Golden Kamuy: A Gloriously Graphic & Unconventional Tale of Ainu Culture & Savage Treasure Hunts – Manga First Impressions

Golden Kamuy (ゴールデンカムイ) by Satoru Noda is a seinen, historical, Japanese-style Western manga series with seventeen total volumes thus far. It’s still ongoing and also has an anime adaptation (I believe season three shall be releasing later this year). The story is about a man known as the Immortal Sugimoto, who promises his dying comrade during a war that he would look after the man’s family. After the war ends, Sugimoto searches for a means of acquiring financial stability so he can uphold that dying wish. One night while camping, he learns about the ultimate treasure in existence. In order to acquire that treasure, Sugimoto would have to stake his life and death on the hunt. After deciding that the risk is well worth it, he encounters an Ainu girl who agrees to assist him with his quest.

When season one of the anime released, I enjoyed the premise and characters quite a bit. The adaptation was far from perfect with some disjointed animation styles and frustrating plot progression (there was a lot of action and things seemed to move quickly, but I felt the first season should have been longer, given what season two was), yet it was so unique when compared to other titles within the seinen genre from what I’ve seen thus far, and I fell in love with it. So, when I came upon the manga at my local library, I checked-out the first two volumes of the original source material.

Westerns aren’t typically a genre that I find pleasure in. Most of the time it can bore me to death. But Asian Westerns, especially Japanese-style ones, have enough differences to them to be wonderfully appealing to me. Golden Kamuy is no exception to that. The story is delightfully compelling with excellent action and suspense that work extremely well within a Western-style narrative ambiance. My familiarity with the series was essentially forgotten as I read the manga because it can draw you into the world and the events so wholly as to feel like a brand-new experience. Not many stories—manga, cinematic, or bookish—can evoke such a response from me.

I strongly believe that one of the main reasons that Golden Kamuy is so alluring is due to the perfect balance of gritty malevolence and crude, adult humour. It isn’t afraid to be ridiculously funny while still being breathtakingly graphic and dark. Usually one aspect can outshine or diminish the other, however, with this series, they work to create a morbidly fascinating good time of badassry.

Storyline dynamics unfold in a comfortable and gripping manner that never made me feel like I was being rushed from Point A to Point B, or that detours and fillers were being implemented to fill spaces between volumes. The dialogue and interactions between Sugimoto and his Ainu partner, Asirpa, can be comforting, funny (more often than not), insightful, and emotional at times. I love the respect that Sugimoto shows Asirpa and her people, which according to her past experiences is exceptionally uncommon as they are ostracised terribly.

On the surface, the characters can feel empty and singular in dimension, yet as we learn more about them—their personally quirks, their pasts and motives, their aspirations, their bonds—we get to see them as being far more than the surface colouring (i.e.: he’s a hero because he survived a war, or she’s a villain because she shot a bear, etc.). A large part of my addiction to the story and seeing what the bloody hell will happen next is my investment in the individuals that help create the foundation for all of the chaos that ensues, for better or worse.

Something else that blew me away was the artistry of the artwork. The panels and pages are gorgeously and methodically detailed. At first glance, particularly the action-heavy scenes, can feel like a visual mess, but the closer you look at it, the smaller and more refined elements help put out a truly larger picture to what’s going on, metaphorically and literally. There is a photorealistic aspect to the depiction of the scenery and the animals, and a heavy use of straight black tones rather than varying shades of grey to create very sharp and prominent, attention-grabbing images. The portions that share titbits of Ainu culture and practises feel like they’re done with utmost respect and care due to this drawing style; it highlights the tribal essence of their way of life in a cultured manner. It never sacrifices that adult and mature feel either.  It’s fucking brilliant.

Overall, the first two volumes of the Golden Kamuy manga swept me off my little feet with joy and anticipation to the point where I’ve already deemed the series as one of my favourites for the seinen genre. I’m looking forward to getting the other volumes and continuing this fantastic fucking ride. If you are a fan of Japanese-style Westerns and intensely action-heavy narratives and aren’t put off by severely graphic depictions of death and mayhem, as well as crude sequences of comedy, you may want to invest in the first volume of Golden Kamuy. It’s one of the finest introductory instalments I’ve encountered.

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