At the dawn of the 20th century, at the Battle of 203 Meter Hill, Saichi Sugimoto defeated the entire Russian battalion and earned the nickname “Immortal Sugimoto”. After his best friend was tragically killed, leaving his wife and child behind, Sugimoto went out to Hokkaido to pan for gold in the hopes of paying for the widow’s eye treatments. A chance encounter with a stranger leads him on a hunt for stolen Ainu gold and a group of tattooed prisoners, and when he meets Asirpa, an Ainu girl, along the way, the two join forces to find the lost gold and get revenge for her father’s murder.
Golden Kamuy was one of the most anticipated anime of this season for a good reason. The manga is immensely popular and the setting is pretty unique, and although I have only read the one volume I really enjoyed the beginning of the story. While this episode is perfectly adequate, it doesn’t quite live up to the potential of its source material, let alone surpass it.
Like the recent adaptation of The Ancient Magus’ Bride, it feels like the anime staff knew that they already had a sure hit on their hands so they didn’t need to do too much to elevate the source material because it would be a popular show regardless. Because of this the first episode feels more like a panel by panel run through of the manga, with no added flair or clever use of the anime medium. There are lots of segments where we’re left to watch talking heads rather than trying to do something a bit more visually exciting with that time. Anime adaptations that want to lovingly recreate every panel of the manga can work (Monster is a perfect example of this) but if it’s not done right then your series can just turn out lazy and overly safe. Luckily the voice actors sell their performances well enough that the lulls caused by this choice are still fairly engaging.
I’m also worried because the director, Hitoshi Nanba, doesn’t have a lot experience as a director and none of the series’ that he’s worked on (Gosick, Heroman, Fate/Grand Order) stand out to me as being particularly great. He has plenty of storyboard experience, but that’s not quite the same and you have to wonder whether he might be in over his head.
So far the visual style of Golden Kamuy has been well translated to the screen… with one exception. The bears. The bears look really bad, you guys. They have made the decision to use CG for all animals in the show, and from looking at these bears you have to wonder what they were smoking when they made that decision. These are some bad news bears! They do not blend with any of the surrounding 2D animation at all and every time one of them shows up on screen it’s so jarring. The screenshots aren’t enough to show how bad they look; you can only see the full horror when they’re in motion. To add insult to injury, there is also a CG animated wolf that shows up later in the episode which is on screen for much less time and yet looks about ten times better than either of the bears. Priorities!
But what did I like about the episode, you ask? Surely I liked some of it? Yeah, there were some adaptation choices that worked for me. See, Golden Kamuy is quite a gory manga. I was concerned that we were going to have another Tokyo Ghoul situation where the censorship gets completely out of hand, but there was only one very minor instance of censorship in the episode where a corpse was shown with a black hole in its stomach rather than having its intestines hanging out everywhere like they were in the manga. Other than that we see plenty of blood, lost limbs, skinning, et cetera. Here’s hoping that they don’t give up and start to add horrendous looking black smears over half the screen as the series continues.
Despite the production woes, nothing changes the fact that the two central characters that we meet in this episode, Sugimoto and Asirpa, are immediately interesting. We don’t learn a huge amount about the two but we get a sense for who they are and what they stand for. Sugimoto took part in a terrible war and is now willing to take as many lives as he needs to secure a future for his best friend’s widow, and Asirpa wants revenge on those who killed her father and caused problems for her people, but does not wish to take a life due to her cultural beliefs. The two have conflicting ideas but a mutual understanding and their unusual dynamic is one of the reasons I enjoyed what I read of the manga so much.
Fans of the source material might be disappointed with the first episode of Golden Kamuy, and that’s understandable. It doesn’t live up to the expectations you might have if you’re attached to the series. But for series newcomers this works well as an introduction to the story. If you aren’t completely sold on the anime then I would definitely recommend checking out the manga before writing this one off because you may find that it fixes some of the pacing problems brought about by the quite unimaginative transition from page to screen.
- The gory scenes are, for the most part, untouched rather than being covered up by awkward censoring
- Voice acting is well directed and true to the characters so far
- How did someone look at that bear and go “Yep, nothing wrong with this. No changes needed, ship the tape out to the TV stations”
- Not a very imaginative adaptation, follows each panel of the manga a little too closely to add anything that you couldn’t already get by just reading it
- No, seriously. Look at the bear