Golden Kamuy

Saichi Sugimoto is a scarred veteran of the Japanese Imperial Army, in particular, of the Russo-Japanese War and the infamous Battle of Hill 203. Sugimoto’s ability to survive battles in which thousands of his comrades are slaughtered has earned him the nickname “The Immortal Sugimoto” – the same, however, could not be said of his best friend, who fell on Hill 203, leaving a widow with a small child. Traumatised by his experiences, after the war Sugimoto retires to the northern prefecture of Hokkaido, at the time a relatively recently incorporated part of the Japanese home islands, in which the indigenous Ainu people are subject to all the processes of colonisation, being both marginalised and forcibly assimilated into wider Japanese society. Sugimoto’s plan is to prospect for gold, with the hope that he can find enough to secure the financial future of his dead friend’s widow and child. One day, Sugimoto encounters a drunk old man who tells him about a horde of gold that can only be found by following a map tattooed on the bodies of a group of prisoners who escaped the notorious Abashiri Prison. The next morning, the old man, now sober, tries to shoot Sugimoto, who manages to overpower his assailant and chase him into the nearby forest. Sugimoto finds the old man’s corpse; too late, however, he realises that his erstwhile attacker has been disembowelled by a bear, and that the creature now has him in its sights. Sugimoto is saved by an Ainu teenager named Asirpa, who is a skilled hunter despite her youth. As he inspects the old man’s body, Sugimoto sees that it is tattooed in a strange pattern and that the story the old man told was clearly true.  Sugimoto and Asirpa strike up an alliance of convenience: he wants to get enough gold to send to his friend’s widow; she wants to take her revenge on the people who murdered her father, an Ainu miner who was later betrayed to keep the horde’s location secret. Together, they set out to find the other prisoners and learn the secrets of the map-tattoo; but unbeknownst to them, others are on the same quest – including a legendary figure known as Hidikata, rumoured to be the last survivor of the failed samurai rebellion against the Meiji Restoration; and a certain Lt Tsurumi, a hideously disfigured officer from the Imperial Army’s 7th Division, who has his own plans for the gold…

Based on the long-running and hugely successful manga by Satoru Noda, “Golden Kamuy” (the word “kamuy” comes from the Ainu for “god” or “deity”) was produced by Geno Studios and appeared on Japanese television across three series from 2018 to 2020. Animated in a style that successfully combines naturalistic environments with stylised character designs, “Golden Kamuy” combines the elements of action/adventure, folkloric legend, and historical drama to produce a multi-dimensional and complex narrative that is at once fast-paced and yet full of subtle detail. Along the way, the audience is introduced to the indigenous Ainu people of Hokkaido, their culture, language, and environmentally integrated way of life. This in turn serves as a lens through which the broader political, cultural, social and technological developments of the period are examined, as well as a mechanism illustrating the suffering of the Ainu people as they are caught between the competing empires of Russia and Japan. The story also examines the hardships experienced by demobbed soldiers who are often neglected by the state and left to fend for themselves, regardless of their physical and psychological suffering – and despite, too, the glorified warrior culture of wider society that was part of the militarisation of Japanese life in the early decades of the 20th century. Beautifully animated and powerfully told, “Golden Kamuy” explores the themes of moral ambiguity, survivor’s guilt and the possibility of redemption, all the while probing the idea that, even where entire societies cannot bridge the gap between cultures, individuals may still be able to do so – and be changed and renewed in the process.    

Text © Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2021. All rights reserved.