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!