Originally published on The Fandom Post.
What They Say:
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Because Golden Kamuy places so much emphasis on its setting, I’d like to detail some of the historical background before I start the review itself. Golden Kamuy is set in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of the Japanese archipelago, in 1904. While it’s now a part of Japan, Hokkaido is also home to the Ainu, an indigenous ethnic group that’s culturally distinct from the Japanese. During the Meiji era, where Golden Kamuy is set, they were forced to assimilate as part of a larger effort by the Japanese government to form a culturally unified Japan. The Ainu were banned from practicing their traditions, observing their religion, and even speaking their own language. The Ainu today only number around 25,000-200,000 and their language is considered critically endangered. I bring all this up because Golden Kamuy places a lot of importance on its setting, and is the only anime I’ve seen that actually has an Ainu character, let alone an Ainu lead.
The story itself is fairly straightforward. Sugimoto, a soldier who just returned from the Russo-Japanese War, learns about a treasure hidden somewhere in Hokkaido, with the only clues being tattooed on a group of escaped death row prisoners. After hearing the story from an old man who turns out to be one of the prisoners, Sugimoto starts searching for it because he needs the money to help his deceased friend’s wife. He teams up with Asirpa, an Ainu girl with her own reasons for wanting the gold to be found.
Simple as this sort of setup is, there’s still something enticing about the idea of hidden treasure deep in the wilderness. The forests of Hokkaido are portrayed as wild and untamed, full of both possibilities and danger. The old man randomly telling Sugimoto the full story of the treasure is a somewhat clunky way to kick-start the plot, but Golden Kamuy does an excellent job of selling the thrill of chasing after the gold. Sugimoto’s reasons for wanting the gold are spelled out through some similarly clunky exposition, but that seems to be more of a problem with the initial setup than something that’s going to drag the show down long term.
Sugimoto himself is an interesting lead. His introduction comes during a battle in the Russo-Japanese War and certainly leaves an impact. The way he charges into enemy lines through bullets and fights the Russians up close gives him a wild and savage appearance, fitting for a show with such a wild setting. While he seems like a decent person at heart, Sugimoto also has a savage, almost brutal, manner about him. Upon discovering that the convicts’ tattoos have to be combined to form the map, Sugimoto doesn’t hesitate to skin the corpse of one of them. Golden Kamuy doesn’t glorify this kind of brutality, but it also doesn’t shy away from it. Moments like Asirpa butchering a bear to use the skin and organs are presented in a very matter of fact way, like it’s just a part of life for them.
The one big downside to this episode is the animation. It’s mostly average quality, with good artwork somewhat reminiscent of Hiromu Arakawa’s art style. The problem is the CGI they use for the bears Asirpa and Sugimoto fight. CGI almost always stands out when combined with traditional animation, but this takes it to a whole new level. The bears look more like bad puppets than actual animation, which makes it seem like they don’t exist in the same plane as the rest of the show. It’s an annoyingly distinct flaw in an otherwise strong premiere.
CGI bears aside, Golden Kamuy is off to a great start. It’s set in an often overlooked period of history, and uses that setting to its fullest. The forests of Hokkaido are such a strong setting that they’re almost as compelling a character as Sugimoto and Asirpa. The forest might house all sorts of danger, but there’s also treasure to be found at the end of the journey. This is one treasure hunt that I’m excited to see to the end.