If they ever made a show about the journey of Judge Geoffrey Miller, it would probably be about getting lost on the way to the Jersey shore.
"The world is not beautiful; and that, in a way, lends it a sort of beauty."
What would you expect an anime series where the two main characters are a teenage girl and her talking motorcycle to be like? An action-comedy parodying "talking vehicle" shows like Knight Rider? A gearhead series that melds together Initial D and American Chopper? An eccentric twist on the teenage assassin tale popularized by Leon: The Professional? None of the above! It's a philosophical meditation on cultural diversity, morality, and mortality. Betcha didn't see that one coming, eh?
Facts of the Case
Kino is a young girl who is a traveler. She never stays more than three days in the same place. Her only companion is Hermes, a talking motorcycle ("motorrad" in the show's lingo). Together they roam the world, meeting new people and visiting new countries.
Kino's Journey—The Complete Collection collects all thirteen episodes of the anime TV series, which is based on the light novels by Keiichi Sigsawa.
Everything about Kino's Journey bucks anime convention. During a time when anime shows are conceived from the ground up as heavily commercial multimedia enterprises (complete with tie-in merchandise and videogames), it's a defiantly original and unclassifiable work—about as far away as possible from the usual design-by-committee product shoved down Japanese teenagers' throats. Like many post-Evangelion series, it's heavy on the existentialism; but it doesn't hide it in an already established genre (like Evangelion and its many imitators did with mecha) or drown itself in the same old "deep insights" regurgitated by most "philosophical" anime. It also refrains from turning Kino into a sex object; she's a tough, androgynous tomboy.
Whereas most anime series pride themselves on featuring long, continuing story arcs, Kino's Journey doesn't even always stick to the same story within an episode. Several episodes are collections of different self-contained vignettes; sometimes they add up to something greater thematically, sometimes they don't. All of the episodes draw from the short stories of the original books (not available outside Japan) that the show is based on.
Kino and Hermes are the glue that holds the show together, but neither is a particularly deep or well-developed character. Kino is stoic and laconic, taking in the world around her with an observant, wary eye. She isn't heartless, but she rarely shows emotion, almost never breaking from her cool, composed demeanor. Hermes, the comic relief (sort of), has a knack for misquoting aphorisms and is the more talkative of the two. While his whiny voice can get grating, his cheery attitude balances out Kino's coldness.
It's not unusual for Kino and Hermes to have secondary roles in an episode. They don't even make an appearance in the first act of "Land of Magic," the story of Nimya, a girl who's trying to build a flying machine. It also happens to be one of the few episodes where Kino ends up getting personally involved, helping Nimya achieve her dream. Even in "Land of The Adults," which flashes back to when Kino first became a traveler, the country where Kino grew up is just as important as the origins of her journey. These are not characters that drive the stories; they mostly act as observers and commentators.
While Kino does carry a variety of weapons (guns and knives), Kino's Journey is not an action series. Even episodes that have an action element, like the standout two-parter "Coliseum," incorporate it in unusual ways. A twist on the "fighting tournament" that's been a staple of anime for years, "Coliseum" takes places in a country modeled after ancient Rome, ruled by a hedonistic, Caligula-esque king who takes great pleasure in pitting travelers against in each other in bloody battles. We don't even get to see Kino's first round in the tournament, and later fights are only shown fleetingly. The focus is on what's going on behind the scenes, the motivations behind the different combatants entering and their mindset as they face the possibility of death.
The world of Kino's Journey is completely unlike our own. It's an endless expense of primeval forests, mountains, and deserts dotted with "countries" that are more like small, isolated city-states. It's scenic, idyllic, tranquil. The countries vary in appearance, but most are charmingly reminiscent of Old World European architecture. Despite their antiquated appearance, many have high technology; robots are common.
This pastoral landscape hides the difficult life most of the world's inhabitants lead. Kino's Journey doesn't pull any punches in depicting this harsh reality. In the opening scene of one early episode, Kino, on the hunt for food to feed some fellow starving travelers, shoots a rabbit, then proceeds to skin it. There aren't many scenes of graphic violence like that, but their realistic brutality leaves a deep impression. Kino's Journey doesn't need to rely on shock to make its point, though. Some of its most effective moments are when it shows restraint—little glimpses at people who are facing pivotal points in their life.
There are many themes through Kino's Journey, but the most prominent is the oppression of Big Brother totalitarianism. Ripping a page right out of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, "Land of Books" tells the tale of a country where any "dangerous" books are banned by the Department of Reading and Welfare, a shadowy bureaucratic organization that issues decisions on what literature is or isn't safe for public consumption. Other countries have instituted programs that force adults unhappy with their work to do their job with a smile and attempt to rehabilitate criminals through a procedure that removes their "self-consciousness."
Such a heavily philosophical show could easily get ponderous and preachy, but there's a refreshing lack of moral lessons and pedantic speeches. The wonderful thing about Kino's Journey is how it manages to touch on philosophical and ethical issues without taking a stance; it allows you make up your own mind. At the same time, the warmth and humanity emanating from the show keeps it from turning into an academic exercise.
ADV has once again delivered another anime box set that has a splendid transfer yet is curiously bereft of bonus material. Even the scant few extras included with the original single disc volumes (production sketches and a clean opening/closing) have been omitted. There's no acceptable reason to remove features from a re-release, even if it is cheaper. The English dub, presented in 5.1, is every bit the equal of the original Japanese language track; which one you'll want to listen to is a matter of personal preference.
Kino's Journey is a thought-provoking, artfully nuanced exploration of the human condition. There's a poignant undercurrent to these tales, a hypnotic mix of beauty and heartbreak. It has no contemporaries and only a handful of analogues: Angel's Egg, Serial Experiments Lain—which shares a director (Ryutaro Nakamura) with Kino's Journey—and Studio Ghibli's more serious movies are its closest relatives. Because it is so far removed from any other anime, it's likely to turn off many hardcore otaku. But that's also what makes it so special and potentially accessible to a wider audience. This is one of the few anime shows I'd recommend to people who weren't fans of the genre in general, and that makes it a true rarity.
Not guilty. This is one journey worth taking.
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