Here’s a review I wrote for Otaku USA that, for whatever reason, didn’t make it into the magazine.
Wanderlust. Those struck with the insatiable desire to explore the world know it’s often as much a curse as it is a blessing. To be a traveler is to sacrifice long-term relationships and a sense of belonging, not to mention less philosophical problems like, “where am I going to sleep tonight?” Yet some unknown force propels us forward all the same.
The paradoxical life of a traveler is well documented in Kino’s Journey, the 13-episode series back in print this December courtesy Section 23. It’s the tale of Kino, a young woman on a solo journey through a fictional world made up of many small countries.
Actually, solo journey isn’t exactly accurate. Kino is accompanied by Hermes, a sentient, talking motorrad who provides Kino companionship and a sounding board for her thoughts (and transportation, natch).
The German word for motorcycle isn’t the only thing Kino’s Journey borrows from our neighbors to the west. The series has a very European style, evident in the clothing and especially the many countries Kino visits resembling sleepy German towns. But there are also hints of fantasy and even science fiction. Ultimately, the world of Kino’s Journey is hard to pin down, but that’s one of its strengths: like Kino, we the viewers are taken on a journey of discovery.
The journey takes Kino and Hermes across the globe, stopping in and exploring various countries (or so they’re called in the series, though “autonomous cities” might be a more accurate descriptor). Kino’s only rule is to stay no more than three nights: any more, she explains, and she may become too attached to leave.
Each episode follows a similar structure. Kino arrives in a country and learns something about it by interacting with one or a few of its citizens. Aside from one two-parter, each episode is self-contained; the real “arc” of the show comes from learning more about Kino, who’s initially quite enigmatic. The series begins in the middle of her adventures, but we slowly learn more about her via flashbacks and by the actions she takes along the road.
The conflict in each country Kino visits is different, but they all seem to share a common thread. The citizens of each have come to some collective, flawed belief that threatens to doom them (if it hasn’t already). In one, people who have absolute faith in a prophetic book are crushed when the world doesn’t end; in another, the citizens adopt a system of direct democracy without considering its deadly potential. If the series has a message, it seems to be to remain flexible: In the end, it’s Kino, who’s not fixed in place either physically or philosophically, who seems wisest.
Be forewarned: though it has its share of nice moments, Kino’s Journey can get dark. So dark, in fact, it’s unclear whether the series’ subtitle, “The Beautiful World,” is being used ironically. Not every country is welcoming to travelers, and Kino is forced to make some hard choices and witness some scary stuff. But I think the series’ outlook, or at least Kino’s, is ultimately positive.
Originally debuting in 2003, Kino’s Journey was staffed by a dream team for those interested in smart, adult cartoons, with direction by Ryutaro Nakamura (Serial Experiments Lain) and screenwriting by Sadayuki Murai (Boogiepop Phantom, Millennium Actress). Kino’s Journey recalls Nakamura’s work on Lain, with his frequent use of on-screen text, minimalist sound design and deliberate pacing. Murai shines too, creating thought-provoking parables and interesting characters in a 22-minute runtime. Approaching its 10th anniversary, Kino’s Journey still looks and sounds good and is an intelligent, excellent story of the enigma of the road. Highly recommended.