By Meghan Ellis.
“A traveller’s purpose in life is to travel.” So begins Kino’s Journey, a homage to wanderlust without purpose, directed by the late Ryutaro Nakamura and adapted from the books of the same name by Keiichi Sigsawa. Kino and the talking bike Hermes – an incredible rendition of the legendary Brough Superior SS100 motorcycle – lead us on an episodic journey through the mysterious countries of their world, each of which represent a facet of the human condition, magnified to societal proportions.
It’s not a journey of discovering oneself. Hermes and Kino are secure in their purpose and is well aware of their strengths and weaknesses. There’s no Huckleberry Finn here, as we’re introduced to a neutral observer on a journey for the sake of the trip itself. It’s a refreshing break from the time-honoured tradition of the Bildungsroman, where the main character is the centre of the world and their trials are simply a means to an end.
Instead, Kino’s Journey tells a story driven by a relentless need to stay on the move and to linger in a place for no more than three days, lest our travellers are tempted to settle down. To experience new places for the sole purpose of continuing the journey no matter what: that’s Kino’s raison d’etre and we initially don’t need to know any more as we settle in for the ride..
Released in 2003 amidst a spate of shows where the setting was just as richly developed as the characters, Kino’s Journey is undoubtedly focused on the world and its idiosyncrasies more than how characters will change and adapt to what they encounter. Considered alongside its contemporary Fullmetal Alchemist, which also features an unlikely-looking pair on a journey, the protagonists of Kino’s Journey can appear rather ironically static and two-dimensional if you view them in the same way as the typical leads.
But the unchanging, stoic nature of Kino is part of the beauty of the show: a stable lens through which to experience the world. If we understand Kino’s purpose and motivation – the need to keep travelling – then the focus shifts instead to the people along the way and their unique sets of troubles.
There are very few clear right and wrong answers to the problems explored by Kino’s Journey; with a few notable exceptions the options are often presented as better or worse instead of good or bad, or as the best course of action for a singular moment in time. And this is the magic that elevates the show beyond a simple collection of parables – the unrelenting demand that viewers take the issue presented and really, really think about it.
If you aren’t left wondering how you would have solved the problems that Kino and Hermes’ destinations experience then you’re in definite need of a second watch (or maybe you’re a sociopath). However, we aren’t left to linger in frustration on the unresolved. The episodic plot and Kino’s policy non-intervention policy frees the show of the need to solve these complex moral quandaries. Instead, it leaves behind a collection of vignettes as our heroes continue to explore their allegorical world.
Few shows make such a seamless transition between thoughts and ideas. All is temporary on the road, and if the fears and worries of one country don’t grip us, then it’s just three days before another destination presents a new set of human qualities to explore. Kino’s Journey leaves us with glimpses of so much good in a world that is usually thought to be inherently ugly. Despite the dangers along the way, some of which are truly shocking in their exploration, the journey remains an adventurous road trip through the human psyche. A world that isn’t beautiful, in Kino’s eyes, is beautiful for that very reason.
Kino’s Journey is released in the UK by Anime Limited.