Stopped Reading This: Golden Kamuy

A while back I posted about anime I’d stopped watching, and someone, Irina maybe, said, “You know, it would be instructive if you could tell us why you stopped watching.”

Point.

That fits into what I do here, looking at anime and manga from my twin perspectives as a writer and animator. Part of telling stories is getting the user engaged, but another part is keeping them engaged.

If you don’t believe me, ask Scheherezade. She ended up telling stories for 1001 Arabian Nights, ‘cuz she was a’gonna be whacked if she couldn’t keep old Shahryar entertained. Zzzzk! Off with her head!

That’ll bring out your A game.

Golden Kamuy is one of those stories I really wanted to read, and by all accounts I wasn’t the only one. The manga is in 25 volumes and the anime has reached three seasons, so someone somewhere thinks they are doing it right. Check that. A lot of people think they are doing it right.

I wanted to check this out for two reasons. It’s a historical and I like them: they tell me new things about events I already know something about. I’m probably more familiar with the Russo-Japanese War than the average American, so I wanted to see something related to that. And I was impressed that they were going to tell me about the Ainu, the people native to the Japanese Islands.

So I read five volumes of the manga, and you know what? They delivered on that, especially on the elements of Ainu culture. I kept wading forward through those five manga volumes, and after that gave up.

Let’s take this apart and see if I can figure out why.

The main characters, Sugimoto, the Japanese veteran, and Asirpa, the Ainu child, worked for me. As a writer I really liked that the dominance structure between them is inverted by the setting: Sugimoto is bigger, stronger, older, more modern, and better armed than Asirpa; if you put them head to head in a death match on a neutral site, he could rip her apart and clean his teeth with her bones.

Sugimoto (left) and Asirpa. Forced perspective makes her look bigger

But they aren’t on a neutral site. They are on HER turf, and that completely upsets the dynamic between them. SHE’s the one that keeps them alive, because her knowledge trumps all of his advantages and then some. That’s one dynamic dynamic!

Plus they are both likable and Asirpa is such a little cutie pie. The main characters work for me.

Lesser characters, less so. Many of the others are opponents of our main characters, and they seems to range from mean to outright depraved. Even some of those are interesting: there is a character who is sexually turned on by murder, for instance. That’s something a) you know exists if you watch as much crime TV as I do (see Dahmer, Jeffery) and b) you don’t see every day in anime or manga.

But most of the others just seem to be simple. They are bad people because they are bad people. They are prepared to kill Sugimoto and Asirpa, but don’t seem particularly clever about it. They are unidimensional bad guys.

That kind of character doesn’t work very well. There’s an old saying among writers that goes something like, “Every villain is the hero of their own story,” and that doesn’t really fit these guys. They lie and cheat and steal and murder because they are greedy; no further explanation needed.

That makes it too easy to root for Sugimoto and Asirpa, since they are manifestly good. For Pete’s sake, give them opponents worthy of their efforts!

The setting is cool because it is Ainu terrain and Asirpa knows about it. As she’s teaching Sugimoto, she’s teaching me, and it’s interesting.

It the same time it gets a little deus ex machina-y as far as the story is concerned: We’re out of food, what do we do? Asirpa knows. We’re out of water, what do we do? Asirpa knows. We’re about to freeze to death, what do we do? Asirpa knows. Whatever the problem is, Asirpa knows the answer.

That’s fair in terms of characterization. It’s her turf. But story-wise it’s not so good. See what goes on? All the man vs. nature conflict isn’t a real threat because Asirpa knows the answer. Her knowledge is interesting, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to a good story.

And then there’s the plot: Sugimoto and Asirpa, for different reasons, are looking for a fortune in gold. There is a map, but it’s tattooed onto the skins of a bunch of guys who were in prison with the guy who hid the stuff. Sugimoto and Asirpa have to whack these guys and skin them to get the stuff.

Oh, and the Japanese Seventh Division, or its remnants, is after the same gold, the same maps, and the same skins.

This is why I gave it up…not because that’s a bad plot, because it’s not. It’s The Quest (for the skins/gold) coupled with Overcoming the Monster (the Seventh Division). It worked for Outlaw Star and Samurai Champloo and Shangri-La, just to name three anime I can see on the shelf in front of me.

It’s not the plot. It’s the pace.

Yeah, there’s ACTION in every volume, lots of it, and apart from the main characters a lot of the action is ambiguous because the minor characters are often conflicted in terms of motivation.

But there’s almost no MOTION in the story. They can spend three whole volumes fighting over one guy’s skin. SHEESH!

It’s the mangaka’s finest desire to keep a story going, because that way they get paid. That’s a good good thing. Pay your local magaka: he or she needs to eat!

But that doesn’t mean I, as a reader, have to like it. After five volumes the novelty of an Ainu character wore off for me, and apart from Sugimoto’s ubiquitous Murata rifle the Russo-Japanese war was left in the dust as well. In short, the things I was interested in were played out, and the story was left with a plot that advanced glacially…when it advanced at all.

I like Sugimoto. I like Asirpa. Not interested in reading all those volumes to keep in touch with them. Sayounara.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

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