After winning his first stenka, Sugimoto approaches Gansoku Maiharu, the tattooed ex-prisoner, and they heartily shake hands in expectation of facing off in a future stenka. Gansoku, an otherwise civilized and affable man, was simply born to punch people in the fucking face. He’s lived a life of violence and likens his passion to that of a painter or dancer.
This philosophy is why Sugimoto doesn’t accept the Russian tavern owner’s demand that the Japanese fighters throw the next match so he’ll make more money. Intentionally losing won’t let them get anything out of Gansoku, whether it’s the gold or the info on Asirpa, but the four of them fighting him honestly could, so Sugimoto accepts another stenka.
While Sugimoto, Tanigaki, Tsukishima and Koito again dominate, defeating three of their four opponents, Gansoku is in a whole other league, and takes even Sugimoto’s best punches like a champ. This is a guy, after all, who even beat Ushiyama back at the prison in punches-only contests.
This stenka surpasses the ultra-fun madness of the first one thanks to Gansoku’s participation. It’s particularly hilarious that he acts like a character in a shoujo manga, complete with sparkly eyes and playfully beating his fists on Sugimoto’s back when he turns away from him. He’s having an absolute blast.
Then Sugimoto throws a kick, and proceeds to beat on everyone, even his own comrades, and the brawling pours into the crowd. An old Russian guy declares “This is real stenka!” until Sugimoto takes things too far and whips out a hammer and sickle, then declares “This is not stenka!!” Make up your mind, Pops!
Despite Koito’s hopes, this is not all part of Sugimoto’s “plan” to get everything they want; he’s simply taken too many blows to the head and has gone into Immortal Sugimoto Preservation Mode (ISPM). When in his frenzy he mentions gold, Gansoku realizes they’re after his tats and flees with all the adolescent emotion of a scorned high schooler.
Tanigaki, Tsukishima and Koito pursue Gonsaku, who ends up tangling with a damn wolverine. The four of them seek safety in a shed, but it’s actually a banya, or Russian sauna, which is so hot everyone has to strip down. Gonsaku, no stranger to banyas, starts whipping them with a venik or white birch branch, which increases circulation and makes the air even hotter.
This is one of the rare times I knew exactly where Golden Kamuy was going with its cultural snapshot. Prior to Covid, me and my friends would semi-regularly go to a local Russian spa to sit in 160°-190° F hot saunas, jump into 40° F water to cool down, repeat that process, then eat kickass Russian food, drink Russian beer, and watch goofy Russian music videos. A Russian spa basically the best place in the world, but Gonsaku intends to sweat the others out so they’ll get eaten by the wolverine.
Meanwhile, Cikapasi and Enonoka are able to free the captured lead sled dog and lure the wolverine away while escaping via sled. When Cikapasi falls off the wolverine pounces, but both Ryu and a still-crazed Sugimoto save him, while a still-naked Tanigaki helps him line up a shot to kill the wolverine.
That leaves Sugimoto and a steaming nude Gansoku to slug it out while the others watch. Gansoku can tell via Sugimoto’s fists that he’s carrying a great deal of anger and rage, but not directed towards him, but within. When Sugimoto says he’s “useless”, as images of his beloved Asirpa flash through his addled head, Gansoku tells him to forgive himself. He’s clearly working as hard as he humanly can.
Sugimoto then delivers an almost knockout blow that pauses their duel long enough for the other (still naked) men to intervene, but then they discover they’re all walking on ice, which cracks and gives way, sending them plunging into the cold. Turns out this is just what was needed to snap Sugimoto out of his ISPM, and he’s back to normal, but now at great risk of hypothermia, along with the others.
There’s only one thing for it: everyone piles back into the banya, which after being in frigid water, must feel absolutely magical. This absurdly masculine scene of naked sweaty swole men is where Sugimoto reveals they were never trying to kill Gansoku, merely copy his tattoos. But others will try, and they’ll bring guns (or katanas) to his fistfight, so they strongly recommend he leave Karafuto and head west to Russia. Since it’s the birthplace of stenka, he can still live a happy life there.
Gonsaku rewards Sugimoto’s peaceful offer by bringing up a name Sugimoto mentioned while in his violent trance: Asirpa, whom Gonsaku saw back at the tavern with Shiraishi. Specifically, he overheard Shiraishi saying that Sugimoto may not have gotten out of the prison dust-up alive, and Asirpa confidently declaring that he’s goddamn Immortal Sugimoto. She believes he is alive, and he is. It’s now just a matter of reuniting.
With that, we’re treated not only to a heroic shot of Asirpa descending upon a massive sea lion (headshotted by Ogata but not killed due to its thick skull), but our first official Asirpa Face of the season, as she scarfs down the extremely fatty, stinky, tasty meat.
It’s one of so many images in this episode that brought me laughter and joy. When it’s letting its hair down and/or stripping off its clothes, there is no anime out there having more ludicrously infectious fun than Golden Kamuy. I just hope the good times can keep rolling.
P.S. There’s a new OP and ED for the season, and they are both kick-ass and beautiful, as expected.