5 out of 5
Directed by: Hitoshi Nanba
covers seasons 1 and 2
Golden Kamuy is a heavy show, an epic – a historically grounded fiction following Russo-Japanese war vet Sugimoto’s hunt for hidden treasure, stretching across multiple locales and wrapping through intricate backstories of tons of characters. It’s violent; it’s straightforward goal of ‘get the gold’ belies an incredible complexity regarding Sugimoto’s and others’ motivations toward said goal; and it works in surprisingly rich and researched detail regarding the Japanese indigenous Ainu. …It’s also a show that frequently features jokes about eating poop; humorously applied (though not disrespectful) homoerotic subtext; and has insane quirks and designs for those ‘tons of characters,’ such as casual cannibalism, wearing body-parts as fashion accessories, and nick-naming a character (in the English translation) ‘Dick-sama.’ For every teeth-gritting splash of blood and gore there’s a breathless moment of action-adventure – running from bears, escaping from tense battles – and for every laugh-out-loud poop joke there’s a moment of sincere reflection or interaction. This is all surely present in the source manga, but it takes a talented animation studio, series director, voice cast and crew to bring that to effective life, and Geno Studio’s handling of Golden Kamuy meets the mark on every episode.
Sugimoto – and Asirpa, the Ainu with whom he soon teams up on his gold hunt – are instantly “real” via both their animation and acting, and the series’ 12-episode seasons are perfectly paced to allow the huge network of frequently-shifting-allianced friends and enemies they meet become equally recognizable, dipping into flashback only when it adds dimension to the plot, but otherwise relying on unique silhouettes and personalities to differentiate everyone. As to the story, while the pursuit of money is basic enough, and can be relied on (as a viewer) when things get a bit stickier to navigate, Golden Kamuy is not only consistently offering up fascinating insights into Ainu culture, but also layering more and more complexity on to that basic premise; missing a single episode can mean missing out on some key bit of lore, but nothing really comes across as filler, making it easy to rewatch stretches if a refresher is needed.
Geno’s animation is, on the whole, fantastic. Golden Kamuy creator Satoru Noda’s models are thick and square, which works well for the studio, employing a sort of stiff formality that lends itself to the decompressed action sequences, and helps make the fantasticness of the character designs and violence find a balance between cartoonish and gritty, tweaking as a scenes’ mood demands. There is the occasional use of some clunky CGI, but it’s very rare, to the point that it could be considered a stylistic choice for some reason or another.
There’ve been several anime that I’ve considered as good jumping on points for the uninitiated, but they do often require some types of qualifiers. Golden Kamuy would as well, but it’s more just to go in with an open mind – it otherwise perfectly encompasses the way anime can run the gamut from silly to serious, and creates an incredibly memorable look, cast of characters, and story along the way.