July 19 saw the release of the final volume of Golden Kamuy, Noda Satoru’s popular manga set in Hokkaidō and Sakhalin in the early 20th century. With English language editions and an anime adaptation winning obsessive fans around the world, Hotta Junji looks at the secret behind this comic’s overwhelming success.
A global hit that embodies the essence of manga
Originally published in Shūeisha’s weekly teen comics anthology Young Jump as of July 2022, Noda Satoru’s Golden Kamuy has sold over 19 million copies from its 31 full-length volumes, with a live-action film adaptation also in the pipeline.
In 2019, the series even became the international “face” of manga when it was featured in promotional art for a major manga exhibition at the famous British Museum in London. And one could argue that Golden Kamuy provides an answer to the question: “What does manga want to express?” The answer is: perversion. Or if that seems misleading, then the primal energy that we might call human desire.
The story begins in Hokkaidō, just after the end of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. An island the size of present-day Austria, Hokkaidō lies at the metaphorical “head” of the Japanese archipelago. And to the north, a short distance across the Sōya Strait, is Sakhalin Island, the former site of the Japan-Russia border. Returning soldier Sugimoto Saichi, a central character in the story, arrives in Hokkaidō after the war hoping to find his fortune amid the territory’s ongoing gold rush.
Things don’t go as hoped, but Sugimoto soon hears of a hidden stash of gold hoarded by a group of Hokkaidō’s native Ainu people during their resistance to mainland Japanese expansion. Rumor has it that a man murdered several Ainu and hid the gold before being captured and taken to the remote Abashiri prison. There he tattooed an encrypted map over the bodies of 24 convicted inmates who escaped after murdering soldiers who were transporting them in hopes of unlocking their secret.
“If you can put these tattoos together and crack the code, you’ll find the gold.” After hearing these words from another prospector, Sugimoto first wrote them off as the ramblings of an elderly drunk. But the old man’s friendly face soon changes, and he points a gun at Sugimoto, insisting he’s given too much away.
A fight ensues, and Sugimoto gains the upper hand and begins chasing after his attacker. He then meets a young Ainu girl named Asirpa, a skilled hunter with a thorough knowledge of the local wilderness, and the two join forces to search for the hidden treasure.
But they aren’t the only ones on the trail, and they find themselves locked in a battle for gold in the midst of the northern wilderness that pits them against the divergent desires and motivations of their rivals, including the elite 7th Division, rumored to be the strongest fighting unit is the Imperial Japanese Army as well as the hulking criminals who make up the gang of 24 fugitives.
Minority Groups in a Frontier Age
In different ways, everyone involved in this race could be called outcasts from mainstream society. The troops of the 7th Division, for example, were abandoned by their government.
In the mid-19th century, feudal Japan was swept up in the wave of colonial expansion from the western powers. In response to these changing times, the Meiji Restoration was a period of intense modernization that included the formation of Japan’s first civil parliament. And the new government’s approach to national security saw it engage in two all-out wars with regional neighbors – first with Qing Dynasty China and then with Imperial Russia. From farmers to artisans, thousands of civilians were sent to the front lines, and although Japan would ultimately triumph in both conflicts, many lost their lives on foreign shores amid the unprecedented brutality of modern warfare.
In Golden Kamuy, the 7th Division is led by Tsurumi Tokushirō, a lieutenant confused and disfigured from a battlefield injury. His quest for the gold is driven by a desire to ensure that his comrades’ war deaths were not in vain by using the riches to install a military government in Hokkaidō. Despite his abnormal behavior, Tsurumi possesses a fearsome intellect and an almost mystical level of charm and charisma. And at his command is a first-rate team of fighters fresh from the theater of war.
A second group of misfits are those left behind by history: the escaped convicts, led by the proverbial “last samurai” Hijikata Toshizō, a character loosely based on the historical figure of the same name.
Before the Meiji Restoration and the birth of civil government, feudal Japan was ruled by the samurai class. The real Hijikata fought government forces on the side of the former shogunate before meeting his end in battle trying to establish Hokkaidō as an independent state.
But in Golden Kamuy, Hijikata did not die and was actually imprisoned in Abashiri, where he became one of the 24 inmates who were tattooed with fragments of the treasure map. Even in old age, he has lost none of his fighting spirit, swordsmanship or tactical acumen and is once again striving for Hokkaidō’s independence.
In search of the gold, Hijikata’s faction, composed of fellow refugees from Abashiri, includes numerous fearsome fighters, including a judo master and a blind but deadly marksman, as well as several other surviving samurai.
Ainu Worldview at the core of the story
Sugimoto is also an outcast, as his family members were shunned by the residents of their village in Kanagawa Prefecture after contracting a deadly infectious disease.
Sugimoto is the only survivor in his household, and after the contagion claims his last family member, he sets fire to their house and leaves the village, leaving behind his soulmate and former romantic partner, Umeko. When he returns two years later, satisfied that he himself is disease free, he is shocked to find that his true love has married his best friend Kenmochi Toraji in his absence.
But Umeko begins to lose her sight while Kenmochi is sent to war along with Sugimoto, where he dies on the battlefield. When he promises his dying friend that he will take care of his widow and child, it is the realization that he needs money to pay for treatment for Umeko’s eyesight that drives Sugimoto to seek his fortune in Hokkaidō.
After failing to stop the disease that ravaged his family, Sugimoto (aside from his incredible toughness, martial arts, and athleticism) holds a growing belief that he is immortal.
After all, Asirpa-san (as Sugimoto insists on calling her, with the respectful suffix attached to her name) is a member of one of Japan’s ethnic minorities. In prehistoric times, the ancestors of the Ainu lived as hunter-gatherers across the length and breadth of the Japanese archipelago. But as a rice-based agrarian society began to take hold, they were pushed farther north, with Hokkaidō becoming their last bastion. In the Middle Ages, a unique Okhotsk culture emerged, whose people traded with mainland Japanese. But since the early modern period, mainland economic dominance grew, and from the Meiji Restoration onward, the loss of Ainu culture extended even to the forced adoption of Japanese names.
But the Ainu worldview and understanding of living in harmony with nature remained, as did the resilience required to survive in the harsh wilderness of Hokkaidō. In fact, another major draw of Golden Kamuy is a portal to the Ainu lifestyle, mindset and innovations, as well as the hunter-gatherer lifestyle still practiced by Asirpa and their ilk.
And while the hidden gold is part of her people’s heritage, Asirpa’s own reasons for joining the hunt are more personal: to find out what happened to her father (who is believed to have died protecting the treasure), to learn more about the responsibility entrusted to her to experience her, namely to find out who she really is.
But while these characters may all represent minorities, that doesn’t mean they’re weak and vulnerable – because if they were, they wouldn’t last long in this fight for gold amidst the harsh northern landscapes. In fact, every single individual portrayed oozes with the strength it takes to survive.
If I may turn to a personal anecdote, when I was working for a manga publication at a young age, an older colleague once told me, “Manga is no good as a medium of expression unless it’s connected at some fundamental level with human libido.” If If that libido drifts too far into the red, you could be denounced as a pervert. Golden Kamuy is bursting with such a perversion.
What is the art form manga anyway? I’ve heard it described as a form of expression that wholeheartedly supports human desires – a definition I have to agree with. But precisely because the desires in question are universal human desires, manga has found such widespread popularity across national borders. Golden Kamuy is a work that makes this particularly clear.
What’s fascinating is how the different actors pursuing the gold are actually more tightly integrated into groups due to the different ways they move through the world. The soldiers of the 7th Division are subjected to a twisted psychological manipulation that only brings them closer together, while Hijikata’s group, at least early in the story, finds unity in their common goals. Sugimoto and Asirpa, and later Shiraishi, a master prison breaker who joins them, build their relationships with each other on strong bonds of trust.
When examining the connections that bind people together, it is the nation that tends to be the largest entity used to define their connections. Golden Kamuy, as a story of those who have both made and broken ties, is an explanation of how people create their own ‘lands’. I hope you find the time to find out how this happens in an unexpected way by an unexpected source at the very end of the story.
(Originally published in Japanese on July 16, 2022. Banner image: Standalone volumes by Golden Kamuy, each featuring one of the story’s idiosyncratic characters on its cover. © Nippon.com.)