Kino's Journey
by Polly


In the nearly two years I've spent reviewing Japanese Cartoons, I've come to find that a lot of the time my opinions are often at-odds with what most "professional" and fan reviewers think of certain shows. This isn't intentional. In fact, I do my damnedest to try and avoid reading other reviews prior to watching shows or writing my own reviews to avoid as much influence as possible. Sometimes that's not possible, because some shows are so universally praised or hated, that avoiding those opinions is often hard to do.

Kino's Journey is one such show. The critical praises that it receives and the adoration of its fans are initially what made the show pop out at me. Almost every forum, imageboard, DVD reviewing site, and whatever the hell else I've read over the past two years have all had nothing but great things to say about it. It's hard to avoid being a bit curious when something receives that much positive feedback, so when I received the entire series as a Christmas gift last year, I was more than happy to dive in and see what Kino's little adventures were all about, and hopefully be caught up in the magic, too.

Kino's Journey began its life as a series of light novels penned by author Keiichi Sigsawa (a pun on the Sig Sauer brand arms manufacturer), and is for the most part a collection of short stories chronicling the adventures of a traveler named Kino and her motorad (it's a motorcycle that can talk) Hermes. Together, the two travel the world to experience all its beauty and ugliness, only staying at each destination no longer than three days. It's a concept that lends itself very well to the short story format, and the original light novel series has spanned thirteen volumes since the year 2000 (including a high school setting spin-off where Hermes is a talking cellphone strap...cause it's Japan).

There's not a whole hell of a lot more you have to explain to anybody to get them ready for what Kino's Journey is all about. It's simply a girl and her talking motorcycle bouncing from civilization to civilization to take in the sights and sounds and not a whole hell of a lot else.

Kino and her talking motorcycle Hermes are the only two characters that remain consistent throughout the show's 13-episode run. Kino herself is simply the viewer's eyes into the various worlds she visits, and it's not often she'll involve herself beyond normal interactions and observations of the places she visits. When she does, it's most likely on a whim in order to help someone out or to blow something or someone up. Throughout the course of the show, you'll find out how and why she became a wandering traveler, but the details of how she's able to survive and fight so well remain vague and unexplained, with only brief hints and nods to events that happened in the novels that aren't explained here. Other than that, she'll spend a good bit of her time waxing philosophically back and forth with Hermes about what lessons should be learned from their travels and the people they've met.

Aside from Kino and Hermes, there aren't many other characters that stand out. There are a few that pop up that are supposed to be important, but again, this series doesn't cover the portions of the novels where these characters pop up again, and they end up being as cardboard cutout as the random villagers Kino encounters.

While the idea of visiting various places all over the world with something new popping up every new episode is a neat idea, it unfortunately doesn't seem all that well suited for the Japanese Cartoon format. In every episode (save for one two-parter) Kino is given a mere 21 minutes to head into a new destination, learn all about their wacky ways of life, and try to learn or discern something from it all. While three days pass for Kino, the viewer usually only spends about 10-15 minutes trying to acclimate themselves to these new and wondrous places, making the whole production feel far too rushed. It's a series that seems like it wants to be quiet and cerebral, but it goes by so fast that you never really have enough time to feel like you've gotten your bearings in the destinations Kino visits. In novel form, I see this formula working quite well. There's a lot more detail one can put into written word without the restraints of a harsh time limit.

The problem that this creates is that while there's a lot of really excellent social commentary here, all defining some of the ugliest and warmest parts of humanity, things end up feeling far too exaggerated. Instead of having enough time to try and understand why certain people, villages, and civilizations act the way they do, it's all presented so quickly that a lot of the commentary is lost, because you'll most likely end up thinking, "uhhh..these people are just fucking stupid" instead of grasping what the writers may have intended you to notice. At the end of each episode, Kino essentially ends up having to tell the viewer in rather vague terms what they were supposed to have learned from all the crazy shit she just saw. Only two or three of the stories manage to survive the pacing, and they prove to be the best episodes in the series. Unfortunately, they're few and far between, and by the time you're halfway through the show, the formula has worn so thin that even the good episodes will slip under your radar if the format is grinding on your last nerve.

Not helping much in trying to keep the viewer interested are the fairly average visuals and audio. In fact, I can't remember one damn musical theme from the show it's that boring and uninteresting, and I'm not going to talk about it anymore.

Moving onto the visuals, the first thing to note is that the show uses a strange filter over every episode that I guess is supposed to make the everything appear as if it's being shot from some sort of camera. Small horizontal lines run through the entire frame of every shot of the show. At first, I had to make sure there was nothing wrong with my DVDs, because I had mistaken the effect as some kind of video encoding error on ADV's part. This effect is, however, intended and I really can't figure out why it was used, because it makes a show that already doesn't look that great look even worse.

You'd think that a show about a traveler adventuring to lots of strange and interesting locales would have put a fairly high priority on trying to make those environments as interesting as possible to the viewer. I'm not saying that the show needed background porn of Makoto Shinkai production quality to be interesting, but almost everything about Kino's Journey looks so flat, brown, and uninteresting. This could have been an artistic choice, choosing to show the world as mundane as it really is, but when so many of the locales Kino visits are supposed to be something special, the art seems like it just misses the mark. All the scenery just runs together, and there's nothing really memorable about any of the environments and especially the awful cardboard cutout designs of the normal people Kino encounters. It's clear that a lot of detail work went into Kino's and Hermes's designs, as they look great, but everyone and everything else is either just awkward or generic looking.

Another problem in the presentation is that the animation is also quite lacking. Everything moves so stiffly and awkwardly, that it's just really distracting. It's mostly a quiet and talky show anyway, so I guess most of this could be overlooked, however the show cuts a lot of corners on the few action scenes that are the centerpieces of a few episodes, too. That's just really disappointing, since Kino is fucking armed to the teeth with guns and knives shoved in every damn part of her design that they could think of and the show looks so shitty when she's actually using them.

Kino's Journey is a high-minded concept with brilliant commentary on the world's various problems, but the pacing, and to a point, the overall production, completely wreck it. This is a show that could have probably fared much better as a series of hour-long OVAs released over an extended period of time, instead of trying to cram the whole thing into such a compact format. Because of this, the entire series suffers. It becomes formulaic, boring, and only moderately entertaining when a good episode finally decides to roll around.

I wanted it to be as good as everybody said it is because I loved the initial concept, but I guess this is another case where I just don't "get it."

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