Kino no Tabi: The Road Goes Ever On

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.

Kino enjoys obtuse and paradoxical tautologies. They have flower petals.

12 Responses to “Kino no Tabi: The Road Goes Ever On”

  1. 1 bateszi 20 July 2009 at 3:43 pm

    This is a wonderful series for sure, and it’s always delightful to read another take on it! The episode you mention was definitely one of the best (and most emotional of the entire series), but another I always seem to come back to is episode 2– the one with the snow storms and the lost travellers; I always remember being shocked when Kino shoots the rabbit, not because I’m soft on animals or anything (even though I am), it’s just a moment that totally shook my expectations of her character (especially in light of what happens next). So, I love Kino no Tabi; I hope you enjoy it!

    • 2 OGT 20 July 2009 at 10:13 pm

      The rabbit-killing was rather sudden and unexpected, yes. In light of the rest of the episode it made sense, but it came out of left field like the proverbial gorilla. But then, that’s part of what makes it a good series; blindsiding you is, generally speaking, a good thing.

  2. 3 kadian1364 20 July 2009 at 4:28 pm

    Kino’s Journey is one of my unequivocal favorites. Like Kino and Hermes going on journeys to foreign, yet familiar places, to discover new things about the world and the people that live there, the show opened up a whole new world of anime I’d never explored before.

    In fact, I liked it so much, I bought the DVDs twice! Once as individual discs, and again in a sexy little thinpack.

  3. 4 xixer 20 July 2009 at 5:42 pm

    Kino’s Journey is definitely one of the best series I’ve seen.

    It’s been a while since I’ve seen the series, but if I recall correctly, no one else seems to hear Hermes except for Kino, and Kino is the only one who ever responds to Hermes.

    I could never figure out whether Hermes is real, or a personificaton created by Kino.

    • 5 kadian1364 20 July 2009 at 6:09 pm

      What you remember may be a product of the narrative structure where Kino and Hermes are always together and interact nearly exclusively, but I recall enough times where other people responded to Hermes and generally treated it like another person. Like, talking motorrads are completely run-of-the-mill, but talking dogs are completely unheard of.

      • 6 xixer 20 July 2009 at 9:30 pm

        haha, its funny you mention talking dogs because I was just reading the wikipedia article on Kino’s Journey and there is supposed to be a character named Riku who, coincidently, is a talking dog

        anyway, you’re probably right about Hermes, and I’m going to take it as an excuse to rewatch the episodes :)

        • 7 kadian1364 21 July 2009 at 1:47 am

          “aha, its funny you mention talking dogs because I was just reading the wikipedia article on Kino’s Journey and there is supposed to be a character named Riku who, coincidently, is a talking dog”

          So you get my reference then. ^_^

          As far as Hermes talking to other people examples, near the end of episode 2, when the three men are threatening Kino by the truck, Hermes asks them what they will do with it once Kino is gone, and they respond with something like, “We’ll find you a nice home.” Also, there are a couple examples in the episode with the talking dog, chiefly one where Hermes and the dog go back and forth, when Kino’s not around. How is Hermes supposed to be a figment of Kino’s imagination when she’s not even around to imagine it talking? Another example in an episode early on, Hermes plays an important role in the town ruled by democracy.

          Even without remembering specifics, one can deduce the intent with some literary analysis. Kino’s Journey is written in such a way that it clues its audience in to the twist before it happens. It would never let any opportunity for delicious irony pass over unnoticed. Attentive viewers would definitely KNOW if something was strange about Hermes, just like we KNOW there’s something afoot about X town or Z story.

          As far as narrative is concerned, I disagree that Kino lives in solitude because of the ever constant presence of Hermes, her traveling companion and best friend. Kino is more laid back, content to watch the action unfold, hesitant to take action. Hermes is inquisitive, less clever, but quick with the sarcastic quips. Kino makes observations and statements. Hermes asks questions. They do act as one in the sense that they complementing each others’ perspectives, making a well-rounded picture of the whole story.

          It’s not one of my favorites for nothing!

    • 8 OGT 20 July 2009 at 10:18 pm

      It did almost seem, in episode 4, as though Hermes could only speak with Kino, and I’ve not quite hit the moments kaidan mentions where other people hear Hermes. It could probably be argued (if you like illusory things) that the entire series is an illusion Kino has after (or en route to, if you feel particularly Ambrose Bierce at the moment) the “adult” operation.

      But that’s just silly crazy talk.

  4. 9 OGT 21 July 2009 at 7:23 am

    @kaidan: “Solitude” is relative here; no man is an island bereft of contact. She never stays anyplace more than three days, and, as a drifting traveler, even with Hermes, her life is more solitary than not-solitary. It’s not a “hermit living out in the middle of the woods” solitary, but the solitude of the road with a companion. Aloof, removed, etc.

  5. 10 Sasa 21 July 2009 at 9:39 am

    Although I got the impression that Hermes speaks with everybody, I do like the idea that his personified existence might come from Kino’s mind. It makes a lot of sense to include a talking motorcycle into the story so that Kino – who is always alone – at least speaks about her impressions and feelings, but I think it’s a lot like her to just talk to “herself”.

    Anyways, great posting on my all time favorite anime! :)

  6. 11 TheBigN 22 July 2009 at 12:06 am

    Only 4 episodes in? Just wait. It gets better. :3

    This is also one of my all time favorites.

  7. 12 ETERNAL 28 July 2009 at 10:02 pm

    I’m sure I’ll rewatch this in a few years, whenever I feel like straining my brain again. It really is the kind of show that can yield endless layers of depth, depending on how far you try to dig. One of the things I really liked about it, though, is that it’s meaningful even on the outside: the different city-states all make very literal jabs at society that are food for thought in their own right. Of course, it doesn’t have to end there, and there are tons of things you can read into the finer details, especially when it comes to Kino herself. I guess I put it in the same category as Lain and Mushishi: stuff that I won’t think too hard about until I feel compelled to do so, which probably won’t happen until I’m really ready to tackle them again.

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