Kino’s Journey would easily inspire comparisons to the likes of Mushishi and Natsume Yuujinchou, for very understandable reasons. All three adhere to an extremely similar episodic structure, following a single main character (or pair of characters) and their day-to-day interactions with various disconnected groups and individuals, fantastical or otherwise. All three, especially Mushishi and Kino, lack any sort of strong narrative throughline, instead focusing primarily on character and atmosphere to tell their stories. But despite these superficial similarities, each does offer its own unique perspective. Natsume is, if anything, a tale of growth for the titular character, as he learns to accept all facets of his life, and embrace the friendships he had previously shunned. Mushishi is an amoral anthology, crafting a world and setting that is as laid back as it is terrifying. And Kino… well, Kino is a story about people.
As always, this review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
The series takes place in a land dotted with many independent countries, each a self-contained civilization significantly different from all others. There are high-tech utopias, just as there are primitive villages, and everything in between. In the midst of all this, as an outsider to every nation, is a lone traveler and her motorcycle: Kino and Hermes.
Travellers by necessity have a policy of non-intervention. If they tried to shake up every bad situation they came across… well, let’s just say they wouldn’t last long, and Kino herself is no exception. She travels from one country to the next, staying but three days in each before moving on. During that time, she comes to familiarize herself with each kingdom’s own uniquely extraordinary and usually disheartening set of circumstances. While a handful are just messed up seemingly for the sake of it, most countries’ lifestyles present difficult questions about topics of morality and humanity, and illustrate how societies have been forced to live upon coming to an answer to those impossible questions.
A nation whose citizens are surgically robbed of negative emotions, while efficient and quote-unquote “happy”, brings up the terror and dangers of excessive rationality. A town where everyone lives alone because perfect communication between individuals has been established points out the need for a certain level of privacy and isolation. A thriving population reduced to but a single old man, and the story of the life that led him to that point, highlights the inherent issues with direct democracy, such as the tyranny of the majority. I could go on, for all thirteen episodes, but the point is: it’s a show about people, in all the forms they take, the good and the bad. It always has something to say. Sometimes these messages are a bit too blatant or on-the-nose, but I always appreciate when a work has ideas and is willing to entertain their discussion.
However, I must say that I was not equally enthralled by every episode. While certainly there were some that I felt were utterly fantastic, there were others whose themes I just found too mundane or too simple, or the stories to communicate those themes too dull. Sometimes the episodes were split up into even shorter segments that I found too short to have much impact. And sometimes, I wasn’t entirely sure what message or point was even trying to be made. Not an episode of Kino is actually “bad”, but there’s at least three that, purely in terms of writing, I found only fine. And if this was a 60 or 70 episode anime, like Natsume, I wouldn’t mind — I could take my lumps — but with a series that, for now, is only 13 episodes (16 or 17 counting the additional movies and special)... that’s not exactly an ignorable percentage of just okay episodes, which is somewhat disappointing given the indisputable strength of the rest.
Changing gears, a series like this could very easily work as a total anthology, with literally zero unifying threads from one tale to the next, but in the series as it exists, there is of course one constant: Kino herself. While often taking a backseat to the immediate goings-on of the episodes, a la Mushishi’s Ginko, Kino is no less a character in her own right. Over the span of the show’s achronological run, we basically witness two separate Kinos: her beginning and her — well, not ending, but let’s say her prime. Her beginning and her prime.
In her beginning, like every inhabitant of this world, she was a citizen of a country, a young girl with bright dreams and no inkling of thought given to the outside world. However, after a roaming traveler happens to visit her home… well, to make a long story short, she finds herself going on a journey of her own. We don’t spend nearly as much time with this Kino as we do the seasoned nomad that she later is, but certain details at this point in the story make it clear just how out of touch she is with the world around her, and how impressive her eventual transformation was. I’ll just give you an example — for a time, Kino is trained by a woman who says to call her “Master”, and it takes some time for Kino to realize that “Master” was not in fact her name, nor a name at all.
But after that, we skip the days of her adolescence and come right to a Kino who more or less knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s become a skilled fighter, both hand-to-hand and with firearms, training every night with her trusty pistol (which is called a “Persuader” — isn’t that great?). Kino wants to expect the best from everybody, and treasure life in whatever form it takes, but at this point she’s also not stupid. She has weapons packed onto every part of her person, and won’t shy away from killing if she has to, though she rarely does.
And of course, as I mentioned earlier, Kino is not in fact alone in her journey. Every step of the way, her constant companion is Hermes, a normal motorcycle in all respects, except for the fact that he can talk (and it’s definitely not like a hallucination, he talks to other people besides Kino). Not that the two are separated very often, but Hermes isn’t nearly as interesting to watch as Kino herself, mostly being relegated to the role of a cautious voice of reason and/or occasional source of comic relief, though the show certainly does what it can to sell the closeness of their friendship, through both shot framing and incidental conversation.
I don’t know how best to put this, but I also like Kino being a girl. She’s a super refreshing female anime character, not only because she is the lead, but because her design and mannerisms are so atypical of the cliched “anime girl”, to the point that you might not even realize she is a girl if the series never went out of its way to say as much. Her stature is childlike, sure, but there’s nothing distinctly feminine about her, and that’s good. I like that. You’re not supposed to see her as a girl, her sex doesn’t matter. She’s just Kino.
Now while her appearance is intentionally androgynous, it is clear through her design that she is a child, from things like her large eyes and aforementioned short height. This, along with several other aspects of the series’ presentation, might at first glance give the impression of a kids’ show. Pieces of information will occasionally be reiterated multiple times, as if to spell them out for a younger audience, and I mean, one of the main characters is a talking motorcycle, for pete’s sake. But, this vaguely cutesy charm is meticulously constructed to be at odds with a world mired in shocking grit and brutality, often very casually so, reminiscent of this season’s Made in Abyss. When Kino fires her gun, blood will spill. If a nation’s citizenry dies in droves, no attempt is made to hide or diminish this, and matters of slavery or government experimentation come up as a matter of course.
To be blunt, I’m not really sure what purpose the childish framing serves. It doesn’t show us the world how Kino sees it — she’s far from a wide-eyed innocent aside from the couple episodes when she absolutely is — so I can’t say that this aesthetic choice particularly adds to the story, but I can say personally that I love a disconnect like this, when a show at first glance appears to be one thing but is in actuality very much another.
And on the topic of appearances, we must come to the visuals of Kino’s Journey. The series was produced in 2003, by no-name studio A.C.G.T., so it is unfortunately a victim of the “early 2000s, dawn of digital era” look. It just — doesn’t look good, which I realize is a super simple assessment, but it’s the most accurate one I can give. Many scenes look super flat, and not in a fun, color book way like Nichijou, more in a minimal, barebones, “this is the best we could do” way. The animation is pretty hit or miss too, with some cuts that flow and many more that don’t. The sole exception to all that is a half-hour Kino film from 2007, a few years later, — produced by Shaft of all people — that to be fair doesn’t look great (there’s some weird 3D and stuff), but it definitely looks much more competent and put-together on the whole, especially the film’s climax which leans somewhat heavily into Shaft’s trademark aesthetic eccentricities.
But — that’s not to say Kino’s Journey is a total visual lost cause. It has its technical issues and restraints, but the staff I think at least knew what they were trying to do, as Kino is directed by the one and only Ryutaro Nakamura, who before and after helmed such series as Ghost Hound and Serial Experiments Lain. Now I’m not the biggest fan of Lain, but I freely admit that it is an artistically captivating series, and while Kino is not, Nakamura plays to his strengths as best he can with what he was given. The direction is understated but frequently effective, depicting with reasonable grace both the wide empty expanses of Kino and Hermes’ journey, and the pair’s narrower, more personal moments. Likewise, color is used to varying but positive effect in heightening the dramatics and/or tension of several scenes, and certain tidbits about the world work well, like the dilapidated and mechanical feel of the tech. To be frank, none of this is really enough to make Kino’s Journey actually look good, but it does make it look notably less bad.
Before I wrap up I’d like to touch on the series’ vocal performances, but only to express my disappointment — which is to say, they honestly didn’t stick out to me. In a show with only two central characters, I think it’s important for the performances to be in some way distinct, and while I can say that of Hermes, I can’t of Kino. I know I keep coming back to Mushishi comparisons, but even now when I think of Ginko, I can hear his voice no problem, nearly two years after watching Mushishi. With Kino, it’s only been like a month, and already the performance is just a vague female performance in my mind. However, it is at least interesting to note that, like Ginko, Kino’s voice actress has held no other major anime roles, likely in an attempt to cement the series’ unique identity.
And that’s all I got. So after taking everything into account, on a scale from F to S… I’d like to give an S. I know there are people watching that would like to see me give an S. But as it stands, I can’t. The artwork and aesthetic have not aged well, but more importantly, the fact that for every two or three episodes that hit me hard, whose messages and themes I found impactful and insightful, there would be one that didn’t inspire those same feelings... that’s not something I can just ignore. Given how short the series is, that just doesn’t make for a tight enough package. Therefore, I must leave Kino’s Journey with a high A.
And unfortunately, if you would like to watch Kino’s Journey for yourself, it is not currently available for legal streaming from any destination. That’s just the issue with older series.
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