Netflix’s ‘Golden Kamuy’ True Story & Real-Life References, Explained

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A live-action adaptation of a popular manga series, Netflix’s Golden Kamuy centers around real-life historical events, even though most of the characters in the story are fictional. The opening battle scene depicts one of the bloodiest battles in Japanese history that took place in 1904 on 203 Meter Hill, China. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the modern Japanese Empire adopted some of the Western ideologies and decided to establish a sphere of influence in neighboring Asian countries. As a result of their greed, they came into direct conflict with the Russians, who were driven by a similar imperial goal. In short, the Russians saw the Japanese as an imminent threat.

Japan wanted to expand its influence to Korea and Manchuria, but the Russians had already established their authority in Manchuria. The Imperial Japanese government offered a truce and agreed to recognize Russia’s expansion in Manchuria if they let them have Korea. However, as it usually goes with most greedy imperials, Russia refused to accept the terms and conditions, and war broke out between the two great nations. The Russian army had leased a naval base in mainland China called Port Arthur, which the Japanese Navy attacked by surprise in 1904, therefore inciting the war. As per history, Japan won the war, and their victory marked the decline of Russia’s dominance in Asia and Europe, which resulted in the Russian Revolution in 1905. Japan, on the other hand, made its mark on the world map and was recognized as an emerging power by the world leaders.

But even though the real-life Russo-Japanese War had its share of twists and turns, it didn’t really have any effect on our fictional protagonist, Saichi Sugimoto. In the Netflix film, Immortal Sugimoto was a member of the 1st Division of the Japanese Imperial Army who took part in the Siege of Port Arthur and somehow survived the ordeal. After a time jump of two years, we see Sugimoto as a deserter trying to find the rumored gold of Ainu in Hokkaido. Because most of the film took place in 1906, when the Russo-Japanese War had already ended, the makers of the film were free to take creative liberties without confining themselves to real historical facts.


Are Ainu people real?

The Netflix film featured an indigenous Japanese hunting tribe called the Ainu people, who lived in the regions of northern Japan, including Hokkaido, where most of the film took place. The ethnic tribe had its own culture and language, which had been severely damaged and lost due to colonization and imperialist expansion. As of today, the native Ainu language is on the verge of extinction, and serious measures are being adopted by the Japanese government to protect the native speakers and their tribal values. Much of the details that we learned about the tribe through Asirpa, an Ainu hunter, are historically correct and exist in real life. For example, the tribe is known to build poison-coated arrows to hunt down animals in the forest and has a close association with bears and their dens. They hunt them down after their long hibernation period when the bears are at their weakest. Their belief and association with spirits, as shown in the film, are accurate, too.


Who is Hijikata Toshizo?

Netflix’s Golden Kamuy introduced a real-life samurai named Hijikata Toshizo, who had been a part of the Shogunate. Anyone who recently binge-watched the Shogun series can recognize the term. Yes, it is the same Tokugawa Shogunate that was established by none other than Lord Yoshii Toranaga, as seen in the FX series.

As per history, Toshizo, the last surviving samurai in Japanese history, refused to recognize the Meiji restoration and fought against it as long as there was breath left in his body. In the Netflix film, the character was first mentioned by Yoshitake Shiraishi, one of the 24 tattooed inmates of Abashiri Prison (a real-life Japanese prison in Hokkaido). According to Shiraishi, Toshizo was a killing machine who had been hiding his real identity from the world. He took part in the Battle of Hokkaido for the old Shogunate and served as the vice commander of the Shinsengumi, a group of elite samurai. 

As per history, Toshizo died in 1869 at the age of 34. But the film introduced a fictional version of the real-life samurai and gave him a similar motive, namely, to find the rumored gold and build an army against the Japanese Empire so that he could push them out of Ezo (or Hokkaido). The Republic of Ezo, as mentioned by Toshizo at the end of the film, was historically a democratic setup introduced during the period of the late Tokugawa Shogunate. The country had been a military state for a long time, and the Republic of Ezo was one of the first attempts to introduce democracy so that the people could pick their leaders. However, in the Republic of Ezo, only the samurai were allowed to vote. In short, the system had its own flaws and didn’t survive for long.


Is the gold real?

So, the Ainu gold is not real. But it’s a great reminder of what, as humans, we have lost in our hunger for greed and power. The Ainu Tribe in itself was the gold that we failed to recognize, and as of today, it is slowly slipping from our hands, just like those grains of gold. It is not the first time we have seen such atrocities committed by the Imperialist Empire, and most likely, it will not be the last time. Some were killed for oil (the Native Americans), while some tribes were removed from their lands for other gold and diamonds. The Ainu tribe didn’t want to become a collateral in the Russo-Japanese War, yet they faced the repercussions of that conflict.


Final Words

Imperialism is never a good idea, or at least that’s what Netflix’s Golden Kamuy is all about. A valiant soldier like Sugimoto was refused a pension even after losing his best friend and everything else on the battlefield just because he raised his voice against the hierarchy. The entire Imperial army, especially Tokushiro Tsurumi’s Seventh Division, survived on the little grants they received from the Japanese Empire, which mercilessly sent men to the frontlines to fight against their enemies but refused to compensate them for their sweat and blood. Many of Tsurumi’s men lost their lives in the war, but the Empire failed to recognize the loss and refused to give any remittance to the sons who lost their fathers and the women who lost their husbands. Most of these people have no other means to get their daily bread and will probably die of hunger, but the Empire will remain strong until the very end. The gold in Golden Kamuy is a silver lining for most of its characters, who still have the hope to survive by finding the treasure even in the darkest of times. The story hasn’t ended, and I am certain there will be many more historical references in the upcoming sequels to the film. But in the first one, these were the important ones I could grasp. If you have any important real-life details to share, please be my guest.


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Shikhar Agrawal
Shikhar Agrawal
I am an Onstage Dramatist and a Screenwriter. I have been working in the Indian Film Industry for the past 12 years, writing dialogues for various films and television shows.

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