This year's anime adaptation of Golden Kamuy is a real treat. The historical-action series flits seamlessly between violence, mystery, comedy, and heartfelt character moments. Then throw in some lavish descriptions of delicious food and history lessons on the indigenous Ainu people of Japan. It's not quite like anything else in the medium.
But then, look at the source material. Satoru Noda's Golden Kamuy manga is a luxuriously crafted love letter to everything the author cares about. The illustrations of food are more mouthwatering. The gore that accentuates Golden Kamuy's harsh, winter-y world is more brutal. The reaction shots of series co-lead Asirpa are more ridiculous and "the beautiful naked bodies of men" are more... beautiful and naked. In all the ways the anime succeeds, the manga soars.
Prior to Golden Kamuy, I wasn't much of a manga aficionado. I'd read maybe half a borrowed volume of Rurouni Kenshin in high school and, I don't know, flipped through the FLCL omnibus once. They just never clicked. I only ordered Golden Kamuy on heavy recommendation, but blasted through the anime with my brother. The differences were jarring.
The anime--which currently extends far past what's officially available of the manga in English--almost serves as a "greatest hits" version of the books. The characters are there. The core plot, a search for escaped prisoners with tattoos that lead to a fortune in gold, is still there. But it lacks the mountain of tiny details that had already begun to endear me to Asipra and her partner-in-crime, the Russo-Japanese War veteran, "Immortal" Sugimoto.
An early tone-setting scene sees Sugimoto launching himself into a bear's den to bait it into attacking pursuing soldiers. The disturbed bear proceeds to open one attacker's face like a bathroom door. Steam pours from the hot, exposed muscles as his jawless face looks on in bewilderment.
I don't typically have a stomach for gratuitous violence, but the bear scene establishes just how powerful--and equally dangerous as the series' human enemies -- nature can be. Yet the TV version guts the impact with extreme close-ups and opaque shading.
And it's not just the carnage that feels lessened. Noda's tiny historical asides about the Ainu, about their religious practices and how they prepared tools, are mostly missing or reduced compared to the original text. It's actually been fascinating to see what was cut: either for time, budget, pacing, or simply because different creators thought different elements were more or less important.
What's especially interesting is that it goes against my prior understanding of manga-to-anime translations. Dragon Ball Z is likely the most famous example. That series frequently added to the original version. Infamously, this often meant a great deal of "filler." Episodes segued from the main plot while single scenes stretched into 22-minute stare-downs every week.
Often, though, the anime acted like a revised draft of the original story -- giving the creators a chance to add more emotional weight with the benefit of hindsight. Trunks' first transformation into a Super Saiyan is basically brushed off in the manga, for instance, while the anime dramatically ties it to the death of his former teacher. Meanwhile, Cell's defeat in the anime brought together most of the supporting cast in one cooperative climax. Whereas the manga kept the side characters on the sidelines.
Golden Kamuy and Dragon Ball have more in common than it first appears. Both are ostensibly dramatic works intercut with off-kilter levity. Both start with the search for some nearly mythical treasure that sets the heroes up against oddball villains. Yet despite my teenage obsession with the latter franchise, I never once felt the need to dip into the source material. Maybe that's because so much of what Golden Kamuy offers can only be captured on the page.
Given enough time and money, I'm sure the anime team could reproduce the manga's nearly photo-realistic dishes -- in motion and with full color. But I doubt it would be cost effective. Then factor in how, despite rising popularity in the medium, the anime industry is one of too little pay, too much work, and bleeding money regardless. Animation, it seems, isn't immune to the same problems plaguing most of the world.
The manga industry may not fare better, but the books' relatively smaller scope lets the care and attention of smaller creative teams shine through. Unlike Western comics, manga are typically written and drawn by the same person or people in their entirety. There's a sense of continuity, in both the art and character development, over extended periods of time that you won't find in mainstream superhero books.
Independent Western comics have begun to follow that trend in greater and greater numbers in recent years. Yet many of these are short-lived and feel like spec scripts designed from the ground up to be bought by Netflix or HBO. That's not especially surprising. Superhero comics aren't doing especially well, either, and these days working for Marvel or DC is tantamount to writing early movie scripts you don't even own. Might as well keep the rights to your characters.
Golden Kamuy, and the endless number of series in the same boat, would likely benefit from better financial prospects for all involved. You can put even more care and attention into your art if you don't also have to balance it with a second job, after all. But the scope of its production is a perfect example of why manga can do certain things that other media can't, even if the businesses involved share so many of the same problems.
The anime still works, though, if only as a primer. It's available to stream -- as nearly all anime tends to be these days. Which means the barrier to entry is nearly nonexistent. It also moves at a much faster pace than the source material. So you'll get a tease of where the slower, more detailed burn of the manga is going. From there you can decide if the on-paper version is for you. I did. Now, five volumes of Golden Kamuy and half-a-dozen new series later, I think the anime has finally proven to be my entry point into a unique new medium.