I’m reading the manga for Golden Kamuy when I get around to picking up a new issue every so often, up through volume four by now, and I’m liking it. I like historicals to begin with, and of course Golden Kamuy is strongly tied to the culture of the indigenous Japanese, the Ainu.
They even have an Ainu supervisor to keep things straight. Isn’t that cool?
As a story, though, it’s a classic example of role reversal in the dynamic between the two main characters.
Sugimoto the Immortal is a big, tough soldier, a veteran of the Russo-Japanese War (1905). His face is terribly scarred and he wears his uniform and carries a Japanese soldier’s kit, including a nice new Murata rifle. He earned his nickname in the war, where he was both terribly wounded in the neck and a one-man wrecking crew in the Russian trenches.
Asirpa is an Ainu girl. She’s tiny, and cute, and lacks the tattoos an Ainu woman gets when she comes of age, so they guess she is twelve or thirteen at most. She wears native clothing and carries native kit, including a bow (with poisoned arrows) and knife.
Sugimoto (left) and Asirpa
Together they are seeking a pile of stolen gold. Sugimoto needs money to fulfill a fellow soldier’s dying wish; Asirpa want to find the thieves because they killed her father. This makes them allies although they have somewhat different goals. No doubt this will lead to conflict between them at points during the story.
Because they come from different worlds, they live under different cultural norms. For instance, food. Food is a key aspect of culture, right? She comes from a hunter/gatherer culture and they leave nothing to go to waste. Eyeballs, bladders, brains; she eats them all. He is grossed out at times but grosses her out right back by flavoring all his food with miso. To her it tastes like shit and she teases him constantly about it, offering him a taste whenever they come across animal dung and such.
As a pair they are complementary along a number of dimensions: Big vs. small; ugly/scarred vs. cute; modern vs. traditional; male vs. female; adult vs. child. Culturally he is agricultural and she is hunter/gatherer. In each case that’s Sugimoto listed first, and with the exception of looks each of them should give him the advantage. They’re a classic complementary couple, where one is strong and one is weak.
But when you look at the story the strong one is Asirpa, not Sugimoto.
It’s a simple role reversal created by the fact they are together in her world, not his, and she understands her world and he doesn’t.
In any other world Sugimoto would be the dominant member of the couple. But they are in her world: she knows the ways of the animals around them, which plants are edible, which medicinal, which poison. He has a rifle but she knows about traps and snares and how to make a fast-acting poison that will knock a brown bear on its ass. She saves his life repeatedly.
We see how the difference between them works when they visit a nearby town, that is, they get out of her area of expertise and into his. There Asirpa angers a pimp. In his rage he easily picks her up by her collar and holds her at arms length while he decides whether or not to sell her to a whore house. She is feisty but largely helpless and when she angers him by poking him in the eye, well, fortunately Sugimoto comes along to save the day. The town and townspeople are outside her experience and there she’s just a small girl.
But in the woods it’s Asirpa who saves the day, day after day after day. She knows how to make shelter, and track game, and stay warm, and even how to find water where there are no streams or ponds. They live because of her, not him. They track the criminals because of her, not him. If they succeed, it will be mostly because of her, although one suspects that at the end Immortal Sugimoto and his trusty Murata will have a major role to play.
When the game is played on Asirpa’s turf, the dominance between them is reversed. She’s the one in charge despite all of Sugimoto’s advantages because of one other difference between them: ignorant vs. knowledgeable.
Yup, she’s walking proof that knowledge is power. That’s all it takes to reverse their roles.
There’s hope for the nerds! Hooray!
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