Golden Kamuy is a more adult take on historical events of the early 20th century in Northern Japan – specifically Hokkaido. Using a milieu very little told/known, it is the story of the survivors of the Russo-Japan war (1904-1905) as told through Hokkaido lore. This includes mythology heavily centered around the Ainu people – a people native to the northern area of Japan and with a completely different culture than the Japanese. The story is brutal, graphic, but also full of very interesting cultural and historical facts. The violence doesn’t feel egregious but a natural result of living in the wild or during a lawless time.
Story: Sugimoto survived the Russo-Japanese war by one simple mantra: avoid death by not dying. Heavily scarred and carrying a dead comrade’s geas, Sugimoto needs to find a way to make money to help the soldier’s widow. A chance encounter leads him to a mystery of gold looted from Ainu gold miners and then hidden – the location tattoed in pieces onto fellow escaped prisoners of the person who stole the gold. Sugimoto decides to seek the treasure but he isn’t alone – one of the murdered Ainu’s young daughter has agreed to help him and together they will brave the ‘wild west’ frontier of Hokkaido – running into former soldiers, lawlessness, a savage wilderness, and men willing to kill to also get their hands on the treasure.
Think of the Yukon during the gold rush and you get an idea of the adventures our pair will get into – from capturing and skinning squirrels, fending off bears, capturing fugitives, and trying to discern the mystery of the map pieces tattooed onto so many men. It’s not only the fugitives themselves who are hiding and willing to kill – the prison guards are also out and about and ready to kill anyone asking about tattooed men. Add in an almost supernatural bad guy in the form of the prison who did the tattoos and you get a story full of adventure and survival.
But there is also a lot to learn here – from Ainu mythology (a Kamuy is a deity) and habits, their persecution, the repercussions of the Russo-Japanese war, Hokkaido nature, the dusty frontier-like towns, society at the time, and more. It’s all about Hokkaido and the lives that were lived there at the time – most especially, the persecuted Ainu and returning soldiers of a hellish war.
In all, this is a very violent and brutal story – mature and intelligently written. But there’s also enough adventure and excitement to keep readers invested while also learning more about Hokkaido history. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.