Golden Kamuy by Satoru Noda is a shonen manga series that covers a wide range of genres – adventure, war, political intrigue, comedy, and thrillers. Set shortly after the Russo-Japanese War (1904 – 1905) it follows Saichi Sugimoto, a veteran of the conflict, and his quest for a legendary stash of gold hidden in Hokkaido, the most northern of Japan’s main islands. While fighting at the vicious Battle of Port Arthur, he earned the nickname “Immortal Sugimoto,” given his almost legendary ability to avoid death, which he keeps throughout the remainder of this series.
While panning for gold, Sugimoto hears the story of Ainu who mined an enormous amount of gold in an effort to build up an army and expel the Japanese occupiers. For those not familiar, Ainu are the native inhabitants of Hokkaido. While there has been some assimilation over the years, at the time this series is set, Ainu and what we would consider “Japanese people,” were very distinct, even if they were citizens of Japan.
One of the Ainu murdered the miners and stole the gold for himself, hiding it away. He was caught and imprisoned, where he spread the news of his gold stash to other inmates. Tattooing directions on their skin, they broke out of prison and went their separate ways. The setup is a bit clunky, but not for a shonen (boy) manga I suppose. However, once the plot gets going is when Golden Kamuy really shines.
Sugimoto meets up with Asirpa, a young Ainu girl and an expert hunter. After surviving an almost fatal attack from a monstrous bear, they team up in search of the gold. Sugimoto has his own motives besides greed, namely to take care of a blind war widow, with whom he shares a past. They meet up with the third member of their party, the so-called “Escape King”— Yoshitake Shiraishi.
Pitted against this motley gang are two main groups of antagonists. The first is a faction within the Imperial Japanese Army, specifically a faction within the vaunted 7th Division, charged with the protection of Hokkaido. They’re led by the deranged and deformed Lieutenant Tsurumi, who is looking for the gold as well. Disfigured in the Battle of Port Arthur, his upper face has been skinned, along with shrapnel that ripped a chunk out of his front skull. While still an Army Intelligence officer, Tsurumi has secretly gone rogue and has his platoon out searching for the gold in preparation to march down to Tokyo and launch a coup d’état. His motives stem mainly from Japan receiving less than what she desired from the Treaty of Portsmouth.
Tsurumi is an interesting villain, in part because of his violent mood swings. In one scene, he and Sugimoto share some dango skewered sweets, trying to get him to join the 7th Division. But in a split second, Tsurumi plunges the skewer into Sugimoto’s cheeks, almost on a sadistic whim. Another example involves Tsurumi biting off the scolding finger of his superior officer. Brutal violence is a constant in this series, despite it being a shonen manga with cutesy “anime” eyes.
The second major group of antagonists is led by Toshizō Hijikata, a former member of the Shinsengumi, the Tokugawa Shogunate’s special police force. Although aged, Hijikata is a sharp and cunning old man, and still extremely adept with a katana. His plans for the Ainu gold involve breaking Hokkaido away from Japan and establishing an independent Republic of Ezo. Those who studied Japanese history might be aware of the actual Republic of Ezo from 1869, in the wake of the Boshin War. Set up by Tokugawa loyalists, it was quickly overrun by Meiji government forces.
There are many more side characters, including the disturbingly mutilated Noppera-bō who appears briefly for a few panels every now and then, Sugimoto and Asirpa from afar. Seriously, his nose, ears, and skin have been peeled off, making him resemble the “Noppera-bō” (faceless men) of Japanese ghost stories. The first five volumes have multiple subplots, but there always seems to be time to talk about Ainu culture and specifically, food. While this is interesting, the constant stops for food did slow the plot down a little. New characters and subplots involving hunting, serial killers, and Ainu folklore, are introduced with each volume, but they never feel like they’re overcrowded the story. If anything, they enhance the characters and raise the stakes.
The first five volumes of Golden Kamuy are a lot of setup, with neither side knowing where the gold is but each collecting a few skins, showing the way. It might be set up, but it is intriguing set up, and I’d like to know where the story goes next.