Kino’s Journey has a simple structure. Kino is a professional traveler. She goes from town to town and spends no more than three days in any one destination. Each of these towns seems to be considered its own country and has unique peculiarities and customs. She takes in the culture of each country and moves on as quickly as she came. Travelers seem rare but not unheard of and most places seem to make a big production whenever one arrives. She travels on her talking motorcycle named Hermes and protects herself with her professional marksmanship. Her trips to some countries last an episode, other episodes will contain several interconnected stories of her trips to various countries, while other episodes are about what happens in between stops.
Quite literally in the case of Kino, the journey is more important than the destination. Our time with Kino doesn’t start at a specific moment nor does it end in finality. We are merely part of the journey and we only glimpse pieces of it. With the exception of one two-part episode, every piece can be watched on its own without knowing what came before or what comes after. In fact, we don’t have any way of knowing whether what we are watching is in chronological order to begin with.
Each country is a tool for examining some sort of physiological or societal concept. The world seems to have no set level of technology with near medieval technology in some countries and robots and super computers in others. Most of the stories have an inherently pessimistic view of humanity and society. They usually have a rule or custom that seems logical but is flawed and taken to an extreme. The anime is not just full of inherent pessimism though. Kino just as often will find some beauty or lesson even in the ugliest country. Kino mentions that the world is not beautiful, therefore it is.
At first you are fooled because many of the countries seem peaceful and welcoming, but hide things underneath. Which is a powerful statement about anything, but as the series goes on your naivete wanes. You start to see the darkness earlier; you start to question the smiling towns folk; you start to wonder everything doesn’t have a sinister side. In this way perhaps we are becoming more like Kino as the journey continues. The difference is whether or not you continue on with the knowledge. Some wouldn’t but Kino would and does.
Kino is sort of a valiant stoic cipher almost like a seinen hero. Kino comes off as androgynous and is considered male as often as female by the people she meets. I know that several people were unsure of Kino gender until the 4th episode when it is made perfectly clear. Kino never talks much and never unnecessarily. She will lend a hand to someone in need and even risk her life for another but she does not purposely get involved in the affairs of others. Kino is often cynical and skeptical but you get the feeling deep down she still believes in people and the world. If Kino has one strong driving force and personality trait it seems to be curiosity. She will always investigate something if it seems intriguing and is sometimes the only reason she will interact with anyone.
Depending upon what promotional material you have seen, you can go into this story thinking Kino is either sex. The thinpack cover, in my opinion, makes it very clear from the start. However, Kino acts rather genderless in manner. Her emotions rarely betray what she is thinking or planning. But that isn’t to say Kino has no personality. She certainly sees the world much differently than anyone she meets on her travels. The wonder and curiosity she displays reminds me of a child. No matter what hardships happen on the journey, and they are many, Kino accepts them as a piece of the world she is so anxious to explore. Kino represents the duality of optimism within pessimism. Though we are never privy to Kino’s dreams, I wholly believe she has some.
Hermes is Kino’s sarcastic talking motorcycle. His purpose is three fold. There is the simple fact that he provides transportation to our frequent traveler. The second is to give the otherwise distant Kino someone to react off. Kino is a loner so whoever is her companion has to be someone that she would have to take along. Thirdly, Hermes’ interaction with Kino is the only way to give us an insight into her thought process or emotional state without resorting to out of character monologues or narration. As stated before, Kino is often quiet and stoic. Only someone with a friendly but at the same time playfully antagonistic manner could get any sort of response from Kino.
Hermes is simply essential to the story. In fact there would be no journey without him because he provides the ability to escape. He also drives home the suspension of disbelief as not one person on the journey seems surprised he can talk. Which can also provide some good ice breaks in towns because Hermes is much less inhibited to people. Hermes also goes into hotel rooms, museums, and restaurants without even a second glance from patrons. Hermes is like the audience, along for the ride and taken where ever the whims of Kino dictate.
The director, Ryutaro Nakamura, is a competent guy but I question some of the artistic decisions he made when trying to highlight certain themes in the stories. The director has a habit of transitioning between scenes by cutting to screens of text with the sound of a tuning fork or chanting. The text is almost always something that was said earlier in the episode to drive home a point but it’s often only been said a few seconds ago and can get a bit annoying. It is done in such an awkward manner.
Kino’s Journey is a quiet show and the animation reflects that. It is smooth and uses a lot of long shots of environment creating that wondrous feel of traveling to new places. But when action is necessary those moments are loud and exciting. Though I don’t think they got it all perfect, as Hisui mentioned the frames of text. Also for no apparent reason one episode is not told from Kino’s perspective which struck me as odd and not very purposeful. The opening is great with a song that is whimsical and makes you look towards the road ahead. The series moves between encouraging seeing the world and pulling the rug out from under you. While this may seem like every episode is the same, each has a unique voice. Also we do see some changes in Kino by the end of our stint with her, though we don’t know how it will affect her future travels.
The anime is based on a series of light novels by Keiichi Sigsawa. Sigsawa has written 12 Kino books already and show no signs of stopping of writing for Dengeki Bunko Magazine. The light novels were licensed few years back by Tokyopop but they never made it past the first book. Tokyopop reordered the chapters which I have been told not only angered readers but annoyed Sigsawa. The original books were exceptionally entertaining while being thought provoking. There are also two anime movies, two untranslated visual novels, and a drama CD of Kino’s Journey. In addition, there is a spin off series called Gakuen Kino where Kino is a gun toting magical girl. So for those who read Japanese there is a good deal more Kino’s Journey for you to get into. For everyone else there is just my condolences.