Golden Kamuy on Being a Good Man, Being a Good Father
A soldier searching for money finds a small girl and they form a bond while going on a dangerous journey. That’s the basic premise of Golden Kamuy, a manga that mixes intense action sequences with hilarious gags, which Satoru Noda, the writer and artist, somehow makes it work wonderfully. It can be scary, funny, sad, horny. It’s about war, love, food, culture, nature. It’s about bringing someone to this cruel world while trying to protect them from it.
You can find that same premise, tough man protecting a small child through an intense journey, in lots of stories, recent ones being Dororo, True Grit, The Last of Us, Logan, Mandalorian. Like the kids in these stories Asirpa, the Ainu girl Immortal Sugimoto is trying to protect, is not a child in distress. She’s cunning, smart, strong, resourceful. She’s capable of living in that world of violence and treachery that Sugimoto is used to. But why should she? Why live in that world, among those people, doing the same horrible things? If Sugimoto can spare her all of this pain, why not do it?
Sugimoto may not be Asirpa’s biological father but he’s responsible for involving her in this mess. (Spoilers for volume 14) Now, it is true that she would’ve been involved anyway, with her biological father being the man responsible for hiding the Ainu gold and marking the inmates with parts of a map on their bodies that would lead to the gold, but it was Sugimoto that found her first, it was him that got her in this and it’s now his responsibility to make sure she gets through it. Thank God it was Sugimoto, he’s a good man and there aren’t a lot of good men in this story.
Asirpa may function as a sidekick in some moments, but there’s some fundamental differences between her role as a protégé and that of a sidekick like Robin. The main difference is that there’s not a third act for Robin. Dick Grayson was adopted by Batman when he had nowhere else to go, and no one else, and by becoming Robin he found a purpose, a way to keep going. Without Robin there’s not a story for Dick Grayson as we know him. Sure, he grows up and becomes Nightwing, moves away from Batman’s shadow, meets new people, finds love, happiness and disappointment as well, but there’s no third act in his life. There’s no such thing as stop fighting for Dick Grayson. This endless cycle is such that, after witnessing others taking up the cowl and role that was originally his, he eventually takes Bruce’s son as his protégé.
Golden Kamuy is not about that. It’s about looking at your life and realizing you don’t want that for someone you love, it’s about trying to break the cycle, it’s about fighting for the third act, maybe not for you, but for someone that deserves it, that is your responsibility. It’s fighting for someone else’s future and not your own. It becomes pretty clear that Asirpa’s well-being is way more important to Sugimoto than finding the Ainu gold, but it’s also clear that the only way to ensure that is to go through everything, to see the mission till the very end, to fight now so she doesn’t have to fight later, to secure a future for his daughter.
While growing up we tend to learn and absorb a lot with the people we most admire. They’re not always our family, and they’re not always right. Coming from different cultures Sugimoto and Asirpa have a lot to learn with one another. Asirpa teaches basically everything about the Ainu culture: how they live, how they hunt, how they eat. There are moments where the manga becomes about the food, with Asirpa teaching not only Sugimoto but the reader as well. There’s a lot to be learned with their philosophies, with the way they see the world and with how they live their lives. This cultural exchange is always happening between them, Asirpa teaching about Ainu culture and learning about Japanese culture. Sugimoto however is not only Japanese, he’s also a soldier. Asirpa can teach him how to hunt for food, Sugimoto could teach her how to murder a man.
Sugimoto is a good man who deeply cares about this kid he just met a few weeks? months? ago, he shows real compassion towards people, but he also took part in a terrible and bloody War. Living with this cannot be easy.
On the ninth volume, while passing through an Ainu village, Sugimoto starts suspecting those people are not really Ainu, they’re Japanese criminals trying to pass as Ainu. He’s only able to do that because: 1) he learned much about the culture with Asirpa and 2) he learned much about Asirpa, he KNOWS her. “Asirpa? Enjoying embroidery?! what have you done with her?!”
Fearing that she might be in danger, Immortal Sugimoto goes berserk. Everything about him subtly changes, his expression, his stance, his attitude. Noda sells this with his expressive drawings, he also sells the extreme violence in which he kills everyone around him. His movements are fast but precise, every cut and blow carrying his hate and fear for what might have happened. Sugimoto goes from lovable dork to a killing machine in one page turn. When he finds Asirpa safe he goes back to being a dork for one panel, but realizing there’s someone else with her makes his instincts go wild once again.
This is one of the two instances (until vol 14) where this theme is addressed in such a direct way. As I said Golden Kamuy mixes action sequences with funny moments, really great gags that made me laugh out loud many times while reading it. The tone I’m describing is present in these two moments when the tension is building and building and building. The climax of this sequence is Asirpa walking out and seeing the bodies of everyone Sugimoto killed and being visibly scared. Ogata is also using this moment to try and see if he can influence her to maybe move away from Sugimoto.
And here’s the main difference between Sugimoto and Asirpa, she’s not used to such violence, she shouldn’t get used to it. Sugimoto may be a good man, but he’s a better soldier.
He shows no remorse. He did what had to be done and Asirpa was left unharmed, that’s all that matters for him.
Asirpa is a child, which means she’s all potential, all possibility. To make sure she lives to see that potential fulfilled they’ll need to do things that she doesn’t want to. Such is life. A father can’t possibly protect their children from everything in the world, but he might as well try. Which brings us to the fourteenth volume.
When Asirpa discovers that the man responsible for stealing the Ainu gold may be in fact her father, they decide to infiltrate the prison where he’s at to confirm it. At this point Sugimoto and Asirpa are accompanied by a large group of individuals, all trying to find tbe gold themselves, some more trustworthy than others. Another thing they had to do to stay alive, compromise and make shady alliances.
Their plan to stealthy infiltrate the prison goes horribly wrong and it becomes all out war, with some of the most violent action scenes I’ve ever seen in a manga like this. It’s not absurdly gore but the dichotomy between the violence and the funny, the gore and the cute, is always striking. Sometimes it happens in the same page. Sugimoto is the only one that comes face to face with Noppera-bo, Asirpa’s father, and that’s was the moment when everything about this comic -after 140 chapters- came into place for me. Confronting this man responsible for setting everything in motion, Sugimoto looks at him as asks: “DO YOU WANT HER TO BE A KILLER LIKE US?!”
Everything Sugimoto is doing is for her survival, but her father wants her to be a soldier. We see that in the flashback to Asirpa’s childhood, when he’s teaching her how to kill a bear. Every parent hopes for the best for their children, but is it okay to actually impose something on them? I want my kids to be successful comic book writers and artists, can I impose this on them? No, I don’t think so. Look it’s not the same as being a killer but it’s almost as bad right? Maybe? Okay…
Here’s where everything gets a little too complicated: Noppera-bo wants Asirpa to grow up to be a soldier so she can lead the Ainu so they can fight for their land. Sugimoto even admits its a righteous cause and that someone has to fight it but it doesn’t have to be her. He’s a father figure who, just like her biological father, thinks is doing the best for her, but if he’s removed from the culture and from the fight, does he have a right to tell Asirpa that this person doesn’t need to be her? That someone else can fight and lead instead? The thing is that we see the whole story from Sugimoto’s point of view, he’s the protagonist after all. We learn about the Ainu culture through him, we meet Asirpa through him, we see the world through his eyes… And I have to say that, given the POV, I don’t want Asirpa to become a soldier. She’s such a smart, caring kid who deserves to live a life where she gets to choose what she wants, but such is the world we live in, always another war to be fought.
The same way Sugimoto became a father figure to Asirpa, Tsurumi did with his soldiers. Ogata was an illegitimate child, his mother was a geisha and his father was an important figure in the Japanese army, who stopped visiting his illegitimate son once his real wife gave birth to a boy. Using his need for attention and lacking a father figure, Lieutenant Tsurumi made Ogata kill his own father to further his plans.
Tsurumi is also using Koito, a young soldier who admires him so much that he’d do anything to prove himself to him, whose father is an influential commander from the navy. While talking to Koito’s father, Sugimoto asks him if he wants his son involved in this, considering that he may not survive. His answer is that people sent their sons to die in a war started by the previous generation and it wouldn’t be right for him to spare his son, and that if Noppera-bo was going to ask the Ainu to fight and die he’d have to have his own daughter leading them, and by doing so he wouldn’t be merely using her. It’s a purpose inherited, but it’s also the sins of the father. We didn’t ask to fight in our father’s wars, but it’s up to us to finish the fight. It’s the selfishness of having children, you either teach them or use them.