#1 A roadtrip anime
Kino is a young woman who has embarked on a long, arduous journey. It is Kino’s Journey, if you will. Together with the sentient motorcycle Hermes, Kino traverses the wildlands between city states. Not as part of some grand quest, but simply to visit as many as possible to learn about their cultures.
Each city that Kino visits has unique and often baffling customs. One country is wholly devoted to the construction of an endless tower, no matter how architecturally impossible such a feat would be. In another town, Kino finds the streets devoid of human life. Robots take care of everything, with not a real person in sight to direct any of it. But surely somebody must have made the robots, right? Who are they and where did they go?
Kino’s Journey is a very episodic series, with each episode telling tales of new places and people. Some are fun or touching stories about wonderful people in intriguing countries. Others are morbid tales of Kino discovering the fucked up beliefs that some choose to live by. And yet other tales are sad retellings of Kino uncovering how some countries have fallen into decline. No matter the subject matter, each of these episodes is filled with all the mystery, suspense, wonder, and excitement that you’d expect from a proper roadtrip.
#2 Surreal directing style
Supplementing the mysterious nature of its story, Kino’s Journey has a very peculiar visual style. It first aired in 2003 and was directed by Ryuutarou Nakamura; otherwise famous for his work on Serial Experiments Lain. Despite their wildly different stories and settings, you’ll quickly notice visual similarities between these two anime.
Kino’s Journey often has a dreamlike mood to its visuals. Scenes are made to be deliberately hazy or have overwhelming bloom in them, making otherwise-normal events feel strangely ethereal. Some scenes are even shot at strange angles or employ other tricks to catch you off-guard.
These directing decisions contribute a lot to the storytelling. Blurred or blinding visuals create a strange, mysterious atmosphere. While at the same time, unnatural camera angles create a sense of danger. In turn making the scenes that feel comparatively normal feel safe and reliable. The effect this has is illustrated very well in the prequel special “life goes on“. The episode looks normal at first, up until a point where Kino is put into danger. Suddenly the visuals are filtered through a reddish tint while the camera nestles behind Kino, looking up at a dangerous person to make them seem bigger and more threatening.
Even if you don’t care to read as much into these directing choices, Kino’s Journey will still be intriguing to look at. Its style is so different from your typical anime series and that alone adds a certain novelty to it all.
#3 An ambigious protagonist
Kino is also a fascinating protagonist with more than a little mystery surrounding them. In fact, I was recommended this show by a friend of mine, specifically because Kino is so unlike typical anime protagonists.
Firstly, I should clarify my usage of gender neutral terms throughout this review. Kino is biologically female, but alternates what gendered pronouns they use for themselves. Other people too address Kino by whatever they perceive them as and Kino makes few efforts to ever correct them. They only really responds to being gendered when people do so mockingly, i.e. calling her “little missy” or something like that.
Kino also lives by a code of their own. Being a traveler is core to their identity, so they make an effort not to grow too attached to any one place. They visit a new country, spend at most 3 days there, and then leave with no intention to ever come back or maintain contact.
Kino is also apprehensive about becoming involved in other’s people problems. They are there to learn about foreign societies, not to fix their problems. When Kino does choose to help someone, it’s usually because there is a reward involved, to repay a favor, or because doing so would be fun. And even then, it doesn’t always work out.
This creates interesting moments where Kino’s morality is tested, often to their annoyance. There are times where she becomes a passive witness to wars or heinous crimes, yet chooses not to get involved. Even if doing so could save countless lives. When Kino then does help out in other storylines this can feel inconsistent, but you gradually get a sense of what makes them tick.
#4 Danger and violence
The world that Kino inhabits is fraught with danger. Outside of city walls, the paths are unguarded and barely maintained. It’s a world of harsh landscapes and extreme weather, forests filled with aggressive beasts, and robbers looking to capitalize on the unwary. At one point a character asks Kino for travel advise and is only told “try not to die”. That sounds like a cop out answer, but it turns out that really is the best you can hope for.
Death comes quickly and mercilessly in this world. Robbers are rarely content with merely stealing your belongings, as they’ll also sell you into slavery or kill you simply for the catharsis of it. Even inside cities, life is not always safe. Some countries have inhumane practices that they either inflict upon their own people or whoever is foolish enough to visit them. Societies run by slavers or torturers, evil kings or mad scientists. Or simply cities that are plunged into chaos. The story of Kino’s Journey is full of tragic tales of countries rising to greatness before spiraling into (civil) war and strife.
Fortunately, Kino can fend off more than a little danger. They carry an arsenal of knives and pistols, which we see Kino maintain and practice with almost daily. Kino is exceptionally adept in a fight and has long since outgrown any apprehension towards killing people when necessary.
#5 Philosophy with subtlety
Many of the stories across Kino’s Journey have a philosophical twist to them. In visiting all these different countries and witnessing their customs, Kino is often left to ponder on their ideals and morality, as well as the nature of humanity in general. This is often fascinating stuff, but what I appreciate is that this anime has a subtlety to it that I often miss in other shows.
There is one episode that shows how careful Kino is about taking an animal’s life. How she endeavors to utilize every bit of an animal she kills out of respect for a life lost. Throughout the episode, this habit of hers is contrasted and questioned in numerous ways; often indirectly and without clear response. You slowly glean a picture of how Kino thinks about the world through this, without the anime stopping to narrate it to you in detail. If this episode were written by someone like Gen Urobuchi, I imagine he’d stop the plot for 5 minutes after killing the rabbit to do his usual rant about humanity’s relation to livestock.
While the degree of subtlety (and depth) varies from story to story, I appreciate how Kino’s Journey respects the viewer. It trusts you to do the thinking for yourself with what it gives you.
More like this…
Serial Experiments Lain: Esoteric anime steeped in symbolism and philosophy.
Girl’s Last Tour: Young girls with unique vehicles go on a bittersweet journey.
Rolling Girls: Roadtrip where each stop is a unique place with a very specific culture.
5 thoughts on “5 Reasons To Watch: Kino’s Journey (2003)”
Yes! This is such a deep anime. I love it! It gives you some intense moments to question motivations and morality and then it gives you some quiet moments to really think about what happened.
Glad to hear that you liked it as well!
The original Kino’s Journey is such an underrated classic. This anime still holds up with the production, creativity, and the cerebral nature. It’s awesome that you decided to cover Kino’s Journey.
Thanks man! I am also happy to see that you have reviewed the series. I’ll give that a proper look when I got more time. Do you also happen to have an opinion on that remake they did a while ago?
You’re welcome! That’s right about me reviewing it a while ago. I haven’t seen the remake still.