Manga Spotlight: Golden Kamui

A relatively new series in the Seinen demographic has recently piqued my interest. Going by the name of Golden Kamui, written by Satoru Noda and serialized in Weekly Young Jump since August 2014 it has already won an award. The story follows the journey of the young decommissioned soldier, Saichi Sugimoto who just recently returned from the horrific Russo-Japanese war of 1904 and 1905 and his Ainu companion Asirpa. Coming back to Japan and in need for money he tries his hand at gold prospecting. During his prospecting he hears the story of a stash of Ainu gold being worth a couple of hundred thousand Yen (at the time, in today’s currency it would be worth’s billions). Initially not believing any of it he inadvertently comes across clues that the stories might hold true. He decides it might be worth a shot.

He’s not the only one after the gold however. Other adventurers include criminals, fortune seekers and indeed elements of the Imperial Japanese Army. During one such encounter early on he meets the Ainu girl Asirpa. After Asirpa helps him out with his pursuers and the extremely harsh wilderness of northern Hokkaido Sugimoto decides to team up with Asirpa and they set out to search for the gold.

As mentioned, the series quickly gained critical accrue and won the 2016 Manga Taishō award for new series. No slim feat with the incredible number of new series being released every year. From my reading thus far it deserves all the credit however. The story flows quite smoothly and has a number of peculiar, or rather novel, aspects which makes the reading experience all the more enjoyable. For one, the choice of protagonists is an interesting one, along with the setting and historical backdrop. The Mangaka has left nothing to chance and enriches his story with a myriad of trivia and truths; leaning on the realistic side. A charging bear, for instance, is a most fearsome adversary which sends even rifle armed men into a rout. A most interesting read which is certain to enrich the reader’s knowledge of the world and the recent history of Japan.

For one is the character of Asirpa, Sugimoto’s young companion. She is an Ainu, the original inhabitants of Hokkaido which is Japan’s most northern (large) island. The story is rife with information and trivia about these hunter-gatherer people. Whereas the Japanese share their descent with south-east Asia the Ainu come from the northern Kamchatka and Siberian steppes. A completely different culture and ethnicity from the Japanese, with many Siberian and Inuit like cultural parallels. Their outward appearance is mongoloid but with (as the Japanese described) “European style eyes and skin”. Most of the rest of Japanese history and indeed literature completely ignores the fact that a distinctly northern peoples inhabited Japan and coexisted with the Japanese for most of her history.

Also portrayed with clarity is the blatant racism and discrimination against the Ainu by the Japanese at the time (Japanese literature including Manga often overlooks such faults). They were not allowed to register as Ainu and were forced to list Japanese as their ethnicity. Ainu settlements were forcibly moved close to Japanese towns in an effort to cause intermingling and cross-marriage was encouraged. Ainu property was seized and given to Japanese companies for exploitation, where the nearby Ainu settlements provided for cheap labor. Whenever a Japanese settlement was vacated (because the industry moved on) the Ainu settlement was also forced to move with them. Like this Hokkaido was eventually “officially” incorporated into Japan proper and the Ainu made to be Japanese citizens, all against their will. Social alienation was the rule and Ainu, despite being officially Japanese, were forced into poverty and wage slavery. It wasn’t until the early 21st century that the Japanese government officially reversed the responsible Act enabled by the Meiji government.

Satoru Noda makes use of Ainu people experts to bring the story to live. The reader is regularly presented with some kind of bush craft (survival skills) with enough detail that one could actually recreate it in real life as well. Extremely interesting, to me at least. Survival in the northern wilderness depends entirely on keeping warm and keeping fed, both no easy tasks. Asirpa shows us how to lay snares to catch animals small and big. Even a bear is no exception to a 13 year old sufficiently adept with the poisoned tips of spears and arrows. Even the Ainu language she, and her people, often speak is genuine.

The historical time period this takes place is a tumultuous one. Set just after the Russo-Japanese war, Japan was changing quickly. The old people of then could still remember feudal Japan and indeed the samurai of old are still alive, albeit elderly. Japan is at the crossroads of medieval times and the industrial revolution. Hokkaido, the setting and original home of the Ainu, is being rapidly cultivated by industry. Railroads are laid, towns pop up and factories are erected to exploit the natural riches of the island. The booming modern industry of Japan demands resources it never had use for in such quantities. The year before Japan was the first non-European power to defeat a European power. The world was in shock and the enormous moral boost this victory gave made the Japanese forsake many notions of tradition and indeed respect; in their search to match the European superpowers.

This historical setting is portrayed with great detail and vividness in Golden Kamui. The pleasant and the gruesome parts. The war Japan fought against Russia saw intense fighting and foreshadowed World War 1. Human wave assaults (where you basically run at your enemy with a large number of soldiers) were the mainstay tactics. When people were still fighting with slow firing muskets this was a feasible idea since your opponent could at best get 1 shot before you reached them. Muskets load very slowly. However by 1905 armies were using repeating rifles and worse, machine guns. Human wave assaults were frequently massacred by machine gun fire and high explosive artillery shells. These new advances in military technology not only meant that death tolls during fights were appalling (the Japanese lost 4000 men to take one hill), but that soldier’s wounds were also becoming more gruesome.

The surgeons of the 1900’s were actually quite good at restoring a person’s anatomy. If you didn’t bleed to death or some kind of vital organ was destroyed (brains or heart) they could usually patch you up until you could sustain life yourself. Plastic surgeons however were a thing of the future. If you were wounded and lived you’d be scarred for life. High explosive shells and bullets capable of literally tearing pieces of your body away meant permanent disfigurement. Veterans were often “proud” of their “battle wounds”. They couldn’t be anything else either way, they were stuck with them. Apart from missing limbs, especially facial wounds were prevalent since with the introduction of the trench the body was often protected but since you had to stick your face out to see something that’s where you would get hit. Many of the soldier characters in Golden Kamui are thus scarred and/or (horrendously) disfigured. Sugimoto not excluded.

The story is one of redemption and revenge, coupled with a rich historical backdrop. I can highly recommend Golden Kamui to an expressly Seinen audience who don’t mind a relatively slow-burning plot but which is packed with sufficient suspense and death-or-survival situations.

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