Review: Kino’s Journey (2003)

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A curious mix of the quaint and the uncanny, Kino’s Journey is the travelogue of a wandering adventurer, determined to see everything the world has to offer.

Accompanied only by Hermes, her talking motorcycle (don’t ask), Kino travels this slightly fantastical world from country to country, observing their culture and customs, but never judging or becoming involved with anyone the pair meet along the way.

Having gone into Kino’s Journey very unsure what to expect from it, my initial impression was that we were in for a latter day retread of Galaxy Express 999, with the characters travelling around, solving or failing to solve the dilemmas of those they encounter and learning something about human nature along the way. By contrast, Kino takes great pains not to involve herself, instead preferring to remain the aloof observer and often sharing her thoughts only with Hermes.

While promising to spend only three days in each country she visits, Kino is often privy to information or experience that could allow her to change things – reuniting estranged lovers, stopping a meaningless construction project, possibly even preventing a war – but she almost always chooses not to, evidently preferring not to meddle in the affairs of others. While she is occasionally forced to fight her way out of a situation, there is never any sense of Kino aligning or allying herself with anyone – she remains defiantly neutral and only ever serves her own agenda.

The series is composed almost entirely of self-contained episodes and, while this is not unusual, Kino really grabs the idea and runs with it. Rather than have a typical monster of the week that must be vanquished, the pleasure of the narrative here is in watching how uber tourist Kino interacts with her surroundings in each new place, although much of your reaction to the show will likely depend on how you feel about Kino as a character. Her presence is almost ghostly; shaped as much by what others think of her being there, as by her own actions. Even her choice of attire seems open to interpretation, with her androgynous style leading a few characters to mistake her for a man – something she doesn’t bother to correct.

Personally, I found her unnervingly calm demeanour and extreme sense of detachment made her difficult to relate to. Nevertheless, she’s a pleasingly competent, resourceful heroine, whose story never tries to imbue her with sex appeal or cutesy attributes. While she rarely talks about herself, the series does drip-feed you small details about her past and how she came to be the way she is and, in a way, the only connecting narrative here may be trying to understand what makes Kino tick, as she undertakes her epic journey.

The searching, open-ended nature of the series is probably going to cause frustration for some, as much of what happens is left very much to interpretation. Despite its repeatedly stated interest in the beauty of the world, it’s also frequently quite downbeat. Although I often sensed something bad was about to happen, the nature of what it was and the lengths to which the series is willing to go often surprised me.

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In part, I think the the artwork is misleading. While the delicacy of the original illustrations has been lost in the jump from light novel to anime, the childrens’ book-esque character designs create a sharp contrast to the dark goings on in the story. The show also takes the rather odd decision to plaster the screen with a scanline effect. While this is presumably an effort to help give the series an archaic, old-fashioned quality in the early days of digital production, I feel it just ends up looking like an afterthought. The narrative is definitely the main attraction of the series but inevitably, the self-contained nature of the episodes also throws up a few less than engaging mysteries and, when it’s more about questions than answers, this did make it feel trying at times.

Yet, even if the show can be pretentious, the overall experience is thought provoking and unusual. It is not the only series of its kind but, Kino’s Journey strikes out on its own path, avoiding any easy moralising and offering up a main character to whom I was genuinely unsure how I should react. Provided you’re in the mood for something more than harmless escapism, it’s definitely worth seeking out.

While it misses out on some additional material (the ‘complete collection’ monicker is a tad misleading), the main Kino’s Journey series was released on R1 DVD by ADV and the set is still readily available at a reasonable price.

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