The World is Not Beautiful -- Therefore, it is
Kino's Journey is sort of a difficult show to talk about as a whole. It's extraordinarily episodic, following the traveler Kino and her motorad (basically a motorcycle with a consciousness) as they visit a vast array of countries (which are actually cities) in an often-surreal fable-esque steampunk world. Each place they visit is fairly unique in not only its culture but the ideas the show chooses to explore, meaning that there's little unifying the show as a whole outside of the aesthetics and Kino's own personal journey. Luckily, Kino's personal journey is a pretty big deal, but if you're looking for any sort of overarching plot or climactic finale this might not be the show for you.
So why should you watch Kino's Journey?
Well for starters, Kino herself. Kino is one of my all-time favorite characters as well as what I'd consider to be one of the most impressive anime has to offer. She's not just a window through which we observe the show's various scenarios, she's a fluid and growing personality stumbling to find her way in the world. There's a fascinating conflict lying at the heart of her character: from the beginning, Kino seeks to be a non-factor, an impartial observer absorbing her surroundings without affecting them, devoid of categorizing traits such as gender or ego. Her fashion is dull and unassuming, her intentions soft-spoken, her words few. She refers to herself only as 'Kino', a name that functions more as a title, and will correct anyone who addresses her otherwise.
However, as the show makes clear from its early episodes, Kino is inescapably human and inescapably part of the world she seeks to play bystander in. Try as she might to discard them, she possesses everything from ingrained survival instincts and opinions to base emotions and distinctive mannerisms. Kino is not a non-factor, and she slowly starts to learn the folly of pretending that when she steps through the gates of a country she can avoid having any kind of impact. When alone in the snowy woods with a group of starving men and some unassuming rabbits that can serve as food she aspires to play moral arbiter, but when her own life is put on the line she abandons her efforts to weigh the scales without hesitation to protect herself. This is a conflict we see time and again: the clash between Kino's idealistic armchair philosophy and her innate craving to survive and continue her journey. At times like these Kino is forced to admit that she places value on herself, and it is only in acknowledging her own significance that she can get a little closer to figuring out why she's traveling in the first place.
Sometimes this is taken further though. Sometimes, Kino not only partakes in the struggle to survive, she goes so far as to take actions to impose her own worldview upon her surroundings. Her formula is to stay three days and never interfere. But when circumstances are perfect, when she makes a close friend in a welcoming place or when she watches as thousands of unfortunate lower-class citizens are turned into oppressed labor for the sake of a tyrant and his aristocratic 1%, then she becomes moved or frustrated to the point where she breaks her own rules, asking to stay for more than three days or taking measures to change the tyranny she witnesses. In these instances she isn't even consciously making exceptions for herself, she's just acting in the way she feels is right. It's usually only afterwards that Kino reflects on her internal contradictions and tries to understand where they come from, prompted by questions from Hermes. Desire? Righteousness? Perhaps she's just not strong enough of a person to follow her own code. But she does try to learn, later answering 'because I'm not a God' when asked why she didn't step in to save a man she knew was going to be killed. All of this is part of her exhausting struggle to comprehend her complicated journey, each new conflict forcing her to think about just what kind of person she is.
Kino's struggle to understand her own journey reflects perhaps the biggest question the show poses: why do people do what they do? The world is full of sorrow and separation, loneliness and despair, death, sadism and suffering. Even if you can push past this and acknowledge that 'the world is not beautiful, therefore it is', then you're still left with the question of why you go on. Kino's first and foremost advice for traveling is 'try not to get yourself killed', which underscores how much of a role her own survival instincts play in the continuation of her travels. Obviously life is about the journey not the destination, but what's the point of the journey in the first place? The experiences you gain? The emotions you feel? Time and again Kino seeks to justify her own endless quest, discerning her own motivations whether they be the inspiration found in birds or the desire to see joy. But time and again she can't find an absolute reason. So she listens, and learns, and grows, and maybe she can't understand life but at least she's trying to make the most of it. Maybe that's the answer. Maybe not. The show does a splendid job at discussing meaning, succeeding in that it gives you plenty to think about without trying to simplify something as immense and simultaneously personal into some sort of solution.
Asides from Kino herself, the show offers a plethora of impressive vignettes that are often fascinating enough in their own rights. Ranging from critiques of religious zeal to human innovation, the show takes common philosophical conundrums and social problems a step further than usual, adding a layer of complexity to its fables perfect for generating discussion. It's honestly an excellent show to watch in a group, since the lack of an over-arching plot makes it so that each episode can be discussed individually, and the show's conflicts are inherently divisive enough to breed argument. Some episodes don't rely on Kino at all, such as the City of Books which is just a staggering accomplishment in itself managing to delve into the mind-melting relationship between author, reader, and critic, as well as the line between reality and fiction in a mere twenty minutes of downright creepy madness. The show does take the time to add some additional texture to Kino's timeline as well, with some of the best episodes being the ones that explore her past and put her entire journey into perspective. Kino's journey isn't something that would benefit well from a conclusive ending; lives rarely have conclusive endings after all, but all lives have beginnings and as a dear friend of mine once said, 'the best part of the story is the backstory'. As I mentioned before, the show does have a unifying aesthetic that helps to bring the widely varied stories at least some sense of relatedness, with almost every background being depicted using dulled earthy colors on a textured canvas, a choice that makes it really feel as though you're flipping through the pages of a storybook. The music is equally fitting: rarely standing out, but always helping to bring the world of the show together with its slow and sleepy vibe.
All that said, this is a review, and the show is not perfect. It will entirely depend on the viewer whether the one-note exposition characters work for you or not, because while they adeptly capture the feel of a fairy tale they also rarely speak like humans. This is even stranger when contrasted against Kino and Hermes who are both textured individuals, leading to some conversations that feel as if they're between a human and a robot (which to be fair is sometimes intentional). The writing is far from consistent, its highs almost always being Kino's understated mumbling and its lows taking the form of unbelievable monologues from characters that seem to lack a personality. In addition, while the visuals are distinct and rich with style, the actual art and animation are in all honesty kind of garbage with very little interesting direction to help keep the screen engaging. The show's sense of space is kind of out of whack, with most of its cities seeming to have been fitted onto the landscape rather than built out of it. Not all episodes are as strong, either. While the show is mostly consistent, there are one or two episodes I feel lukewarm about in that they're too hamfisted or just downright not that interesting. This usually happens when the episodes get broken up into parts, giving the show less time to focus on one story and resulting in stuff like 'democracy is flawed' which is frankly obvious and uninsightful. I could also pick on the order of the episodes. While this may be an entirely personal thing, I honestly feel as though the show would have had a stronger impact as a whole if it had rearranged some of its stories. It'd be unwise to mess with them now seeing as that would make piecing together Kino's character more difficult, but I do wish the creators had thought more about the timeline of the show. Just because it's episodic doesn't mean some vignettes don't complement each other better than others.
Overall though, Kino's Journey is damn good stuff. Not only is it unique among anime, it's well done even for what it is. Kino is an incredible character driven by universally relevant philosophical conflicts and layered with distinctive personality that makes her feel like an individual independent of the show's thematic adventures. Despite its often tragic scenarios there's a slow-burning smoothness to the production that makes it feel sleepy and bittersweet and, I've found, sometimes even soothing. In between the emotionally sterile calmness are occasional moments of great catharsis that may manage to get a tear or two out of the more jaded viewer, which I think many will agree is a treasured ability. There's plenty to think about along the way with Kino's Journey, and between its poignancy and its 'food-for-thought' value (also known in some circles as '2deep4u') I give it a hearty and wholesome recommendation. Even if vignettes aren't your thing, I would still say give the first one or two episodes a try. You don't have to binge it; it's the kind of thing that's nice to watch once a week for twenty minutes after a long day just to put things into perspective. Kino's Journey is good stuff.