Golden Kamuy – 07 – #NotExtinctYet

Sugimoto, Asirpa, and Shiraishi end up in a good old-fashioned standoff with Nihei and Tanigaki, ending with Tanigaki racing off with Asirpa so she won’t hear the screams of Sugimoto and Shiraishi’s deaths. But because Shiraishi is an escape artist, he and Sugimoto are able to slip out of their paltry binds and pursue Tanigaki.

Nihei underestimated Shiraishi, and Tanigaki underestimates his surroundings, tripping a deer trap that puts a wolfsbane-dipped arrow in his leg. He has no choice but to release Asirpa so she can cut the poisoned flesh out (gross), but when she’s done Nihei catches up with them and uses Asirpa as bait for Retar.

However, Retar was simply no match for Nihei, because Retar had backup, in the person (well, in the wolf) of his mate, who delivers the fatal bite to Nihei’s jugular. When Sugimoto and Shiraishi arrive, Nihei has basically bled out, while Retar rejoins his family, something Asirpa (not to mention nobody else) had any idea he had.

So, reports of the Ezo Wolf’s extinction were grossly exaggerated. Seeing Retar with his family brought tears to my eyes. I also felt for poor Ryuu, who lost his master, but thankfully Asirpa insists on taking Tanigaki to the village, lest the loyal-to-a-fault Ryuu stay with him until he dies then starve to death.

In the village, the young Ainu get another good look at a Japanese fellow with weird ears in Shiraishi, while he and Sugimoto tuck into some deer stew and something I’m going to call “salmonsicles”. When the village elder speaks of how the gold sullied the rivers that brought them fish, she mentions how Ainu from all over Hokkaido squirreled away a hoard of gold far larger than even the prisoners know about.

Tanigaki, wounded but conscious, basically corroborates the old woman, and adds the story of his commander, Lt. Tsurumi, who had to lead a forward advance that led to the deaths of half the 7th. The chief of staff committed suicide in disgrace and left the entire division in disgrace, unpaid and unawarded for their valor. From there, Tsurumi vowed to seize Hokkaido for the 7th and open a weapons factory so that their families could work and be provided for.

Tanigaki’s story paints Tsurumi in a more sympathetic light, but it doesn’t sway Sugimoto from his goal to find the gold and keep it away from Tsurumi and men like him.

Speaking of ‘men like him’, the group led by Hijikata goes into town, mostly so that Ushiyama, a raging hulk of a man, can sleep with some women lest he go even more berserk than he usually is. Then Shiraishi, in his infinite bad luck (why else would he be so good at escaping?), ends up face to face with the man-beast, and unwisely tries to run from him.

Ushiyama will have his “little chat” with Shiraishi, and he bowls through four people like they’re ninepins, shakes off being buried by rocks, tosses a horse-and-sleigh aside like they were nothing, and is generally an cartoonishly unstoppable monster of a man. Shiraishi finally finds some soldiers of the 7th—four of them—but what are a few bullets to Ushiyama? We’ll have to wait until next week to find out.

Golden Kamuy – 06 – Be Born Again and Hear Pleasant Sounds

No bloodthirsty samurai or touched-in-the-head military commanders this week, just two pairs of hunters pursuing their prey. In Nihei Tetsuzou Tanigaki finds someone who both respects and can relate to his Matagi heritage. When it comes to hunting, he knows his stuff.

Nihei’s also a rude old man obsessed with boners, and nothing makes him more erect than the prospect of killing the one remaining wolf in Japan, considering how clever such a wolf would have to be to escape extinction thus far.

Meanwhile, in those same mountains, Sugimoto and Asirpa continue to track the buck he wounded, but the damn thing manages to have the speed and stamina to force them to give up for the day and seek refuge in a felled tree.

While dining on Nihei’s bear delicacies, Tanigaki decides to toss his cap in the flames, abandoning his military life. While returning home may be difficult, showing up with the head and pelt of a great white wolf will certainly help matters.

Elsewhere, Sugimoto is in perfect position to kill the buck, but freezes when he sees the bloodcicle sticking out of its rump, and sees himself: an immortal beast doing everything it can to stay alive. Sugimoto woke up that morning from a PTSD nightmare, but can help but see his own indomitable spirit staring back at him.

Thankfully, Retar is around to bring the buck down once and for all. Asirpa cuts it open and has Sugimoto place his freezing hands inside its still-steaming warm body. It’s heat is becoming his heat, and when they feast upon its brains and other parts (and wash it down with sake) its death sustains their life.

Nihei and Tanigaki stake out the buck carcess, believing the white wolf will return for the meat, but the next morning they only find its droppings, which Nihei burns to further anger the beast. He gets tantalizingly close to putting a bullet in Retar’s brain, but this time Asirpa and Sugimoto have the wolf’s back, startling it off with an arrow.

With that, Sugimoto the Immortal comes face to face with Nihei, who wishes to become part of the mountains, but only when he’s good and goddamn ready, meaning he’ll put up a hell of a fight before he surrenders his tattoos, especially since his wolf hunt was interrupted.

Golden Kamuy – 05 – He Stole The Guts!

Tsurumi’s less personally-motivated soldiers manage to save Sugimoto from the more vengeful brothers, but it’s only a matter of time before they get to him again and finish the job. Asirpa and the Escape King Shiraishi decide to work together to spring him.

Asirpa tells Shiraishi that she believes his “immortality” is the product of him being able to look death straight in the eye and deal with it, but I still maintain there are simply spirits looking out for him; spirits that take many forms and have many faces, including her own and Mr. Slippery.

Sugimoto escapes by tricking Tsurumi and his men into thinking he’s had his guts spilled and he’s near death, and will give them the tattoos in exchange for treatment. But it doesn’t take long for the sharp-witted lieutenant to discover something amiss about the corpse his captive left behind.

Turns out Sugimoto stole the other man’s guts and passed them off as his own. Now free, a Sugimoto in far better shape  commandeers the horse-drawn sledge, while a Shiraishi in disguise burns down the 7th Division’s headquarters to keep them busy.

All in all, a neat little caper, and by the end of it, Tsurumi doesn’t even want to kill Sugimoto anymore. Why keep trying to kill an immortal man when you can just wait for him to collect the remaining tattoos, then take them?

The reunion between Sugimoto and Asirpa is understated and a bit awkward (it’s also painful for Sugimoto, who gets whacked by Asirpa’s sutu) but Shiraishi breaks the ice by suggesting they kill the horse they stole. They use the meat not just to reward Retar for his good work, but to make a sukiyaki-type dish for dinner.

That dish, for which Shiraishi enthusiastically acquires all the other necessary ingredients, includes miso, but while she makes some hilarious faces, Asirpa finally gathers the guts to taste it, and is pleasantly surprised (though she still refers to it as poop).

As Sugimoto & Co. enjoy their freedom and his horse sukiyaki,  the old samurai Hijikata Toshizou adds fellow master swordsman and former Shinsengumi Nakagura Shinpachi to his growing band of badasses, and when a gang of bandits torture his messenger, he strolls in, offers death or partnership, and the bandit leader chooses death.

Ushiyama’s casual tossing of one of the bandits into the rafters head-first was a nice bit of physical comedy that also demonstrates how tough these guys are. Then there’s old man Hijikata reloading his shotgun with one hand while wielding his katana with the other. “Numbers don’t matter, they never did”, he says, and even if he won’t be able to conquer all of Hokkaido, he’s sure as shit going to kill a lot of people trying.

The next morning, Sugimoto’s skewer wounds have healed nicely, but he’s falling behind Asirpa in the deep snow. Then they come across a special vine that will not only slake their thirst (though they get a bit selfish in who gets to drink from it) but material to make snowshoes that will greatly increase his mobility.

In another part of the woods, Tanigaki has found Tetsuzou Nihei, a legendary hunter who uses a single-bullet rifle and no spare rounds between his fingers, because “if you have five bullets (like the soldiers), it makes you believe you get five chances.”

Tanigaki wishes to work with Tetsuzou to hunt down that giant white Ezo wolf. Sugimoto, Asirpa, and Shiraishi better not let their guards down.

Golden Kamuy – 04 – The Grim Reaper vs. The Immortal

While retrieving his knife to help Asirpa gut some sculpin for dinner, Sugimoto very nearly walks into a poison arrow trap, but is stopped by Asirpa’s uncle. It’s almost as if there’s a guardian spirit watching over him, keeping him from being killed before he’s done what he has to do in life.

The Ainu truly believe in such spirits, which they call turenpe, and they’re believed to be what gives people different personalities and abilities. And even though Asirpa herself doesn’t offer things to her turenpe by presenting it to the back of her neck, as it’s more something the older villagers do, Sugimoto respects his elders by following the tradition.

Between the turenpe and the kisarari game with the children, combined with the uncle’s talk of the gold being cursed because Ainu panned for it in a sacred river to collect war funds, there’ quite a bit of Ainu culture displayed in the episode’s opening act.

We also learn more about Retar, a white wolf Asirpa and her father found on a hunt one day, and whom she raised from a pup. One day, after her father was killed, a grown Retar heard the call of the wild and trudged off to where he belonged. Asirpa understood why he did it—he couldn’t be a pet dog—but it still devastated her, especially considering her father had just left her.

Asirpa is lonely, and as long borne the weight of grief, but her uncle has noticed that she’s smiling more, and believes it’s because of Sugimoto. Since he regards Asirpa as a smart young lass, he concludes that Sugimoto is a good man. Her grandmother even tells him to stay with Asirpa forever, but while he says he understands her words, he ends up doing the opposite, leaving her alone as she sleeps in the night.

Perhaps he simply doesn’t want to involve her in anything that will cause her to lose more loved ones. Considering what a trouble magnet he is, he kinda has a point.

But the next morning, it’s not even a question of Asirpa tracking Sugimoto down, if only to smack him upside the head with a ceremonial stick. She also must know that without her he’s likely up to no good, and of course, he isn’t. Retar comes to her aid, and she uses Sugimoto’s old smelly sock to give the wolf a scent to follow.

After a tasty bowl of soba, he’s accosted by members of the 7th and brought before Tsurumi, who knows full well who Sugimoto is and what he’s after. He also tests Sugimoto’s toughness by skewering him through the cheeks. Sugimoto, not one to shrink before tough handling, maintains his ignorance of the map skins and endures the physical punishment.

Asirpa and Retar enter town under cover of darkness, but to her surprise (and disgust) the sock wasn’t Sugimoto’s, but the Escape King Shiraishi’s. He manages to escape—briefly—before having his head gnawed on by Retar once more.

Meanwhile, perhaps not a block away, the twins Sugimoto fought at the soba house pay him a visit in the night hoping to come away with some of his fingers, but one of them gets too close, and Sugimoto headbutts him viciously, then flips himself in the air, breaking the chair he’s tied to and freeing himself.

He’s locked in a struggle with the knife-wielding twins, but something tells me his guardian spirit will continue protecting him. That, and his friend Asirpa, who upon reuniting should impress upon him the futility of trying to ghost someone with a wolf for a friend.

Golden Kamuy – 03 – An Ainu Girl for a New Era

We begin this week with another demonstration of Ainu field cuisine, with Asirpa whipping up a sumptuous soup out of rabbit meatballs, mushrooms and leeks. All it needs, in Sugimoto’s opinion, is a bit of miso paste, but when he takes it out Asirpa mistakes it for poop—a perfectly reasonable reaction considering she’s never seen it before!

After that light fare, the morning brings heavier troubles: Asirpa spots something else she’s unfamiliar with—the glint of binocular lenses—and she and Sugimoto find themselves on the run from the 7th Division, who close in on them quickly thanks to their skis. Sugimoto decides he and Asirpa will split up, and if caught she’ll not resist and pretend to know nothing.

Asirpa is caught, and as Sugimoto assumed, the soldier isn’t interested in harming a little Ainu girl…until he learns she was hiding treasure maps and can understand Japanese (her initial dialogue with him involved telling the soldier in Ainu that the man she was with puts poop in his soup and eats it). Fortunately, Asirpa’s Ezo wolf buddy Retar comes to her rescue.

Meanwhile, three men surround Sugimoto, who has no choice but to bet on his Immortal status and believe Asirpa’s assertion that a bear won’t kill a man who enters its den by diving right in. When the soldiers fire into the opening, the bear pops out and mortally wounds them all before dying.

While both the bear and wolf CGI stand out in a not-so-good way, it’s not enough to pull me out of the action; both seem very much ferocious threats to the humans.

Sugimoto emerges unscathed and reunites with Asirpa (giving Retar a nice belly rub for his assistance), but he’s worried she won’t let him keep the orphaned bear cub he carried out of the den. Rather than eat it like he fears, she decides they’ll take it to her village, or kotan, where they often raise orphan bears.

There, Sugimoto finally steps out of the wilderness and into a different world entirely—the world of the Ainu. Asirpa’s grandmother is the most venerable member of the kotan, and the villagers are more curious about Sugimoto than scared of him.

Granny promptly asks him to take Asirpa for his wife so she can die happy…but she says it in Ainu, and her interpreter, Asirpa herself, does not translate for him.

Asirpa further explains the way of life of her people, which is largely shaped by their belief in kamuy, or gods, coming to them in various forms, including animals. If they come across a baby bear, for instance, they take it as a sign that the bear should be loved and cared for, and eventually “sent back” to where the kamuy reside.

In exchange for the sending, they get the bear’s meat and pelt, while the care they gave the bear prior to the ceremony is to convince the kamuy to keep returning and providing resources. In this way, it’s not a matter of offerings or sacrifice, but of merely assisting the kamuy in their travels back and forth between the two planes. It’s all quite fascinating and engrossing.

I just hope that Asirpa’s village will survive what could well be a good deal of collateral fallout from her and Sugimoto’s dealings with the 7th Division, as well as the prisoners themselves who seek the treasure of gold.

There’s a lot of competing interests in play, and among their rivals are characters with colorful personalities, from Tsurumi (missing the front of his skull, but otherwise a picture of health) to Hijikata (still a boy with a sword at heart, with no qualms about interrupting his comrade’s, er…lovemaking). Sugimoto and Asirpa will certainly have their hands full.

Golden Kamuy – 02 – Something They Carve Together

As Asirpa prepares traps to ensnare delicious nut-fed squirrels for dinner, Sugimoto determines the prisoners will avoid small villages where they’d stand out. The pair head into the booming port and commercial city of Otaru to canvass the places where they’d expose their tattooed skin: the baths and the brothels.

While questioning sex workers, the tiny Asirpa gets nabbed by the brothel owner, but quickly demonstrates she’s not worth his trouble, considering her skill with a knife handle and the “immortal” company she keeps.

Ultimately, they manage to snag their first prisoner the same way they catch squirrels: with a snare that traps him by the neck. Asirpa is adamant that they’ll kill nobody needlessly, and instead uses the pencil and paper acquired in Otaru to draw their captive’s tattoos. Fun little human moments like Asirpa drooling over squirrel meat or her shock at Sugimoto’s “rubber pencil” trick are effective at keeping the mood from getting too heavy.

This prisoner escaped from the others when they suddenly started killing each other, not realizing that absent drafting skills (or pencils), completing the map meant quite a bit of skinning. However, before this prisoner can give them any more information, he’s shot right through the brain, darkening the mood anew.

Sugimoto tracks down the gunman and identifies him not just as a fellow soldier, but one of the much-feared and respected Hokkaido 7th Division, known as the Guardians of the North for their tenacity in even the toughest battles. In other words, a division Sugimoto would be right at home in, had he not been dishonorably separated from the army.

The two share a couple moments as fellow soldiers to prepare for battle, and when the soldier asks if Sugimoto is tracking down the prisoners for money, he corrects him by saying it’s for love…which isn’t far off. After all, the money is for the family of the friend he loved, not for himself.

This time, Sugimoto’s foe is too tough to go easy on, and when the choice becomes letting him go to inform his superiors and stopping him, Sugimoto tosses the butt of his rifle at the guy, hitting him in the head and sending him tumbling off a cliff and into the freezing river, where he and Asirpa presume he’s dead but rather sloppily refrain from confirming it.

That error could be a result of hunger, but “We’re alive, so of course we get hungry” Asirpa has the solution for that when they return to her hunting tent, which is also her kitchen, There, she skins the squirrels they caught and lets Sugimoto eat the brain of one raw, which is supposedly the best part.

She finely minces the remaining meat and bones into chitatap, a kind of dish that sounds like the way you make it (incidentally, one should say “chitatap” while chopping the meat). In a concession to Sugimoto’s Sisam tastes, she forms balls with the meat and cooks them in broth for a sumptuous meal, and uses the Ainu saying “Hinna, hinna!” instead of “Itadakimasu!” to give thanks.

There’s no such thing as eating too much out here in The Grey, so after nabbing and sketching their second prisoner in as many days, Asirpa gets a bead on a rabbit and pounces on it. Unfortunately, this prisoner is an escape artists who coughs up a razor with which to cut himself free.

While chasing him down, he and Sugimoto end up tumbling down a cliff and falling into the drink, which is a death sentence for those who don’t get their freezing clothes off and warm up in front of a fire within ten minutes.

There’s a black comedy of errors as the prisoner succumbs to the various symptoms of hypothermia, but once he gets Sugimoto’s assurances he’ll spare his life, he coughs up a bullet they can use to spark a life-saving fire.

Having survived their dance with death, the two bond, casting aside their conflict, and the prisoner, Shiraishi, shares more intel with Sugimoto, including the fact that the leader of the prisoners is a grizzled and immensely-skilled samurai veteran from a war fought thirty years prior.

Meanwhile, the 7th division private also survived his hypothermia (perhaps Sugimoto’s immortaliy rubs off on people) and soon wakes up, meaning his commanding officer, who himself  seems to have survived having a large part of his face peeled off. As tough and resourceful as Sugimoto and Asirpa are, the characters they’ll have to deal with to achieve their goal are no slouches!

Golden Kamuy has established itself as one of the best best of the Spring, despite taking place in a bitterer Winter than the one we’re still struggling to escape in real life. So far it’s sported some great characters of almost mythical ability, offered some creative combat and survival skills, integrating elements of Ainu culture wherever possible. The OP and ED are also tight as hell. More than anything, Golden Kamuy has attitude, but isn’t so serious it won’t crack jokes where appropriate.

Golden Kamuy – 01 – The Weak Get Eaten, But These Peeps Ain’t Weak (First Impressions)

It’s 1904: The Russo-Japanese War, three years before my older grandfather was even born. Sugimoto Saichi is in the trenches, and earns the nickname “The Immortal Sugimoto” for…well, refusing to die. Bullets always miss or glance off him. He’s never in the path of a cannon or mortar.

His vitals always manage to avoid enemy blades. Even when he rushes the Russians head-on yelling “JUST TRY AND KILL ME!”, they fail to kill him. One might say this particular quality of his is a blessing, but all it means is he gets to live on as everyone around him dies.

Among the dead who leave him behind is his old friend and war buddy, who is survived by a wife with failing vision and a child. Sugimoto nearly killed a superior, so he’s cashiered out of the service, and must try to scrape together a living in a place where the gold rush has long since run dry.

While panning in a river for the dregs of that rush, an old drunk keeps Sugimoto company, telling him what initially sounds like a tall tale about a man who stole a mass treasure of gold from the native Ainu and killed a bunch of them. He was imprisoned, but tattooed pieces of a map to the treasure on other prisoners who then escaped, promising them a half share.

When the drunk realizes he’s said too much and tries to kill Sugimoto, Sugimoto clobbers him and forces him to flee…but now Sugimoto is more certain the man wasn’t just telling tall tales. That’s confirmed when he later finds the man’s corpse. He was killed and buried by a bear, but his body bears the map tattoos.

Of course, it’s not that simple: a bear returns, apparently to reclaim its meal, and Sugimoto isn’t ready…but thankfully someone is. Up until now things like timing, physics, and coincidence had served The Immortal Sugimoto, but here and now he finds himself face-to-face with the personification of his luck and salvation: a petite Ainu woman who introduces herself as Asirpa.

Out there in the wilderness, I’d much rather have Asirpa by my side than Sugimoto, especially considering its him, not me, who’d more likely escape death once again. She not only determines that the bear they just killed wasn’t the one who killed the prisoner, but that the man who tattooed him never intended to share the treasure. That man also killed Asirpa’s father to get the gold in the first place.

Because this is just barely the 20th century, and Sugimoto isn’t wealthy enough to own a camera (and the cameraphone is a century away), the only way to preserve the parts of the map they now have is to skin the man. (I suppose he could make a drawing, but lacks the materials) But that will take time, and night waits for no one, not even the Immortal Sugimoto.

Instead, he and Asirpa keep a fire going and use the corspe to lure the megabear to them. He gets the jump on Sugimoto and extinguishes the flame, accelerating their plans somewhat. Then Asirpa’s guardian angel, a white wolf that may well contain the soul of her late father, joins the fray, protecting her and giving Sugimoto an opportunity to shoot the bear.

The bear doesn’t go down that easily, and requires a well-placed blade to its heart to kill, but Sugimoto survives, and impresses Asirpa with his warrior instincts. That being said, she can have no part of the bear she helped kill, as it ate human flesh and was sent to a special form of hell. She, by the way, doesn’t want to shed human blood either.

After Sugimoto skins the map from the map (gross), he vows to be the one to do the “dirty work” while she’ll continue to provide the wisdom and support she has so far, and without which he’d have already been killed by now. Together they’ll find the other pieces of the map (even the skin he has is a patchwork of disconnected map fragments), she can get revenge for her father, and he can get gold for his friends’ family.

Sounds like a good win-win deal, and a strong finish to a hell of a strong and intriguing story set deep in a place utterly inhospitable to humans who have lost touch with nature, and starring two people who are immensely badass in very different yet equally fascinating ways. Hat tip to tombeet for the recommendation!