First Look: Golden Kamuy

Manga adaptation by Geno Studio
Streaming on Crunchyroll

Premise

Sugimoto “The Immortal” Saichi is a veteran of the Russo-Japanese War who’s desperate to make some quick cash to help his deceased friend’s widow. Hearing a rumor about a stash of hidden Ainu gold in the Hokkaido wilderness, he teams up with a young Ainu girl named Asirpa on a bloody quest to find it. But they’re not the only ones after the gold. Between mutinous army platoons, political revolutionaries, and the most violent and dangerous criminals Northern Japan has to offer, the duo have their work cut out for them.

Iro’s verdict: Less CG Please

If nothing else, this premiere convinced me to check out the actual manga, but for the wrong reasons. It seems to be about as plain an adaptation as they come, doing nothing to elevate the source in its new medium. Which is not to say there isn’t any charm; the few characters who appear are quickly established as both competent and compelling, and I can genuinely say this is the first time I’ve watched any anime that mentioned the Ainu people, let alone featured them as a major element. But visually, as an anime, this barely goes past competent. The blatantly fake-looking animals and campfires inspire nothing but laughs, when normal (one might go so far as to say dull) 2D versions would have sufficed. I’ll keep watching, but I’m just not sure this version will bring anything to the table that the original can’t.

Zigg’s verdict: Bear Necessities

After hearing Gee talk about this on the podcast and seeing the infamous dog punching image, I was very excited for Golden Kamuy, but I’d say this debut episode was workmanlike at best. It successfully conveys the fascinating premise that underpins the rest of the story, and there’s certainly something to the scenes of snowy wilderness and the representation of the oft-forgotten Ainu people. But it’s also largely made up of clumsy chunks of uninspired dialogue, and there’s not the flair or flash to the presentation that I’d expect from a good shonen adaptation. While the awful CGI bears have become an instant meme that has mostly overshadowed the show itself, there’s no getting away from the fact that they do look extremely bad, and actively distract you from every other aspect of the scene. In general the show never looks great and is mostly grungy and limited in motion. The core strength of the idea seems intact but it’s hard top escape the feeling that this first episode was a weak debut and an unspectacular attempt to draw new viewers like myself in.

Gee’s verdict: Fool’s Gold

Let me just get this out of the way. Golden Kamuy is the most heartbreaking anime adaptation of a manga I have ever watched in the history of this blog.

Golden Kamuy is an energetic pulp action western about a giant cast of memorable characters in a unique time period that manages to be exciting and funny in equal measures. It’s a story about violent men and their struggle to escape the cycle of violence that has defined their lives. But it’s also a story of the indigenous Ainu of Japan and their agency in the face of their inevitable fate. And somehow it’s also a comfy and welcoming cooking manga about the unique traditions of the Ainu people and the power of a good meal in the harsh Hokkaido wilderness. It’s a manga that trades in impactful action, raucous slapstick and an undeniable warmth. Still on-going and certainly flawed in some unavoidable ways, I cannot say it’s a masterpiece, but I have enjoyed it moreso than nearly anything else I’ve read in years.

The Golden Kamuy anime has failed by nearly every metric to capture any of that.

Geno Studios proved they could make a competent anime with last season’s Kokkoku and while it was far less action-oriented, it at least gestured towards the studio’s capability. Unfortunate then that whether through managerial oversight, budget, an unforgiving production schedule, or simple apathy has made Golden Kamuy the anime a jarring and stilted affair. There’s so little movement in the anime that you wonder what happened during production. Did Kokkoku’s production take away Golden Kamuy’s available manpower? Did the executives in charge know that Golden Kamuy was a hugely popular manga and figured they could save a buck by skimping on the production, confident in the strength or its brand? Did they spend all their money on the CGI bear reminiscent of a PS2 cutscene that irreversibly maimed the title’s reputation? Why are Sugimoto and Asirpa’s voice work and parts of the OST the only defensible things about the anime? I look at the Golden Kamuy anime over and over again despite the tightness in my chest I feel every time I do so. I’m desperate to find an answer. Some kind of sign that they at least tried their best, or an assurance that next week would be better. I find nothing.

As I write this, I’m filled with an overwhelming sadness and a crushing sense of disappointment that just won’t go away. Frankly, most manga adaptations aren’t great. Usually used as an advertising tool for the original manga, most adaptations are cynical money grabbing affairs designed in favor of min-maxed profit margins over quality renditions. The My Hero Academia adaptations of the world are a treasured rarity rather than a regular occurrence. I should have known better, I should have tempered my expectations, and yet I couldn’t. I love Golden Kamuy so much, I needed its anime to be everything I hoped it would be. I wanted so badly to share Golden Kamuy with the rest of the world. To share my jubilation when Sugimoto survives yet another seemingly fatal situation, my laughter when Asirpa cooks for Sugimoto for the first time, my indignation at what they discover in the halls of Abashiri Prison.

I’ll say it one more time. I’ll defiantly shout once more into the void in hopes that someone might hear me. Read the original Golden Kamuy manga. It’s a hell of a ride and you won’t regret it. If even one person decides to read the manga as a result of the anime, it will have been the only net positive the Golden Kamuy anime has ever brought into the world.

Artemis’ verdict: Get Over the Bear Already

I actually thought this was a pretty good first episode – probably among the best of all the premieres so far at that. I was immediately attracted to the setting, which is undoubtedly unique as far as anime is concerned, and immediately attracted to Sugimoto as a character – the whole rough exterior/heart of gold (pun intended), while not particularly unique, is portrayed in a way that’s interesting and entertaining enough that I didn’t even roll my eyes or smirk too loudly when the dude punches a bear (resulting in one of the most old-school, ‘hardcore shounen’-esque screencaps I’ve seen in a long while). And for what it’s worth, while everyone only seems to want to talk about that damn bear, I personally didn’t think the CG was all that egregious – in fact, the CG in Piano Forest bothered me far more. I’d much rather talk about how the indigenous Ainu are finally getting some attention in anime, or how completely badass a character Asirpa is. I’ll happily look past a one-time, badly-animated bear for a great story with a solid cast, and I’d hope most other anime fans would too.

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