The USA is a new nation and so you might assume that its culture would be what its settler societies imported - but even the most deeply ingrained of traditions must flex and stretch out when unboxed from the close communities of the old country into the spacious potential of the new world. The late great film critic Roger Ebert believed that even though comedy and tragedy might be traced back to Ancient Greece there were two genres of art that were uniquely and quintessentially original and American - the musical, and the Western. The musical sang with the unreserved enthusiasm and cocksure confidence of the new thriving, growing metropolises; and the Western was the exploration of the alien frontier in a landscape that was impossible for a European to experience.
The essential "Americanness" of musicals and Westerns can be proven with how many imitators they've spawned to catch the reflected glory of America as it has grown in size and stature. England may be far older than America but our West End is the little brother to Broadway; and while the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone need no introduction, the Western's influence goes even further than that - despite being avowed opponent of America the USSR still created 'Osterns' set in its own interior wilderness of the Central Asian steppes.
Why am I talking about rambunctious Wild Bill Hickok and bold Annie Oakley on a site dedicated to Japan, the land of coy geisha and honourable samurai? It's because while there have been plenty of fantasy pastiches of Westerns in anime like Trigun and games like Wild Arms, or even other manga like old Tokyopop license Blazin' Barrels (remember that?), today's title for review Golden Kamuy is the first manga I've read that has been a straight invocation of a Rising Sun Western.
Suichi Sagimoto is a wanderer in Hokkaido, Northern Japan, during the early 20th Century. Sugimoto is a veteran of the Russo-Japanese war that established Imperial Japan as a rising power, where his survival of multiple furious battles and startling recoveries from the most grievous wounds earned him renown as 'Immortal Sugimoto'. He should be fat and happy with shining medals and a handsome army pension as a bona-fide war hero; but after killing an officer in a quarrel Sugimoto was cashiered and now is struggling, thin and poor, panning for gold in snowy Hokkaido's freezing rivers in a desperate bid to strike it lucky. It's a futile endeavour - Hokkaido's gold-rush has long since run down and the hills have been picked clean - but then Sugimoto chances across one little glint.
An elderly man in his cups tells Sugimoto a remarkable tale: the gold is gone, but not all of it was taken by prospectors. The Ainu - the aborigine people of Hokkaido, conquered by the Yamato of the mainland - hid vast quantities of it away, a treasury worth millions to fund a rebellion against their Japanese overlords; but their leaders were betrayed and killed by a man who wanted it for himself. The traitor general was captured by the army and locked away in Japan's most brutal prison to try and extract the gold's hiding place from him, but he wouldn't break and indeed spirited away the secret to his allies under the noses of his jailers, hidden in coded tattoos broken up amongst multiple escaped prisoners - and as the escapees haven't been reassembled yet, the fortune is still out there waiting to be found.
Sugimoto dismisses it as a fireside yarn but when the storyteller is killed in a bear attack his torn clothes reveal something shocking - the skin exposed underneath the shredded rags is inscribed with a complex and intricate tattoo. Could there be something to it after all? Not that Sugimoto will have much time to investigate as he's about to become bear food himself, but he's saved by the timely intervention and bow of Asirpa - an Ainu huntress. On hearing that Asirpa is the daughter of one of the murdered Ainu rebels Sugimoto invites Asirpa into the conspiracy to discover the truth of this mysterious gold: he'll need her Ainu backwoods skills to survive the harsh winter wilderness and she'll need his Army veteran experience to defeat rivals. The race is on, with Sugimoto & Asirpa, the Army, the traitor and the prisoners themselves all with their eyes on one massive prize.
Reading the synopsis you can clearly see why I'm calling Golden Kamuy a Western. A lone rebel partnered with a Red Indian in a near-modern territory stripped like Sierra Nevada or Klondike, ranging from wooden frontier towns to untouched wilderness to escape overbearing authority on the one hand and ruthless outlaws on the other, hunting for both revenge and a lost treasure of civil war - one of the rival searchers for the gold is even a dispossessed ex-samurai of the pre-Meiji shogunate, or an old Confederate dreamer in the Lost Cause.
I suppose the question then is, do you like Westerns? Now The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is my absolute favourite movie of all time but on the other hand my grandad idolised John Wayne and after you've been made to sit though a few of his flicks you can already quote the next one one line-for-line just by the title. Westerns fell out of fashion in the first place because their formula became old hat, so other than being set in Ice World rather than Desert World (which Tarantino already did in The Hateful Eight) does Golden Kamuy do anything fundamentally different with the concept?
Golden Kamuy begins with a bayonet-edge glint of brilliance back in Sugimoto's experiences of the Russo-Japanese War. Sugimoto is in a trench waiting to go over the top; he notices an ant crawling over his hand, and he eats it. Now maybe I'm reading too much into this and it was only intended to show that conditions on the battlefield are so tough that soldiers are hungry enough to try eating ants, but personally it made a striking and insightful contrast to the climactic scene of Noboyuki Fukumoto's Strongest Legend Kurosawa where the protagonist looks on an ant in his own hand and ponders whether an ant's life is worth more than his. That was the soulful revelation of a middle-aged man in a philosophical reverie on life's consequences and the essential spiritual interconnectedness of existence; but Suichi Sugimoto is young, ferocious and certainly someone confident enough in himself to scorn self-reflection! Unlike other manga protagonists who resent their exceptional natures and crave unambitious normality, Suichi boastfully revels in his notoriety as "Immortal Sugimoto" and puts the fact that his reputation precedes him to practical effect in escaping jams, but while he's otherwise such a brash character his sensitivity to Asirpa's Ainu background and refusal to participate in the casual racism perpetrated by the other Japanese characters isn't just because he flicks a switch and becomes a simpering nice guy outside of action scenes but because he has relatable experience of being an outcast himself (and reasonably realistic experience too, he wasn't just bullied as a kid being too damn good like the the hero of a magical high school or battle harem). Sugimoto is a well-drawn and consistent character.
Golden Kamuy also simply just looks great. Environments are drawn in unstinting, realistic detail and the same precise and absorbing attention to detail is invested in Asirpa & Sugimoto's equipment, and their tracking and their trapping is seen very anthropologically and matter-of-factly, which makes Golden Kamuy a fascinating and informative read simply for its technical detail in multiple areas even before you begin the story. The story itself isn't too bad, either - it may be a familiar treasure hunt but the sheer ecstasy of gold is always compelling and the chase is enlivened by the asymmetric diversity of the racers. Putting the clues to the finish line on people's bodies is a small stroke of genius, too: the treasure map doesn't just report that X marks the spot but stirs things up even more by becoming its own player in the game, one that fights against being found and is particular about who reads it; the grisly secret of how the tattoos are supposed to be... reassembled is another smart choice that gives the story some danger, edge and grit.
However, all that glitters is not gold and Golden Kamuy has faults to scuff the shine. While I praised Sugimoto's character earlier there is a fly in the ointment with the unfortunately lame admission that he only wants the gold to look after the widow of one of his war buddies. Clint Eastwood never said he was going to give his gold to starving orphans but he was still the goodie! You'll have to scoop this out and hope is doesn't contaminate the rest of him. Tragically for a central character Asirpa looks ridiculous. Yes, her winter clothes are all so very ethnic, darling, but that's clearly an adult woman's head on not just a petite but an outright child's body. The mismatch reminds me of the design of Armitage III, in that it makes her look like a badly-made robot!
Characters have an irritating and redundant habit of narrating to themselves (one man hunting Sugimoto & Asirpa muses to the open air "I guess I'll kill them now", like his revolver wasn't indication enough), obscuring tense scenes with pointless noise, and the problem's compounded further when that "anthropological and matter-of-fact attention to detail" also gets over-exaggerated to a fault with captions providing a running commentary on the action. You see this encumbering a lot of seinen manga - self-conscious adult readers need to feel that they're Being Educated to justify their enjoyment of the funnybooks. It's why Golgo 13 : The Professional will interrupt its grand climax for a meditation on flower language and here in Golden Kamuy the only way to increase the tension of the villain's search is a breathless, hasty explanation of the scientific etymology of a tree vine (and so give away that it's an important detail and spoil the surprise of the trap inside it). Yes, yes, it's all very mind-expanding but many are inanely trite (more traps means more chance of catching something? Mind = blown), others are just telling instead of showing (a caption on Sugimoto judging the distance of a report would have been faster and told just as much if he'd said "the sound-lag... he's 300 metres away!"), and more still are distracting and deaden the action. In a close-quarters knife fight an enemy does a skilled move catching and extracting the bolt of Sugimoto's rifle so he can't fire it - but the money shot for this slick trick is spoiled when half of it's obscured by a caption repeating what you've just read. Maybe Golden Kamuy was aiming for a pulpy adventure atmosphere, the captions the excited narrator of a Republic matinee serial, but the effect simply doesn't work and I instead feel that I'm being patronised by a manga that doesn't trust my reading comprehension.
Another problem is Viz's baffling obstinate insistence on sticking the "Explicit Content" label on everything that comes under their Signature imprint. Like how I identified Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit in a previous review, Golden Kamuy is another title that entirely doesn't warrant being branded with such a mark. There is zero nudity throughout the book and even though you might expect that a man & woman travelling together in the snowy cold would lead to some warm sharing-a-sleeping-bag shenanigans there isn't a suggestion of even implicit sex; Sugimoto and Asirpa show no attraction at all and their relationship is entirely professional. Even swearing is extremely mild - I only counted one profanity in a complete read-through. There are a couple of gory war scenes near the start, and a few of Asirpa butchering the animals she's hunted, but does a touch of claret and offal really constitute "Explicit" content? Coddled suburban readers really have no stomach. Suffice to say I don't think Golden Kamuy deserves its "Explicit Content" warning. Viz seems frightened that its Signature titles won't be accepted as 'mature' without this label but it's gratuitous and counter-productive, false advertising that annoys readers promised knockabout cool sexy fun, while unnecessarily putting off other readers who may be missing out on something more sedate and thoughtful.
Still, it's a success of Golden Kamuy that it offers a good amount of both. Even if not quite 24-carat it still has worthwhile weight in exciting action, thrilling stakes, striking characters and an interesting setting together that make this manga a valuable little nugget.