Ever since I first heard about Kino no Tabi (or Kino’s Journey) when it aired six years ago, I have been eager to watch it. For reasons ineffable even to me, it has taken me until a few days ago to even start upon the series. I am quite happy to report that the series has been well worth the wait, even after only four episodes; allowing time for me to grow and mature between then and now has probably only amplified the experience of watching the series for the first time.
The framework of the series–Kino’s travels with her talking motorcycle Hermes in a quasi-fantastic land populated with darkly twisted city-states–allows for different explorations of the series’ tagline and central theme: the world is not beautiful, therefore it is. Kino no Tabi is unsettling and hauntingly elegiac, a feeling not unlike that experienced in Mushishi or when listening to a Sound Horizon album (Roman, or perhaps Elysion) with a translation in hand, although I would venture that perhaps Kino no Tabi is much easier to understand than Revo’s multilayered metaphorical lyrics. Other comparisons that pop to mind include Lois Lowry’s The Giver and Michael Ende’s Momo, both of which deal with functionally dysfunctional societies.
Of particular note (because I just watched it and it made me gush with awe) is the story of Kino’s homeland–the Country of Adults–and the profoundly alienating nature of that particular city-state. Here, children, at the age of twelve, undergo a menacing “operation” to “remove the child from their head” so as to enable them to enjoy their job, which are full of unpleasant and dull things that adults do not want to do. As do the residents of all city-states that Kino will visit, she simply accepts this way of life as natural and logical, the way things are. Of course, the illusion she has is shattered when a passing traveler (also named Kino–there’s a reason for it) learns of her country’s custom and inadvertently pries open her childish curiosity that things might be different than they are here, a profound, world-shattering sentiment for anyone who has the insatiable curiosity of a child.
Lamentably, of course, this leads directly to the “adults” (quotation marks are important here) discovering that, suddenly, Kino has a will of her own, and their psychopathic nature shows true, as her parents promptly begin to berate and despise her for not following tradition and questioning what’s good for her. This leads directly to her family deciding to kill her for refusing to undergo the surgery she “needs” to become an adult. The traveler-Kino, himself unable to fit into Kino’s highly delineated world of “child” and “adult” as he is neither, sacrifices himself, leaving Kino’s parents somewhat confused and stymied about what to do next (the attendant police officer helpfully encourages them to remove the knife so as to try to kill their daughter again) and also prompting Kino to escape with Hermes and begin the journey that occupies the remainder of the series.
Kino’s life as traveler has several interpretations: the most obvious one to be derived from her backstory is that she has now assumed the identity of the Kino who died to allow her to escape; now she, too, is caught in the land that is neither adult nor child. One is tempted to say “adolescence,” but that term carries a certain undesirable connotation. I tend to agree with a somewhat paraphrased statement about the phases of life: in childhood, you have all the questions; in adolescence, you have all the answers; in maturity, you realise that the questions were the answers all along. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that Kino now exists in a state beyond the loss of her innocence and the deadening of emotion that she’d assumed adulthood to be. In short, she never “grows up”; indeed, it could be said that all who are truly adult never do. She understands that there are other experiences yet to have in life, not all of them pleasant, yet she is also not resigning herself to a life of misery (or misery masked by bland, deadened, obligatory cheerfulness).
Another way to look as it is that, as a traveler, she is also an outsider. And as an outsider, removed from the troubles that the insiders have, she is better able to perceive the nature of things that the insider might deny themselves; Kino can see the faults as well as the strengths of each individual way of life. None are perfect, all are flawed; yet the flaws can also lend them the beauty they lack. In this, it seems, all walks of life are united. Even Kino’s way of life doesn’t escape the lens; as a traveler, she is alone, aloof, disconnected. Yet her unwillingness to settle down itself needn’t be viewed as a recipe for suffering and misery, as instead Kino draws pleasure from the evanescent solitude.
The world is not beautiful, she reasons; yet because there is suffering, there is also joy. And indeed, it seems that in every city-state she visits or draws near, there is superficial happiness masking a deeper undercurrent of suffering, malice, or cruelty; yet below and beyond the suffering lies a joy that goes seemingly unnoticed by the many resigned to their fates. Therefore: the world is beautiful.