Originally published on The Fandom Post
What They Say:
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
With the Ainu gold presenting such a tempting target, it only makes sense that Sugimoto and Asirpa would have some competition in their search. In this case, their competition is an elite unit of the Japanese military that also fought in the Russo-Japanese War. The men from the 7th Division are no joke, either. The one we’re introduced to here snipes a prisoner from 300 meters away, correctly identifies the model of Sugimoto’s gun just by the sound, and then proves an even match for Sugimoto in close combat. The 7th Division is clearly going to be a long-term enemy for our heroes, but it only makes up a small part of the episode.
The bulk of the episode is more introduction to Sugimoto and Asirpa’s dynamic, which is already off to a strong start. Sugimoto isn’t precisely a good guy-he threatens to kill and skin a helpless prisoner, and it’s hard to tell if he means it or not-so Asirpa serves as a strong moral center. At the same time, her refusal to kill comes off as somewhat naïve given the perilous situations she and Sugimoto run into with both the prisoners and the 7th division. Golden Kamuy is clearly setting up a contrast between her moral code and Sugimoto’s ruthless determination to survive, although it’s still an open question which side the show itself agrees with.
Much of Asirpa’s characterization comes through her explanations of Ainu culture, but she’s more than just a mouthpiece for that. The little tidbits of her past and her reaction upon facing discrimination for being Ainu (a topic I’m surprised and impressed that Golden Kamuy is addressing so directly) speak to someone who’s had to grow up beyond her years to survive. She already has a strong dynamic with Sugimoto. In spite of their age difference, they treat each other as equals in their journey. Sugimoto stands up for her when a prisoner calls her his pet, but respects her wishes and stands down when she tells him to. At the same time, Asirpa shows him survival tricks like how to make a trap to catch squirrels and cook them, while also sharing her customs. Having her not only prepare the food, but also explain the cultural significance behind it, turns a cooking scene into a bonding moment between her and Sugimoto. The two are clearly in it for the long haul, so it’s good to see such a strong dynamic already.
Beyond just showing us tasty food, the scene where Asirpa teaches Sugimoto how to cook squirrels gives us a very frank look at the process behind skinning them and chopping the meat. It’s a little off-putting, but it also furthers the theme that survival isn’t always pretty. Golden Kamuy doesn’t revel in the violence that comes with hunting and cooking animals, but it also doesn’t shy away from it. Death is treated as a necessary part of life in such a hostile climate, pretty or not.
Even through all this, Golden Kamuy retains a surprisingly strong sense of humor. Small asides like Sugimoto amazing Asirpa by “bending” a pencil are funny enough, but the real standout is Sugimoto and one of the escaped prisoners desperately trying to start a fire after they both fall in a freezing river. It’s an intense moment of them trying to survive the next ten minutes, but their exaggerated reactions to every small detail make it oddly comedic as well. With how harsh Golden Kamuy can sometimes be, this sort of levity is both welcome and charming.
Unfortunately, the animation this week is disturbingly uneven. Movement is fairly limited throughout, and the characters regularly look off model. Close shots look decent, but longer shots quickly start to go off model. I’m not an expert on animation, but it looks like the staff didn’t have time to make corrections on the longer shots. Much of the episode looks more like a show from the mid-2000s than something airing right now. There’s nothing as egregious as the bears from last week, but it’s worrying to see production issues cropping up so early in a show’s run. Hopefully, this is just a small hiccup and not the start of a downward trend.
Production issues aside, this was a solid follow-up to a strong premiere. The animation drags it down a bit, but the story is just as compelling as before. Sugimoto and Asirpa only become more compelling leads as we learn more about them, and the historical setting is equally interesting. I always like seeing an underutilized historical period get the spotlight, and it only seems to be improving from here. Having one of the prisoners be Hijikata Toshizo, the former vice-commander of the Shinsengumi, is an interesting choice since the historical Hijikata died almost a half-century before Golden Kamuy takes place, but it also adds yet another variable to the equation. The Shinsengumi are rarely portrayed as good guys, and the little bit we see of Hijikata seems to follow that trend. With so many new hooks and subplots going on, Golden Kamuy is continuing its strong start from last week.