By Deanna Nguyen
CGI bears, naked men whose physique resembles a JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure character, meme-worthy facial expressions, cooking lessons and a dangerous quest for gold—that about sums up Golden Kamuy.
If you’ve stumbled across screencaps of the show on social media and thought, I don’t know what’s going on but I’m here for it, well, you’re not alone. One of Golden Kamuy’s many charms is that it knows when to take things seriously and when to poke fun at itself.
Hopefully with this beginner’s guide, you’ll receive that final push to start watching the show! There’s no better time than now to catch up with the third season that’s currently airing, and maybe now you’ll realize that you’ve hit gold.
What is Golden Kamuy about?
Golden Kamuy is a culmination of different genres: action, adventure, historical fiction, comedy and horror. The backdrop is Hokkaido, Japan, after the end of the Russo-Japanese War during the Meiji era.
Saichi Sugimoto, a war veteran, pans for gold in hopes of helping out his dead comrade’s wife-now-widow, and ends up hearing about a hidden trove of gold whose location can only be discovered through the tattoos on a group of convicts who escaped Abashiri Prison. Breathe.
The tattoos, when put together, supposedly resembles lines of a map, but the only way to put the map together is to kill and skin the convicts. As Sugimoto begins his one-man hunt for the tattooed convicts, he encounters a vicious bear and is saved by a young Ainu girl named Asirpa. The two of them realize that they’re both survivalists and share the same goal of searching for the hidden treasure, so they decide to team up!
Asirpa reveals to Sugimoto that one of the slain Ainu was her father, and that the gold belongs to her people. The gold is worth 800,000 yen (8 million yen by modern value), which means Sugimoto and Asirpa won’t be the only ones looking for it.
Along their journey, they come across potential allies and foes, some of whom join Sugimoto and Asirpa early on. In moments when the show takes a breather, Asirpa teaches Sugimoto and other non-Ainu characters about her culture and cooking. This dynamic is at the core of Golden Kamuy.
Who are the main characters of Golden Kamuy?
The cast of Golden Kamuy quickly grows as soon as Sugimoto and Asirpa cross paths with the tattooed convicts, the 7th Division and other Ainu.
What’s interesting about Golden Kamuy’s characters is the level of distrust among them, considering each of them has their own motives for finding the Ainu gold. At any given moment, one of them could switch sides and become the antagonists! Let’s break them down:
Saichi Sugimoto: Also known as the “Immortal Sugimoto.” A war veteran with deeply embedded survival instincts and a bit of a violent streak due to PTSD and survivor’s guilt. Asirpa’s trusted partner.
Asirpa: An Ainu girl who saves Sugimoto from a dangerous encounter with a bear. A huntress who’s mature beyond her years, a pragmatic survivalist and wants to learn more about her father.
Yoshitake Shiraishi: Also known as the “Escape King.” One of the Abashiri Convicts. A carefree person who’d rather take flight than fight.
Genjirou Tanigaki: Soldier of the Private First Class of the 7th Division and Matagi of Tohoku. A righteous man who doesn’t want to be indebted to people.
Hijikata Toshizou: Vice Commander of the Shinsengumi. Leader of his group.
Tatsuma Ushiyama: Also known as “Ushiyama the Undefeated.” Part of Hijikata’s group and is one of the Abashiri Convicts. A master at judo, a womanzier and is called “Dick-sensei” by Asirpa.
Hyakunosuke Ogata: Former Superior Private of 7th Division. An ace sniper who slicks his hair back a lot.
Kiroranke: An Ainu man who’s an old friend of Asirpa’s father. He’s manipulative and can’t be trusted but isn’t exactly the antagonist (yet).
Inkarmat: An Ainu woman who’s a fortune teller and knew Asirpa’s father. She also ends up quite trustworthy, despite initial actions! Oh, and she has a thing with Tanigaki.
Who is the villain of Golden Kamuy?
Although some of the aforementioned characters seem wishy-washy, we have one man to thank for taking on the role of Golden Kamuy’s Big Bad: Tokushirou Tsurumi.
He’s the First Lieutenant of the 7th Division who received shrapnel in the head during the war. He becomes psychotic from the inadequate treatment, but even before his injury, he’s known to be manipulative.
Regardless of friend or foe, he’ll use them to his advantage, and his ultimate goal is to collect all the Abashiri Convicts’ tattoos and take over Hokkaido.
Is Golden Kamuy based off of a true story?
Historical events such as the Battle of 203 Hill during the Russo-Japanese War and characters like Hijikata Toshizou and the Ainu are based on real-life events and people, even if the overall plot strays from reality.
The Battle of 203 Hill plays a significant role in Golden Kamuy, as Sugimoto fought alongside his comrade and best friend who died in the battle. The 7th Division, one of the strongest units of the Imperial Japanese Army, consists of soldiers who also fought in the Battle of 203 Hill.
Hijiakta Toshizou is based off of the Vice Commander of the Shinsengumi, a police force that resisted the Meiji Restoration, of the same name. The leader of the Shinsengumi, Isami Kondo, is briefly mentioned in Golden Kamuy but doesn’t appear.
The Ainu are the indigenous people of Japan and the original inhabitants of Hokkaido and Russia. Asirpa, among many other characters, are Ainu and even speak the language.
Fun fact: the Ainu language in Golden Kamuy is supervised by Hiroshi Nakagawa, who’s an Ainu linguist from Chiba University. Aside from language, Asirpa also demonstrates Ainu customs, through much more than just hunting and cooking!
What is “kamuy,” anyway?
Speaking of Ainu culture, Asirpa gives Sugimoto a 101 on “kamuy,” which is a spiritual or divine being in Ainu mythology.
There are different kamuy, and in the first episode when Asirpa and Sugimoto kill the bear, Aspira explains that when a bear kills a human, it becomes an evil god who doesn’t fear humans known as “Wenkamuy.”
Asirpa expresses her profound respect for nature and sees all animals as gods. Throughout the show, she describes other kamuy, and while these scenes are history lessons for Sugimoto, they’re also lessons for the viewer!
Why should I watch Golden Kamuy?
Golden Kamuy has its moments of absurdity, hence the out-of-context screencaps, but the story and characters really make the show an underrated gem.
The manga, authored by Satoru Noda, won the ninth Manga Taisho award in 2016 while being nominated for other awards. Golden Kamuy thrives on its characters and historical setting, but for some people, it’s the cooking segments and male nudity that make the show a fan favorite.
In the words of Asirpa: Hinna, hinna!