「メコオヤシ」 (Meko Oyashi)
I’ll just start by stating the obvious – to me obvious, anyway. Golden Kamuy has really upped its game this season. This was already a great series (it’s never finished outside my year-end top 10). But I’m enjoying this season more over the course of a 7-episode run than any similar stretch before. The combination of epic storytelling, shameless humor, and very intimate character stories is – as always – irresistible. But the sweep and breadth of the story has never been greater, and I could say the same about Suehiro Kenichiro’s music.
In hindsight, splitting up Sugimoto and Asirpa was a master stroke by Noda Satoru. It’s given the sweeping part of the story a new focus and sense of urgency, where at times in the past the hunt for the gold could seem a little remote. It’s put Asirpa in the sort of jeopardy she never was with Sugimoto watching over her. And it’s given the narrative yet more choices in terms of where it points the camera. Golden Kamuy has the luxury of a huge stable of compelling characters, to the point where we can ignore an entire subset of them, like the Hijikata group (that will change next week) and never skip a beat.
As the hunt for Asirpa continues (the trail is colder than the pursuers realize) the Sugimoto group finds itself caught in a sudden blizzard. Even with Tanigaki’s survival skills it’s is a dire situation when the two sleds become separated. Tsukishima’s group manages to find shelter in a remote homestead, but Sugimoto, Tanigaki and Cikapasi are forces to try and survive in the open. The ground is frozen too hard even to dig a hole deep enough to shelter from the wind, and they’re forced to break up the sled for firewood. Tanigaki applies his knowledge here and buries the embers, on the grounds that the trio can gain more time by lying on time of them as they burn slowly. But not much time.
This passage is, in a word, gripping. It’s quite moving to see these gruff and hard soldiers tenderly work to keep Cikapasi alive (of course to Tanigaki he’s basically a son at this point), and as they lie in their shallow hole (soon enough likely a grave) trying not to fall asleep, the two men daydream of frigid days of horror in the battlefield. And Sugimoto gains the resolve to struggle on through the image of Asirpa in his mind’s eye. But this is going badly – even with the embers and the sled dogs for warmth the end is probably not far off.
The stroke of good fortune that saves them is the return of the old couple who live in the homestead, because in fact the homestead is a lighthouse. It’s intended for ships (the shore is a stone’s throw away) and time has passed it by, but the old man stokes the light to life and it shines as a beacon that Sugimoto picks out through the blizzard. In this frozen wasteland the line between survival and death is never far off, surely, and soon enough the three wayward sons are sipping tea and basking in the hospitality of their Russian hosts. They’re glad to have the company, and soon enough the reason becomes clear – they’ve lost their daughter Svetlana to a Russian soldier, an offense they’ve never forgiven.
Meanwhile Kiroranke continues to worm his way deeper and deeper into Asirpa’s trust with tales of Wilk. Asirpa is a very smart girl but it seems her need to know the father she’s lost is too strong for her to see the dangerous waters she’s sailing into. Kiroranke tells her of the woman, Sofia, who was their boss in the Narodnaya Volya. She’s imprisoned in Ako, the large Russian port town which was the first stop for exiles to Sakhalin (the Russians have always loved their exiling). As it happens Svetlana – who Sugimoto has promised to search for – is imprisoned there too, though Kiroranke has no idea of the connection.
The capstone to the episode is the story of the Meko Oyasi, the cat monsters of Ainu legend, which Enonaka terrifies Cikapasi with tales of. These are real creatures, yamaneko – mountain cats – which happens to have been Ogata’s nickname in his unit. “The son of a mountain cat is a mountain cat”, Koito notes dryly, and Tsukishima informs Sugimoto that “yamaneko” is also slang for a deceiver. Ogata’s fickle character is hardly the stuff of mystery at this point, but it’s easy to forget just how capricious he truly is – which makes you worry for everyone who ever turns their back on him.