I confess, I didn’t really have much interest in the indigenous Ainu people of Japan before Utawarerumono. Perhaps as someone who consumed so much Japanese media, watching shows about space battleships and jumping on goombas, I should have taken more interest in Japanese history and culture, but being a typical dirty gaijin I got all my knowledge about Japan from anime and videogames, and the Ainu do not show up often in those. I can understand why; I’m Australian, and European settlers’ casual genocide of our indigenous population is still something of a sore spot for the nation. Most countries have a shameful chapter in their history like that, some have multiple. The problem with Japan is that some over there have a tendency to take those shameful chapters and bury them (see: World War II), and for those just skimming the surface of Japanese history it’s easy to be distracted by samurai and ninja and miss out on the Ainu. So when along comes Golden Kamuy, which not only feature the Ainu prominently but also directly reference their grievances with the Japanese, I’m all for it. I have not read the manga, but I’m hyped. On a cerebral level, these less-explored parts of Japanese history make for fascinating settings for anime. Historical anime is already rare, and unexplored territory even more precious.
A large part of the appeal of Golden Kamuy, though, seems not be cerebral, but purely visceral. This is an old-fashioned adventure story, with rogue heroes off to dig up
Nazi Ainu gold. And it’s a gritty sort of tale too; we start with war and from there it’s one scene of violence and gore. Golden Kamuy is definitely not a show that is shy about getting its hands dirty. Perhaps that why, although a lot of this pilot was actually spent rushing through exposition the entire experience was still, overall, intense. It doesn’t need to be violent and graphic all the time; I mean, the main antagonist of the episode was a taxidermy model but because it was established early on that Golden Kamuy was not afraid to get bloody the atmosphere of danger was maintained.
But more than anything else, I consider the main achievement of this pilot was establishing the characters. We quickly latch onto Sugimoto (Kobayashi Chikahiro) as the hero; he’s got the scar and the scarf. His internal conflict is quickly established; he’s the kind of scum who would do anything to survive, but is also willing to help others. He will sink to lows to live, but is willing to live for the sake of another. He is fundamentally selfish but is not greedy, desiring gold only to meet his objectives. Most importantly, he has an interesting foil in Asirpa (Shiraishi Haruka). She is a hunter-gatherer, ‘uncivilised’, but in a fight Sugimoto is much more of a savage. She sees life as about more than survivial, holding a spiritual reverence for it that restrains her from murder; a kind of spirituality that is hard to imagine in Sugimoto. I can already see that they will have a strong dynamic together. I just hope that Ashirpa will have equal standing to Sugimoto and not be relegated to a token-ethnic-sidekick role (see: The Lone Ranger. I mean, he has a sidekick but he’s still known as ‘The Lone Ranger).
Overall, a very promising start. I’m slightly concerned about the pacing and the CGI, but those are minor quibbles in the grand scheme and the general shape of Golden Kamuy just looks so right. We can never have enough swashbuckling, devil-may-care adventure stories, and Golden Kamuy fits that ticket mighty well.
ED: 「Winding Road」 by MAN WITH A MISSION