For the longest time, the Fate/ franchise reigned supreme as my favorite series in the entire world. I never thought that its endless supply of waifus, weird plots, and whacky animation could be beaten by anyone. But in the year of 2018, a single series changed my life. In the blink of an eye, this new series came, conquered, and swept Fate/ series off the map. A new array of waifus and husbandos emerged alongside a hilariously Western-inspired plot for gold and terrible bear CGI animation that quickly became the meme of the season.
That’s right, today we’re talking about Golden Kamuy.
The show starts at the tail-end of the Russo-Japanese War, a large scale conflict that established Japan as an international power. Sugimoto Saichi, a veteran of the war and a self-proclaimed “Immortal”, is busy panning for gold when he catches wind of a sketchy gold hunt involving tattooed prisoners and the Japanese army. He initially dismisses the wild tale, but soon finds himself partnered with Asirpa, an Ainu girl who’s looking to exact revenge for her father and return the gold to her people. With her intellect and Sugimoto’s tenacity, the unlikely duo face threats ranging from the Hokkaido wilderness to the deranged 7th Division.
Perhaps the biggest reason why I watched Golden Kamuy in the first place was because of its reimagining of Japanese history. For most anime, the reimagining of Japanese history revolves around an isekai-type of plot or rewriting famous Japanese figures as cute girls participating in a war. Unfortunately, these plots tend to become saturated over time and leaves the audience bored. Meanwhile, Golden Kamuy goes in the opposite direction. It touches on a more controversial part of Japanese history, incorporates an actual ethnic minority group for realism purposes, and brings in historical figures like Hijikata Toshizou as this bada** grandpa who fights with his katana and Winchester rifle. The inner historian in me was practically screaming at how well the historical references were woven together into a surprisingly cohesive plot.
With such a strong plot, it goes without saying that the characters are also fleshed out really well. From Sugimoto to Lt. Tsurumi, all the characters have a distinct motive as to why they want the gold and how they want to use it. Some want the gold for more personal reasons, while others wish to fuel battle tendencies and bring back jobs during the post-war period. As a result, you can’t exactly label each character a “hero” or “antagonist”, or “good”/”evil”. The lack of proper labeling creates an interesting dynamic between characters that messes with the audience’s moral compass and makes us wonder who to keep rooting for.
Let’s also note that while this show is 75% serious with its highly driven characters and intense plot, the true heart of Golden Kamuy lies in its absurdly dumb comedy. After all the fighting and animosity, we all need a break from this gold hunt, right? So why not enjoy the series with some homemade Ainu cooking? Or relish in the meme-worthy yet relatable faces pulled by our best girl Asirpa and best boy Shiraishi? You become sucked into a whirlwind of comedy vs action that is done so well you are unable to predict when some animal’s brains are going to be eaten or who will die next. Timing is everything in Golden Kamuy, and the excellent execution ensures that the audience is at the edge of their seats.
To top it off, the show’s opening and ending theme songs are absolute “bangers”. For the entirety of 2018, I headbanged to all the songs whenever they popped on my playlist, from “Hibana” by The Sixth Lie to “Reimei” by MY FIRST STORY & Sayuri. I don’t think I was that interested in alternative J-rock until after watching Golden Kamuy. If you don’t like the show’s premise, characters, or weird comedy, it’s at least worth adding these songs to your playlist to make your day ten times cooler.
However, despite its brilliance, Golden Kamuy suffers from one undeniable flaw: bad animation.
In the first season, Genos Studio struggled to provide stellar animation that matched the artwork of the manga. So they decided to highball it by incorporating both realistic CGI with typical still-frame animation, hoping to achieve a decent blend of the two. Unfortunately, the CGI and bad animation deterred a lot of fans from watching the series, and thus Golden Kamuy’s popularity plummeted. Thankfully, by season two, Genos Studio somewhat learned their lesson and tried to improve the general animation sequences. We are thus given animation frames that are less static, and are able to see where the kicks and punches actually connect. But even after redeeming itself in season two, the series remained highly underrated and slipped underneath the radar throughout most of 2018.
I will admit, Golden Kamuy isn’t AOTY-worthy or worth mentioning at all in a casual conversation about anime. It scores a bunch of points for its plot, characterization, comedy, and music, but it’s not as well-executed as other anime of 2018. It’s also highly niched because it relies heavily on references to history, movies, and other anime franchises. However, if you’re not too turned off by the references and wonky animation, Golden Kamuy is an absolute gem that’s worth looking into and investing your soul in. Who knows, maybe you’ll convert and suddenly become a die-hard fan like me.