The time is the early 1900s and legend has it that somewhere in the challenging wilderness of Hokkaido is a massive load of gold. The gold has been collected by the long-oppressed, indigenous Ainu, but one man allegedly killed them all to take it for himself. He ended up in a maximum security prison, but not before he hid the gold. According to the legend, he tattooed a map across the bodies of other inmates, instructing them to escape so that one day they could all gather again and use their tattoos to locate the gold. When some greedy soldiers learn of this and decide to take the prisoners themselves, they seize their chance, kill all the soldiers and escape… and are now believed to be somewhere in Hokkaido – still with their treasure map tattoos of course.
This story captures the attention of the ‘immortal’ Sugimoto Saichi, fresh back from the Russo-Japanese war in which he lost his dearest friend, and, later in the episode, the attention of the young Ainu girl Asirpa. Sugimoto wishes to use the gold in order to afford eye surgery for his friend’s widow, while Asirpa is motivated by revenge – her father was among the group of Ainu killed by the man who stole the gold. It’s a strange partnership, but a necessary one – ‘immortal’ as he may seem, bullets have nothing on the deadly bears that populate the Hokkaido wilderness, and Sugimoto will need all of Asirpa’s Ainu knowledge to be able to survive here. After all, by the end of the episode she’s already saved him twice.

‘by terrible, bad, no good, awful CGI bears’

…Okay so lets just get the good stuff out of the way first, because Golden Kamuy is a legitimately amazing manga that you should already be reading.  I personally haven’t gotten the chance to read more than the first volume, but as a certified Big Fan of Hokkaido I’m always really stoked about the manga’s existence and was also stoked about it getting an anime adaptation. It’s cool enough to get a manga set in Hokkaido, it’s cooler still to get a historical story – let alone one that can blend humour and tragedy so well – and it’s also just tops that a manga with such positive Ainu representation – one of the most discriminated against minorities in Japan – is so popular. A lot of care and love has gone into the Ainu elements of the story to make sure everything is accurate and respectful, and it really shows. Asirpa is a fantastic and unqiue character, and while this episode doesn’t remotely show the full extent of her charm (although shows plenty of her badassery), she’s definitely a contender for Best Female Character of 2018.

Besides the many tidbits of Ainu trivia and historical references, there are two other things that Golden Kamuy is particularly renowned for – it’s incredibly detailed, beautiful artwork, and it’s incredibly unique, definitely-going-to-be-the-source-of-80%-of-reaction-gifs-you-see-this-season facial expressions. I can’t yet say how well the latter has survived the transition to anime yet (there should be some in episode 2 though) but I can at least comment on the first point. Because that, sadly, is what may end up ruining this entire adaptation. Yes, every single review of the first episode is talking about this, but they’re talking about it for a reason. It’s…just that bad. I’m talking about the CGI bears. It’s impossible not to.

They’re bad. There’s no way around it, they look terrible. If you’d shown me that screenshot at the top of the review there I’d assume it was a screenshot from some ‘lolrandom’ anime and the photorealistic bear was part of a surreal joke. In the manga, these bears are terrifying, and the scenes in this episode where Sugimoto and Asirpa fight them should be unbelievably tense and exciting. Instead, due to how unbelievably goofy the bears look and how poorly they blend in with both the 2D animated Sugimoto/Asirpa and the 2D backgrounds, it just becomes unintentional comedy instead. I actually said ‘oh no’ out loud – not because I was worried about Sugimoto getting brained by a bear paw, but because it’s the exact point in the episode where my optimism for a decent Golden Kamuy anime leapt off a cliff. I’d heard about it before watching so I thought I was prepared but I just…wasn’t. Even the screenshots don’t capture how dumb those bears look in motion or how entirely unconvincing the human characters interactions with them are. The choice to make the bears almost photo-realistic is even weirder considering they aren’t the only CGI animals to appear – the wolf at the end of the episode is also in grating CGI but isn’t as jarring as this, and has a more cel-shaded appearance. Apparently, this was done because even in the manga the bears are made to look otherworldy and different to everything else in it but…there had to be a better way of conveying this in animation, because in the manga, the bears do not look like complete arse.

Unfortunately it’s not just the bears that look bad – the characters themselves seemed to go off model a few times…although, curiously, not until after the bears showed up (unless I just didn’t notice it). It’s almost like the CGI bears were so bad they affected everything else in the show. It’s an incredibly disappointing debut for what should have been one of the highlights of the season, and I can only hope that the stories good points win over the badness. I’d love this anime to do well, but at the same time…people are really better of experiencing the story in its original form.

It’s not all terrible at least – the characters are still the same great characters, the story is still the same unique story, and I actually really liked seeing the beautiful Hokkaido landscapes. I’ll certainly be watching more of it, but with extreme wariness. Should I be optimistic that it just had a rough start and it will get better? I want to believe, guys. Don’t do this to me. This story deserved better than this.

You’re lucky Hokkaido’s so pretty, anime. It’s hard to screw that part up.

Out of 5,