4 out of 5
I am, admittedly, spoiled into liking this after having fallen in love with the anime, but it’s always great to see how one format translates to another, and Satorua Noda’s Golden Kamuy manga has its own beats and rhythm, allowing us to make out own versions of Sugimoto and Asirpa.
The charm of the tale is in how it starts off so simple: a quest for gold. This is immediately understandable, and transcends any hesitation for Golden Kamuy’s historic setting (for those of us who tend not to lean more toward fantasy or sci-fi) of the early 1900s, post the Russo-Japanese war. Saichi Sugimoto is out panning with a local drunk, and hears a tale from said drunk about some buried treasure, its location mystified behind a linking series of tattoos on a bunch of escaped prisoners. This immediately understandable is given a brief, but helpful narrative bump: Sugimoto isn’t just money hungry, rather, he’s in need of cash for the widow of a mate lost during the war, whom he promised to support. While Golden Kamuy is littered with details that flesh out the story immensely, Noda is skilled at dropping some things like this right away that encourage us to go on: without that nod, Saichi would be a more limited character, and we might question his next few interactions, such as teaming up with indigenous Ainu girl Asirpa, the latter connecting the story of the gold to the many Ainu who initially protected it – including her father – and were slaughtered when it was stolen. And so there we are: within chapters, we’ve already gotten intriguing motivations for both our leads, built on the back of an incredibly basic concept.
Throughout volume 1, Noda weaves in fascinating and well-researched Ainu factoids, as Asirpa teaches Saichi (when it’s relevant) cooking and hunting methods; these moments act as bonding elements for the duo, for sure, but also endear them to the reader, as the battle-hardened and scarred Sugimoto – called the “immortal” Sugimoto during the war – shows further humanity in his appreciation for good food and smart survival-craft, and Asirpa establishes herself as way more than some youthful hanger-on: she’s young, but essentially an equal. Between these beats, others get in on the gold-hunting game: a faction of soldiers; the escaped prisoners. Bloody, wild squabbles ensue, and Noda keeps dropping tantalizing bits that enhance the Hows and Whys of the gold and the tattoos, as well as diving ever deeper into a pool of crazily unique characters and Ainu history.
Noda’s art is a blessing: his wide, weighty characters remind of Miura, but he has a much lighter, more fluid line. That said, he employs some P.O.V. / narrative shifts initially that can interrupt page flow; either it’ll take me some volumes to get in to the rhythm or this will smoothe out – the latter half of the volume seems to be much slicker in this regard than the former. His characterization of Saichi’s motivations (or at least, as it’s translated) also seem a bit conflicting here and there – that he is just in it for money, or for honor; it makes one question if the character was going to be written one way until Noda decided on another.
I’ve done the jump between anime to manga or manga to anime and been disappointed on occasion. Most often, I’ll prefer one to the other, but enjoy both in their own way. Golden Kamuy is the great gift in which both mediums have their own distinct vibe, and both are great. I cannot wait to tear in to the rest of this series.