for the foul stuff and is appalled when Sugimoto adds it to his soup. She spreads the word that he’s a poop eater…though she has to face the music later and admit that the “poop” tastes pretty good.
5. It drifts into the world of myth
Mythology, too, plays an important role in the series, particularly as Asirpa explains Ainu beliefs to Sugimoto. Taking place over 100 years ago, the story is grounded in reality but leaves room for the supernatural, particularly when nature comes into play, and all the more when the two visit Asirpa’s village and traditional tales are more fully explained. The addition of this element helps break down barriers between the characters, and between reality and possibility for us as the viewer.
6. It is a cautionary tale
I haven’t read the manga, so I don’t know where all this is heading—but the idea of Golden Kamuy as a cautionary tale runs strong right from the beginning. As man attempts to destroy nature, nature fights back. As greed corrupts man, man is cursed. And even as society changes in many ways, it reaps what is sows, losing sight of beauty, though this last point, the most complex of all, has yet to be fleshed out fully—we’ll see where it goes, primarily I assume through the eyes of Asirpa, who stands at the crossroads between the future and the past.
7. It’s culture
Indeed, Asirpa is captivating in part because she values her culture but wants to be set apart, a “modern” woman who remembers and honors tradition. Sugimoto, tough as he is, quickly warms to Asirpa and the Ainu, and his openness to their culture mirrors our own as we take a look into a people that would be repressed for at least the next century. The two exchange ideas and especially food as they get to know one another. Sugimoto and the viewers learn about a culture that we know little of, and I think become more compassionate and better for it.
8. It’s about relationships
But ultimately, like most good stories, the focus is on the characters and their relationships with one another. A special bond is developing between the tough-as-nails (but gentle-hearted) Sugimoto and wise-beyond-her-years (but still a girl) Asirpa, one that’s been earned through their mutual respect for and openness toward one another, in addition to the challenges they’ve already been through as pair. This is a duo for the ages—and you’ll want to follow along and see if they can accomplish their goal and make their way out of the mess that they must wade into to get there.
Golden Kamuy can be streamed on Crunchyroll.
Featured illustration by USHIO (reprinted w/permission)