GOLDEN KAMUY (Goruden Kamui), by Satoru Noda. First published in 2014 and first published in North America in 2017.
"Immortal" Saichi Sugimoto is a veteran of the Russo-Japanese War who simply wants to make some money to save his former sweetheart from poverty and potential blindness. He gets his chance when a prospector clues him in on a fortune in gold stolen from the local Ainu people, where the only clues are tattooed on the skin of escaped prisoners. His search leads him to Asirpa, an Ainu girl with a personal stake in his search and the survival skill he'll need if he is to survive the harsh Hokkaido winter.
Most of the reviews I've seen for this compare to the works of people like Jack London or Ernest Hemingway, and I see where they would get that idea. There are a lot of scenes of Sugimoto fighting for his life against both man and nature, as well with what is clearly a pretty nasty case of PTSD. Even the time period fits. Yet while Sugimoto's story is certainly compelling and well-written, it's not what makes Golden Kamuy truly stand out for me.
One of those stand-out elements is Asirpa herself. Seinen stories like this have a bad tendency to ignore women outside of family and love interests, so seeing Asirpa treated like Sugimoto's equal and not just a vehicle for fanservice or a fawning follower is a welcome relief. She's more than able to hold her own thanks to her hunting and survival skills, and some of the best scenes in the manga come from her watching Sugimoto squirm when she exposes him to some new dish of animal offal. She's also the one who tends to bring out Sugimoto's better qualities, whether it be through restraining him during a rage or helping him better understand her culture and the environment around them. She's both the brains and heart of this duo, and the story is better for having her in it.
The other thing that makes Golden Kamuy stand out is the attention to detail Noda puts into it. It's seldom that you come across a manga with a bibliography, much less with additional credits for a language consultant and special thanks to a couple of museums. He put so much research and effort into the time period, into the setting, and in particular towards the culture and language of the Ainu. He weaves it into the story in a way that shows it off without completely derailing the story, lending the world of Golden Kamuy the sort of verisimilitude I've only seen previously in the works of Kaoru Mori and Makoto Yukimura. It's an extraordinary touch to what is already shaping up to be an incredible manga.
That attention to detail extends to the art. The backgrounds, the details on the characters' wardrobe, the animals, all of it is beautifully rendered as close to photorealistic as possible. That does include gore, so the hunting scenes and some of Sugimoto's flashbacks do merit that parental advisory sticker on the front. The only thing that isn't photorealistic are the characters themselves. Again, much like Kaoru Mori, he draws very attractive and fairly simple in structure, but that also allow him to get a lot of nuance and exaggeration out them, depending on what a scene may call for.
He also draws incredible action, regardless of whether Sugimoto is fighting against man or beast. He guides the reader's eye across the page through clever use of perspective and blows that unconsciously lead the read to the focal point of each frame. He also keeps the panel borders pretty flexible, as the characters regularly stand and extend out of frame. Thus, like the story the artwork always keeps things moving.
Golden Kamuy has it all: a novel and well-researched plot, great characters, thrilling action, gorgeous artwork. There's no good reason to not get this one for yourself.
This series is published by Viz. This series is ongoing in Japan with 11 volumes available. 2 volumes have been published and are currently in print.
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