An Action-Packed Historical Adventure
Filled With All the Entertainment a Manga Could Possibly Provide
-- Interview with Satoru Noda, author of “Golden Kamuy”
In the later days of the Meiji Era, Russo-Japanese War survivor Sugimoto - a former soldier known as “Immortal Sugimoto” - learns about a significant stash of gold. Worth 800 million yen in total, the gold was stolen from Ainu people who were slaughtered by a death-row convict. Following hints embedded in convict tattoos, Sugimoto joins forces with an Ainu girl by the name of Asirpa, overcoming violent conflict together to solve mysteries and locate the stash of gold. “Golden Kamuy” is an action-packed historical adventure that features exciting action, Ainu culture and customs, gourmet foods based on wild game, as well as the appearance of real characters in Japanese history. The title has a splendid historical appeal. Its readership continues to increase in dramatic fashion, and it has sold over 2.7 million copies. In 2016, the title finally won the Manga Taisho Award. To learn about how “Golden Kamuy” was created, we spoke with author Satoru Noda as well as his partner, editor Hakko Okuma.
An unprecedented and “authentic” manga
That blends the serious together with the humorous
Filling it with every element that I find interesting
One unique trait of “Golden Kamuy” is how it deeply it describes the culture and customs of the Ainu people. Author Satoru Noda was born in Hokkaido, but he did not always have a thorough understanding of Ainu culture.
Tattoos on the man in the forest convince Sugimoto that the story of stashed gold is real (Volume 1)
Noda “There were times when the bus guide leading us on our graduation school trip would introduce Ainu songs to us, and we’d sing the songs together. But unless we actually went and visited museums or traditional craft stores, there weren’t many connections between our daily lives and Ainu culture, if any at all. I didn’t have anyone around me who was of Ainu descent either. Originally, I wanted to write about my great-grandfather, who served as a settler colonist for the military. When I visited the public archives and read for the first time about how he was deployed to 203 Hill, a site of heavy fighting, I was proud of him for making it back alive. My great-grandfather is from Kyushu, and moved to Hokkaido to serve as a settler colonist. The cold Hokkaido weather must have struck him quite hard. To gather more information, I visited the houses of the settler colonists. I was astonished by how bare they looked, and even more so by the fact that they were able to survive the winter in those houses”.
With his great-grandfather as his model, Mr. Noda decided to make his protagonist a young soldier returning from the Russo-Japanese War. Before he started working on “Golden Kamuy” after completing the ice-hockey manga “Supinamarada!”, he spent an entire year exploring a variety of options together with his editor, Hakko Okuma. Women’s gymnastics, robot competitions, sci-fi fantasies, action-packed historical adventures, and the list goes on. With a variety of proposals available, what helped Mr. Noda make his decision was a single novel that Mr. Okuma brought forth: Ginrou-ou by Tatsuya Kumagai.
Noda “The novel is about hunting, with its stage set in Hokkaido back in 1887. Nihei - the protagonist of the story - enters the mountains to bring down Ginrou-ou, the legendary silver wolf that he learned about in the tales told by older Ainu people. I thought it would be interesting if I could create something similar to the novel by combining the element of hunting with the plot I wanted to write about. This way, the Russo-Japanese War could be featured as a memoir, and the Ainu would be naturally included when hunting is involved. One of the main characters in ‘Supinamarada!’ is also named Nihei, so I felt like it had to be a sign of some sort”.
In “Golden Kamuy”, Nihei is the name of a Matagi* who is one of the tattooed convicts. Also known as the nightmare bear hunter that generates fear even while bears hibernate, Nihei embodies the respect that Mr. Noda has towards Matagi.
Together with Asirpa, the Ainu girl who saved him during a bear attack, Sugimoto begins his journey towards the stashed gold (Volume 1)
Noda “When I was thinking about what would happen when Sugimoto - an amateur at hunting - connected with an Ainu hunter who would teach him their ways, I came up with Asirpa, the Ainu girl who would be his partner. Even though she’s younger than Sugimoto, he still calls her Miss Asirpa out of respect since she’s his hunting teacher. In Ainu culture, women don’t actually take part in hunting. However, I learned later on that there are indeed Ainu stories that tell about young female hunters. It seems impossible, but that’s what makes it entertaining. I’m sure that the Ainu were also interested in the idea of female hunters, which would explain why the stories exist”.
Mr. Noda is so keen about hunting that he wanted to become a licensed hunter. According to Mr. Okuma, “He mistook the exam date and wasn’t able to get a license [laughs]. He has a rather clumsy side that is quite charming [laughs]. Mr. Noda is genuinely interested in hunting and survival. He also has strong thoughts towards the Meiji era and great respect for his great-grandfather. Incorporating the element of hunting into his work meant that he was able to become more knowledgeable in the field, which I believe helped make the story even more entertaining”.
After deciding on the main theme, Mr. Noda gathered everything he found interesting about Hokkaido and loaded them into his story. The result is “Golden Kamuy”, a title that is filled with all the entertainment a manga could possibly provide. In the words of Mr. Okuma, “There’s adventure, hunting, gourmet based on game meat, culture, and historical romance. All of these parts could have been presented as main dishes on their own, but even when they’re cooked together, they not only retain their unique flavor but become even more appetizing. This is only possible because the chef - or the author in this case - has the skills to do so”.
Noda “I am very fond of animals, and I was sure that I could convey the eeriness and sadness of the Sankebetsu Higuma Incident** to the readers. Come to think of it, the only monsters that were near me were the brown bears of Hokkaido. Of course, black bears and wild boars are dangerous as well, but the brown bears are at another level. I’ve visited the bear farm in Noboribetsu many times, and the size of the brown bears up close is overwhelming. I don’t think there’s a chance of survival when one of those bears attacks. Their behaviour becomes more complicated and fascinating as you get to know them, and I think I can understand why they’re treated like the gods of the mountains”.
“After coming up with the essential elements of the story, it took me another year before I could put everything together. I do remember that my work progressed quickly after things were all decided. When it was decided that the title would be serialized, I didn’t have much time on my hands. I started on the without much data or information. Despite it all, I used the time that I could spare to gather what I needed, and I’m happy with the progress that I’ve made”.
There’s no fun in writing only about your own fantasies
A vast amount of research and data collection is necessary to fill the story with so many different elements. As shown in the reference section at the end of each novel, “Golden Kamuy” cites an incredible number of sources. In addition to the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, Mr. Noda also visited the Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum, the Ainu Museum in Shiraoi district, the Abashiri Prison Museum, and several other locations as well.
Noda “Data and information are necessary when it comes to creating something that’s interesting. Going to the source and seeing the things as they really are is more important than anything else. Writing about dumb characters who perform foolish acts is easy, but relying only on the resources you have and producing a manga based on your own fantasies is no fun at all. Because of this, authors often come to realize just how difficult it is to write about professionals such as hunters or athletes. When it comes to knowledge and techniques that have been developed through trial-and-error, rationalized, and passed down from previous generations, it’s best to meet the professionals in person before writing about it in your work. For ‘Golden Kamuy’, I took all the storyboards up until Volume 7 to the Ainu Association of Hokkaido and had them read it over for me. I thought about making changes based on their feedback, but they told me that they liked it, and even asked what happens next. I was relieved by their comments. They also told me that ‘there’s no need to write about unfortunate Ainu people anymore’; they said they’re ‘tired of seeing Ainu portrayed as pitiable people’ and would prefer to have me ‘write about amazing Ainu people’ instead. And that’s what I decided to do. I decided to write about amazing Ainu people and show them in an entertaining way”.
Mr. Okuma tells us that “Mr. Noda has terrific abilities in seeing things for what they are, and also in breaking them down so that he can incorporate them into his work. In the limited amount of time he has, he travels to as many places as he possibly can. His enthusiasm for writing about professionals is much stronger than other authors”. The intricate presence of Ainu people that is based on a variety of sources and references can be found in this title.
Catching Far Eastern brook lamprey with their toes - a scene that touched even the researchers (Volume 8)
Noda “It’s said that Ainu used their toes to catch Far Eastern brook lamprey at the bottom of rivers, and I wrote about it in Volume 8. Mr. Hiroshi Nakagawa (Ainu language researcher, Ainu language editor of ‘Golden Kamuy’) was the one who taught me about this, and he was touched by how the scene presented the image that he had imagined for so long. Information about life during earlier times is passed down through data and hearsay. I don’t think neither scholars nor Ainu people have seen the information presented in a visual form through manga before. In that sense, having those who are involved in the title read my work and be entertained feels very rewarding to me”.
“When you do your research, you can make plenty of discoveries. I only learned about the commonalities between Ainu culture and that of the Touhoku Madagi when I started searching for information. I’ve come to realize that the food culture and language of the Madagi is very similar to the Ainu, which I find very amusing. Their designs are also very intriguing. Once I’m finished with the series, I’m thinking about picking up a knife and doing some carving myself”.
Because of all the extensive research and data collection that has gone into the production of the title, readers can make numerous discoveries of their own as they read. One of them is something that we could never find on our own: the discovery of Ainu gourmet food. More specifically, how ingredients are hunted and prepared. Although Mr. Noda was not particularly interested in creating a gourmet manga, Mr. Okuma explains how “writing about survival, or the act of living, naturally involves the element of food”. Mr. Noda also had the chance to experience the fun in working on gourmet foods for himself.
Noda “There’s a cooking method called citatap - a method somewhat similar to finely chopping - that’s used to kill off parasites. There’s also a preservation method that involves leaving salmon outside to freeze. But it doesn’t matter how long you can preserve something. If it doesn’t taste good, there’s no point in doing it. Practices that make food safe are always being challenged by the desire for people to make food delicious. The battle between the two sides is a lot of fun”.
“It isn’t specific to Ainu culture, but when it comes to liver, there’s a sense of pleasure that only hunters can experience when they eat liver fresh from a hunted animal. It’s completely different from what they serve in pub-style restaurants. Nowadays, even hunters don’t really eat it anymore because of the risk of hepatitis”.
Showing Ainu food culture together with hunting is one reason behind the manga’s popularity (Volume 2)
Mr. Okuma had his share of rare foods as well. “There’s a type of food that uses an entire badger skull. The rustic beauty of the thing was amazing. I’ve had dishes that contained brains before, but this one tasted like a rich milt. The general image that people have about foods made from wild game is something that’s harder to chew and doesn’t smell as good as the meat that we usually have on a daily basis. In reality, I heard that the meat from animals who were killed in one shot - with no additional stress applied - has no smell and is also very tender. I’ve also heard that it’s best to shoot an animal while they’re asleep. I think it all comes down to the idea of probability. The animals we consume regularly are raised in a way that doesn’t cause stress. Therefore, the meat is easy on our mouths. The same can be said about wild game meat if the animal was hunted skillfully. The game meat wouldn’t smell, and it would be easy for us to eat as well. It all depends on how often - or how seldom - we can come across meat like that. Because the Japanese river otter is now extinct, we didn’t have a chance to try it. I did ask the researchers what kind of flavor they thought the meat would have had, though”.
As expected, the gourmet scenes drew plenty of reactions from the readers. Mr. Okuma reflects upon a particular gourmet scene that served as a junction, putting “Golden Kamuy” on its course. “Asirpa was against using the miso that Sugimoto carried along. She would even call it ‘osoma’, which means feces, but she eventually does decide to try it for herself. That’s when Sugimoto and Asirpa really connected with each other. Coming to an agreement means accepting the cultural differences that others may have, and that’s what they did. Based on a source by Tomoko Keira, there was actually an Ainu woman who referred to miso as ‘osoma’. The reaction this scene caused made me firmly believe that this title would be successful”.
Showing the villain with a touch of humor
Mr. Noda’s unique and captivating method of creating characters
Another element that adds to the charm of “Golden Kamuy” is its collection of eccentric characters that are of various age ranges. Since everyone was on the verge of death and struggled to live on, many characters showed strong signs of perversion, especially the convicts who were after Sugimoto. For example, there is Ushiyama, a giant with great strength and a greater sex drive; Henmi, a man who becomes ecstatic when he imagines himself being killed; there’s also Edogai, who enjoys peeling off human skin and using it for taxidermy.
Ushiyama, one of Mr. Noda’s favorites. Without realizing that the beautiful woman is a prisoner like himself, he attempts to win her heart (Volume 6)
Noda “I didn’t think Henmi’s personality would stand out so much. Although he was originally set for a quick death, Mr. Okuma told me that Henmi still had more left in him. Henmi is a pervert that was summoned by his words. The character that I’ve enjoyed working on the most recently is chinpo-sensei (Ushiyama). He’s strong, he’s a gentleman, and aside from the fish cake on his forehead***, he’s the ideal man. In a time where weak and androgynous men with perms are getting all the praise, I think the women who like chinpo-sensei have excellent taste. Personally, I’m concerned about how women these days tend to prefer less vigorous men who are also androgynous, and how it may be connected to the declining birth rate. Who will be the next powerful pervert to appear and have sexual intercourse disguised as pandemonic acts of killing? I’ll make sure I meet the expectations of the readers”.
The desire for sex is one that’s connected to natural and fundamental desires. The desires of these drastically abnormal characters are indeed bizarre, but there’s something likable about that. According to Mr. Okuma, it is because they are not typical villains; they are human beings just like we are. “People often fear what is different, and tend to side with the standard or what the majority chooses. Somewhere deep inside, they end up seeking something that’s recognizable. But at the same time, they want to see something that is completely out of the ordinary. Going too far leads to failure as people will be drawn back, and not going far enough would just leave you buried under everything else. The ability to maintain that delicate balance - going just far enough - and picking out a unique method of portrayal is something that’s really attractive about Mr. Noda. He doesn’t fear criticism, and he’s able to show his characters as human beings in humorous ways”.
On the other hand, there are also characters who release an orthodox aura of coolness. After losing his friend in the Russo-Japanese War, Sugimoto pursues the stashed gold with all his heart in order to provide for his childhood friend Umeko, who is also the widow of his lost friend. Kiroranke - a friend of Asirpa’s father - is another one of these characters. He is a wise man with a great figure that carries an authentic sense of Ainu manliness.
Noda “As one would expect, when Sugimoto and Miss Asirpa are active, the reactions are quite positive. I initially thought that Genjiro Tanigaki - the Madagi - would be suitable for the protagonist role. I think the boys would like a character like that who has his sorrows and remains mostly silent. As for Kiroranke, his sex appeal should be best understood by foreign women. We should really promote big-boned characters with large pectoral muscles, lots of hair, and enormous balls [laughs] in the manga industry”.
Until he reaches his place of death, he will continue to struggle and survive Where does the path of “Immortal Sugimoto” lead? (Volume 3)
”Golden Kamuy” is already being published overseas in countries such as France and Taiwan. Plans for translated publications in Italy have also been made, with fan responses and demands for the title growing slowly but surely. “It’s possible that the manga became popular within Japan because the readers were able to see how Mr. Noda respectfully accepts other cultures”, says Mr. Okuma. The efforts of Sugimoto and Asirpa as they work together in their adventures will certainly overcome boundaries and touch the hearts of readers overseas as well.
Not only has it been revealed that Asirpa is connected with the man who stashed the Ainu gold, readers can also see Russian partisans beginning to creep into the picture. As the framework of the title expands, its mysteries also begin to unfold. Experience the lives of men who are searching for the right place to die, and chase after the Ainu gold together with the characters of “Golden Kamuy”.
Interview conducted by Momo Tachibana
With cooperation from Hakko Okuma
Translated by Tokyo Otaku Mode Inc.
*Translator’s Note: Matagi refers to people who hunt in groups using traditional techniques from Hokkaido or the Touhoku region.
**Editor’s Note: The case refers to numerous attacks by black grizzlies on residences in 1915 that caused seven deaths and three cases of serious injury.
***Editor’s Note: There is a protrusion on Ushiyama’s forehead where the skin has hardened and resembles a fish cake.
Born in Hokkaido. In 2003, he made his debut with “Kyoko-san no Kyo toiu Kyou” in Bessatsu Young Magazine. With “Goalie wa Maeshika Mukanai”, he won first prize in the Young Category of the 54th Chiba Tetsuya Award In 2006. He also wrote “Supinamarada!”, a manga about a high school student who is passionate about ice hockey. In 2015, “Golden Kamuy” finished second in the Comic Natalie Award. After finishing second in Kono Manga ga Sugoi! Award for Male Readers in 2016, the title finally won first prize in the Manga Taisho Award. “Golden Kamuy” is a hit title with over 2.7 million copies sold.