「樺太へ」 (Karafuto e)
There’s nothing in the world like Golden Kamuy.
If you ask me to break down the greatness of Golden Kamuy – what really makes it stand out – I’d point to two things. First, mangaka Noda Satoru’s uncanny ability to make every character, no matter how small, as distinctive as if they were the protagonist of their own series. And second, the sheer bombast and audaciousness of his writing style. The latter makes Golden Kamuy as close to unique as you’ll find in anime – there’s just nothing else like it. It’s as if Dr. Zhivago had a baby with Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
It all adds up to me being stoked to have this series back, a blessed relief from a year of mediocrity and homogeneity for anime. That Python-esque hybrid of the highbrow and lowbrow is fully on display in the third season premiere. Gags like Sugimoto constantly showing photos of a fundoshi-clad Tanigaki instead of Asirpa (why does Sugimoto have those photos, anyway – and so many of them?), are played off against the seriousness of the task at-hand – finding the abducted Asirpa, somewhere in the wilds of Sakhalin with Kiroranke.
If you’ve seen the excellent anime film Giovanni’s Island, you know how the Japanese settlement of Sakhalin came to a jarring end – but the events depicted in Golden Kamuy are close to a half-century before that. Japan had emerged from the Russo-Japanese War with possession of half the island, and many Japanese traveled north to try and create farming communities there. But there were people on Sakhalin before the Japanese or even the Russians – the Ainu, which had split into three major groups. The Sakhalin Ainu developed a distinct culture, more dependent on fishing than the Hokkaido and Chishima groups.
One thing all the Ainu groups have in common, of course, is persecution by their respective governments in the past few centuries – persecution intent on eliminating their culture both in Japan and on Sakhalin. Exposing this is Noda-sensei’s ultimate theme with Golden Kamuy to be sure, and he spares no detail in making sure he depicts the Ainu culture as accurately as possible. He works with an Ainu linguistics professor on the manga, and for this season, Geno Studio has brought in a language expert of their own – a Russian linguist. And the Russian language is all over the first episode of the season.
Cikapasi and Ryu have stowed away to Sakhalin along with Sugimoto, Tanigaki, Tsukishima and Koito (who’s none too thrilled to see them). Cikapasi has hitched his sled to Tanigaki to be sure, and he points out that the boy could be useful in gaining the trust of the Ainu on Sakhalin. Indeed he does prove useful as soon as the little group, believing they’re hot on Asirpa’s trail, turns out to have been following Enonoka (Ichinose Kana), an Ainu girl about Cikapasi’s age who’s fallen from her grandfather‘s sled. The woods are especially dangerous this time of year, and not because of CGI bears – it’s wolverines (not CGI) that the locals are really frightened of. And indeed, they do have a rep as one of the pound-for-pound nastiest animals on Earth.
Enonoka may be the wrong girl, but she has seen the right one – and her tip leads the group (renting her grandfather’s sled) to the Russian village to the north. A haven of ex-prisoners, it’s a rough-and-tumble sort of place. But they don’t get much more rough-and-tumble than Sugimoto, and he’s particularly ill-tempered at having lost Asirpa. He roughs up one of the locals in the tavern, which eventually leads to the owner kidnapping Enonoka’s isohseta (lead sled dog), which he says he’ll return if Sugimoto takes the place of the man he beat up in the upcoming stenka. And if there’s ever been an event custom-made for Golden Kamuy, it’s the stenka.
I still can’t quite grok the fact that Golden Kamuy is a hit – it’s too weird, too esoteric, too generally uncommercial to succeed as an anime. And yet, somehow, it has. I don’t know why, but I’m heartily glad of it because shows like this make anime seasons. It seems to be more popular then ever in fact, given the level of merchandising associated with the series and the disc sales of the most recent OVA. It’s a treasure trove of riches to rival the gold everyone is searching for – a tremendous cast of characters (and seiyuu), a brilliant overarching plot, cultural insight and social activism, hilarious humor. As long as Noda keeps writing I suspect anime will keep adapting – and you can bet your ass I’ll keep watching.