Author: Satoru Noda
Artists: Satoru Noda
Release Date: June 20, 2017
Publisher: Viz Media
Genre: Adventure, War
Some of those accolades may be due to just how different Golden Kamuy is from other seinen manga created with teen boys in mind. Set after the Russo-Japanese War at the turn of the 20th Century, the series revolves around Saichi Sugimoto, an infamous Japanese soldier trying to strike it rich in the forested Hokkaido region before he’s tangled up in a treasure hunt for a legendary cache of gold. The only problem? The map to the gold was tattooed on 24 different criminals as they were released from prison, all so one dangerous inmate could skin his victims alive and form a guide to the treasure.
It’s a setup that’s equal parts grim and goofy, especially once Sugimoto teams up with Asirpa, a teenage native Ainu girl, who wants revenge for what was done to her father in jail. They’re an odd, albeit charming, pair, fighting off blood-starved grizzly bears, snipers and covert treasure hunters alike, all while foraging for food in a unforgiving wilderness.
There’s a lot going on, both tonally and plot wise, and the first volume both introduces a ton of concepts and demands readers keep them in the air as they read. It’s a book that takes the time to introduce and explain ancient Ainu hunting techniques, not just for aesthetics and verisimilitude but to introduce plot elements that will pay off later, often in vicious and dramatic ways. Still, it can be a demanding read, albeit an always engaging one.
Some of that is due to the small pleasures of following these characters, particularly Sugimoto. He’s introduced to readers in the first chapter as a killing machine and little more, cutting through Russian forces with a death wish, before the series pulls back, showing a detached, aimless veteran, looking for his fortune in a place he knows he’ll come up empty-handed. When he’s pushed to fight a few pages later, it’s the first time he really comes alive. That all changes when he meets Asirpa, who demands he rein in his impulse to deal with problems violently and helps him to connect with his surroundings.
Asirpa’s a less well-rounded character here, definitely serving as more of an extension of Sugimoto’s story. She has a few strong moments in the first volume, particularly in a scene where she faces down a grizzly bear as Sugimoto fights for his life, but, on the whole, she feels secondary to the story. She delivers exposition as well as sets up the plot but rarely acts alone to advance any element.
It’s still hard to find a more promising start than what’s offered in Golden Kamuy Volume 1 though. Even when the treasure hunt gets a bit heady or the characterization ends up a bit lopsided, there’s absolutely electric artwork, fascinating history and cultural references and a host of exciting action set pieces and moments of white-knuckle survival in an unforgiving environment.