The Histories of Golden Kamuy
Having ended up on the other side of the Russo-Japanese War with only his mean bones, grim scars, a grizzled attitude, and not much else, Saichi tries his hand at prospecting, but finds it a penny-pinching endeavor because other prospectors have found all the gold.
In this brief summary of Golden Kamuy’s hero, we can see that Satoru Noda has reconstructed a textured historical drama, which depicts not only the immediate aftershock of the Russo-Japanese War of the early 1900s, but also a time of economic insolvency still dreaming of the Japanese Gold Rush of 1859. More than perhaps anything else, the way that Noda depicts current events being influenced by multiple historical events not only augments the realism of this manga, it also is highly relevant to present-day readers in the U.S. that are also preoccupied with events of 45 years prior (Watergate). People don’t just remember history; they live in it, and just as our current political story cannot be told without reference to events at the DNC in the early 70s, so Sugimoto’s story is indissolubly linked to the Japanese Gold Rush that happened before he was born.
This layered historical context, however, is only part of a multilayered Dagwood sandwich comprised of equal parts history book, wilderness almanac, travelogue to 1904 Hokkaido, crime drama, and enthralling manga.
But that’s not all; running concurrently to Deathless Sugimoto’s historical backdrop we have Asirpa the Ainu’s world of snares, bears, arrows, flammable bark, and squirrel snacks. True, it’s barely a susuruss against the heavy impetus of the historical direction, and she needs Sugimoto to enact her vengeance (Cinderella much?), but we should take note of history’s pluralization into histories here, that Noda’s co-protagonist Asirpa is from a marginalized culture. Moreover, when the history of the outside world intrudes into the Ainu world, Asirpa’s father is killed, and this gives her the motive for her own, no less dramatic, story cycle. Asirpa’s story is so compelling that if Disney was going to animate an adaptation of Golden Kamuy, the story structure would likely be reversed, with Asirpa as the protagonist.
An Animal Story in History’s Clothing
But there is also a fabulistic element to Golden Kamuy. As I read Golden Kamuy Volume 1, I was reminded of various animal stories, more due to the bestial nature of both the heroes and the antagonists than due to any humanizing influences in their character. In fact, if animals have their own version of animal stories, in which human beings act as abominably as they can for didactic and even allegorical reasons, Golden Kamuy is an anti-animal story that they would read.
The bestial theme of Golden Kamuy is evident especially in its chief protagonist, Saichi, who is basically Logan aka Wolverine with the adamantium skeleton and the healing factor extracted, and incredible luck installed in its place. Like Logan, Saichi survives battles and killed soldiers not like a civilized creature would, but like a beast would, clawing at life.
Saichi’s co-protagonist, Asirpa, looks at squirrels as if they’re snack bags waiting to be popped open and crunched, and while she is squeamish at the idea of killing any humans, even the ones that killed her father, she is OK with helping Saichi do anything he wants to anybody.
An anti-animal story with intense research that animates both the plural histories and the Hokkaido wilderness that are its backdrop, Golden Kamuy Volume 1 is must-read manga. Not only brilliantly written, Golden Kamuy possesses magnificent page and panel art that depicts not only the beauty but also the horror of the real world, with gore and blood receiving the same attention as nature’s good side.
Golden Kamuy Volume 1 arrives in stores on June 20th, 2017, but if you find it sold out, you can buy it in print or digital through Viz.
Viz Media sent the review copy.