Photo/IllutrationA poster autographed by Satoru Noda shows Saichi Sugimoto carrying Ainu girl Asirpa (Koji Yamauchi)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Manga artist Satoru Noda has taken firsthand advice from Ainu people to heart in portraying the ethnic minority in his award-winning “Golden Kamuy.”

“The only request I got is, ‘Don’t make Ainu pathetic beings, and draw strong Ainu,’” Noda said. “I always try to depict characters fairly and carefully to render (the way Ainu people lived) as faithfully as possible.”

Ainu people indigenous to Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island, as well as their descendants, were long a target of prejudice and discrimination.

They are often described as victims of modernization, whose population and culture are declining.

Noda, a native of Hokkaido but not an Ainu, interviewed Ainu people in different parts of Hokkaido before “Golden Kamuy” started in a weekly manga anthology in 2014.

He introduced those individuals’ words during a public discussion on June 7 after the manga won the Manga Grand Prix at the 22nd Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize, which is sponsored by The Asahi Shimbun.

Set in the late Meiji Era (1868-1912), “Golden Kamuy” follows the adventure of Saichi Sugimoto, a Russo-Japanese War veteran, and an Ainu girl called Asirpa in Hokkaido to solve the mystery surrounding a trove of gold that was stolen from the indigenous people.

The manga earned a reputation for its detailed descriptions of Ainu culture, such as hunting, food, architecture, costumes, faith and rituals, based on thorough research.

Noda said he did research for about a year before starting the series and still follows up with fieldwork from time to time, without revealing he is the author of the manga.

Hiroshi Nakagawa, a professor of the Ainu language at Chiba University who supervises the Ainu spoken in the manga, was Noda’s discussion partner at the event.

Nakagawa said he was particularly impressed by drawings of Asirpa in a nearly complete artwork of the first episode that was shown when he first met with Noda.

It portrayed the Ainu girl clad in a costume for going into the woods with a bow.

“I was surprised how he drew it to the finest details,” Nakagawa said. “I don't think there is a single photograph showing all the features in the artwork. Noda combined what he found through his research.

“If I were to create a textbook on the Ainu, I would love to publish this artwork.”

Noda said Nakagawa is not the only expert he owes to in creating “Golden Kamuy.”

“I have supervisors for Russian as well as for each of the Japanese dialects (spoken by characters from different parts of Japan),” he said, adding that the dialect of Satsuma Domain (current Kagoshima Prefecture) is translated by a grandmother in her 80s.

Nakagawa said “Golden Kamuy” has shone the spotlight on the Ainu ethnic minority and their culture, which have drawn little public interest.

“This work created a powerful impact, and we have to think hard on how to carry over its momentum to the future,” he said.

The comic book series has been serialized into 14 volumes to date, and the manga has also been adapted into a TV anime series.