After a long hiatus from my regular anime viewing due to school, I was a bit skeptical of picking it back up by watching a story about a girl traveling around the world with a talking motorcycle. It sounded boring, plain, and dull no matter how many tens of times people told me otherwise. Yet, within the first fifteen minutes of watching Kino no Tabi, I quickly acquired a profound respect for the series in lieu of all my previous misconceptions. Despite plain animation, a sparse musical score, a lack of a coherent storyline, and loosely developed characters, the series caries a magnificence, a charm, that easily earns it a place amidst my top anime. Kino no Tabi is a humble, thought-provoking journey through the human epic -- a deep exploration of some of mankind's greatest questions portrayed through brilliant allegory and fable.
One of Kino no Tabi's greatest appeals, though, is its purposeful ambiguity in answering the questions it raises. While speaking to one of my friends the other day, he raised a very good point regarding this, saying, "The best form of symbolism is the type that you don't recognize until the end, after which you can go back and say ‘Now, what did that mean?'" While there is a vast abundance of symbolism and imagery scattered throughout the series' thirteen episodes, all of it falls under this retrospective category; there are no "look at me, I'm symbolic!" moments obtrusively shoved in your face. As such, Kino no Tabi's beauty is entirely subjective, as each individual experiences and relates to the questions differently.
But enough of my flattering the series. Regarding the actual story content of Kino no Tabi, it revolves around a somewhat stoic girl, Kino, as she passes through different countries in a fictional world inhabited by humans. At her side is a talking motorcycle by the name of Hermes who foils her inquiries about the human race by adding non-human perspective. The two journey to a number of countries throughout the course of the series, usually one per episode, but sometimes two or more, in order to learn about the cultures and traditions of their world. While the series revolves around her interactions with the native populaces, categorically she's much more an indifferent observer rather than an active participant. Over the course of the travels she stumbles upon heart-warming, tragic, and even downright appalling encounters, all of which call into question the very fabrics and workings of the human psyche. Yet, while each country's traditions seem to borderline on absurd and irrational, I found it quite interesting to note just how commonplace some of these processes of thought actually are - it's quite disturbing when, in a number of scenes, you can tell yourself, "Hey, I relate to that."
Unlike crap like, say, Serial Experiments Lain where every other second some sort of pseudo-symbolic image is thrown up on the screen for you to supposedly gawk at as brilliant, Kino no Tabi's presentation is very calm and subtle. While the quality of the animation isn't exactly stunning, I think the series would have lost some of its charm had its style been changed. It carries a storybook-like quality to it which, given the context of the series, fits like a glove. A number of times throughout the series I felt as if I were reading a book and not watching an anime series, which, in my opinion, greatly contributed to the faintly surreal atmosphere that the writers were aiming to create.
Another reason the series carried a book-like feeling to it was the relative absence of music throughout much of the series. Aside from poignant opening and ending songs, there are only a handful of insert tracks, though all are superbly orchestrated. The phrase "silence is golden" comes to mind as the lack of music in many scenes contributes to their power; likewise, the very selective choice of music in other scenes equally highlights exceptionally important moments. If I had one word to describe the musical score of Kino no Tabi, it would be "masterful." There's nothing too spectacular about the voice acting, but again Kino's indifference is an essential part of her character so it's tough to really fault the series for this.
It's hard to really break down the characters score as there isn't a focus on any one character. Kino and Hermes are really the only consistent presence, and even then they haven't many particulars to talk about. Kino no Tabi's eloquence is carried primarily by the individuals present in each of its stories and no so much Kino herself. As such, the lack of depth-driven characterization isn't really a weakness, but rather a strength. Kino's personal detachment allows for the viewer to interpret the scenes without the bias of the writers, and given that this was the intention of the series to begin with, I have no complaints.
For Kino's Journey, a much more succinct praise than anything I can come up with can be found, quite simply, in AnimeNfo’s average score. The series is, in essence, a thinker’s anime. There is no real overarching plot, no fanservice, and very little action throughout the show… and yet, Kino no Tabi nonetheless carries a score of 9.0. That Kino no Tabi can simultaneously have intelligence and broad appeal speaks for how amazing it truly is.
In short, this 13 episode series is a brilliant philosophical journey. The plot is primarily episodic, something that I usually despise; each episode has our protagonist traveling to a different town, and each town has its own unique custom. However, this somewhat regular structure didn’t end up bothering me at all. Though the stories are more often than not very simple, this does not stop them from being remarkably deep, for the towns each mirror a different part of human nature. From fanaticism to bloodlust to greed, Kino no Tabi seems almost bottomless in its range of behavior.
Given the seemingly random personality traits found in each town, does Kino no Tabi have an overarching theme? Absolutely - this anime is in love with the human race, with every facet of humanity. Although these facets are often ugly and contemptible, Kino no Tabi seems to love the imperfections as much as the positive attributes. As the anime says at the end of the first episode, “The world is not beautiful: and that, in a way, lends it a sort of beauty.”
Kino no Tabi even manages to be fantastic from a technical standpoint. Animation is vivid, fluid, and outstanding from an artistic perspective. Character designs carry with them a sense of unfathomable warmth, and scenes of violence, when they do occur, are very well done. Oftentimes what is most impressive about a particular scene is not the amount of money that was used to make it (as is the case with just about any Gonzo anime), but with the immense creativity with which it is drawn. The animators aren’t afraid to take the unconventional approach to creating images, and the product shines as a result.
As for sound, many seem to be marking down slightly due to the lack of a traditional OST; instead of standard BGM, the soundtrack is underscored with largely ambient music. However, this in the end works perfectly in maintaining the philosophical mood; a flashier, Noir-esque music track would have ultimately distracted from the show’s mind-expanding vignettes. Voice acting remains superb throughout the entirety of the series, and sound effects compliment the infrequent action scenes well.
At the center of each humanistic fable is Kino, the main character of the show. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, this is an amazing character. Perhaps Kino's almost unsurpassed detachment from the events that are transpiring grant the character a sense of infinite wisdom, or perhaps the protagonists total rejection of gender roles, prejudice and hatred imply an honor that almost no one can truly have. Either way, the character remains simultaneously charismatic and enigmatic, and does a lot to carry the show. Kinos partner, named Hermes, is an amusing and candid individual who works well as a conversation partner. Surrounding the two are a remarkably diverse array of human beings, with even the minor characters portrayed with perceptiveness and intelligence.
Kino's Journey is a brilliant and intelligent exposition of the many facets of humanity. The audience follows Kino and Hermes, her talking motorrad, as they travel through various fictional countries learning of other cultures and peoples. Each of the 13 episodes is one or more self-contained short stories which explore a particular idea or theme through the eyes of Kino. These short philosophical vignettes are shockingly discomfiting, as they push the audience to face up to many unpleasant aspects of human nature.
Sigsawa Keiichi deserves much credit for his courageous avant-garde style. Kino's Journey holds a mirror to its audience – a satirical reflection of humanity's shortcomings – surprisingly, not to criticise, but rather to pay tribute to the beauty of human imperfection. It is an oft-emphasised theme in the anime, and best expressed by the phrase "The world is not beautiful, therefore it is", which shows up several times over the course of the 13 episodes. It is important to reiterate that all events in the anime are seen from Kino's perspective – that of the detached observer. This is, in fact, one of the story's greatest strengths: Kino's Journey is not so much judgemental as it is expositional. It invites viewers to combine their own experiences with those of Kino to produce a unique interpretation of each vignette.
The animation quality is superb. Kino's Journey seamlessly combines contrasting visual elements to create the disquieting atmosphere of absurdity which permeates the series. For example, many of the vignettes are drawn to be evocative of fairytale settings and told in the structure of a children's story. Many parts of Kino's Journey are strangely reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, only much more macabre. Thus, it is always disconcerting to realise that the original "fable" has somewhere transformed into a dark and disturbing tale resembling a nightmare. All this is achieved imperceptibly through the use of clever and provocative visuals.
The voice acting is an unforgettable part of Kino's Journey. Not because of any standout performance in a dramatic scene – there is little drama to speak of – but because the pacing of speech, the subtle use of silence and pauses add enormously to the sensation of surrealism when watching the anime. The soundtrack is pretty, but not memorable. Given the ponderous nature of this anime, the formula works exceedingly well, as an overbearing and catchy soundtrack is bound to detract from the most important part of Kino's Journey, the picture story and the brilliant dialogue. High quality sound effects give the different fantastic locations visited by Kino their authenticity.
Characters are not the main focus of this anime. Even Kino and Hermes are not so much protagonists as they are merely a lens through which the audience experiences the different events which occur throughout the story. Surprisingly, this lack of emphasis works incredibly well with the story. Kino adopts the role of the impartial and sagacious observer, with Hermes as a talkative sidekick and foil. In this way, the memorable duo travel from country to country, giving and changing as little as possible, and taking only their experiences and memories with them as they leave. A simple and elegant partnership which is surprisingly deep and well-developed over the course of the anime.
Just as a word of forwarning, if you are looking for an anime with a developed plot that stretches through the entire series, then I would recommend you look to another anime than Kino's Journey. However, if you are looking for a charming, thought provoking anime, then you have found a great anime for that. Kino's Journey is a slow-paced anime, because the story is the only thing that doesn't move. However it does not need to have a developed plot. Kino's Journey has enough charm to suffice for the lack of developed plot. Kino's Journey can be viewed one episode at a time, and it is not entirely important that you remember every last detail of the previous episode in order to enjoy the next episode. Kino's Journey is not short on charm, and thats what makes it entertaining. One gets a greater entertainment value from the little things that occur where ever Kino finds herself. One of my favorite episodes was the one that featured the three lone railroad workers who had been working alone for fifty years because the railroad company never told them to stop working. The charming thing about this was that the second railroad worker made the first railroad workers job meaningless, which the third railroad worker did to the second one. Its little charming stories like that one that make Kino's Journey entertaining. That being said, most of the episodes have their own little plots, which in most cases were highly predictable. Like in the second episode, I knew that the traders would betray Kino about 8 minutes into the episode and I had to wait until the end to actually see it happen. The fourth episode did the same thing to me when I was able to predict at the begining of the episode that the original Kino would die, and the little girl in the town would take his place. There were several instances like that throughout Kino's Journey. But most of the time, Kino's Journey was able to make up for the predictablility by sheer charm alone. All in all, Kino's Journey is a very charming anime, but has little plot, and its highly predictable, yet I still found it entertaining.
The animation of Kino's Journey is rather plain and boring. This is not an anime that one watches for oogling at the art. That is simply not the point. I found that a lot of the minor characters, which are more important to the story than most other animes, to have real lack-luster designs. The animation is pretty bland and boring, and is nothing really spectacular, but it isnt bad either. The animation in Kino's Journey is like bread, its ok, but it is greatly improved by toasting it and spreading on jam. The art is neither good nor bad.
When you have only two main characters, you have to make sure that you do a good job, which I am pleased to say, Kino's Journey's main characters are great. There is not so much in the way of character development, with really only one episode where you get any backstory about the two characters. However Both Kino and Hermes are very good characters. Kino is wise and calm, and does a lot of thinking, which is something usual pre-pubescent teens aren't know for. Yet she is a total badass when it comes to fighting, and can make her opponents surrender before she has to kill them. Hermes provides Kino with someone to talk to, which without the audience would go, WTF, and would stop watching. Without Hermes, we get no idea of what is going on in Kino's mind. Hermes asks all the questions that the audience has. The minor characters are also charming and rather lovable. For some characters you are sad to have to say goodbye to them, because you get attached to them in the episode.
Kino's Journey is an anime that knows what its good at, and it can compensate for the stuff they aren't good at pretty well. This anime did not make me go "Holy sh*t, this anime is awesome", but rather, it made me think, and it entertained me. Kino's Journey is not for everyone, due to its slow pace and lask of developed plot, but if you think that Kino's Journey might be a good watch, then I encourage you to take a look at it. I can assure you that Kino's Journey's charm will make it worth while.