I love anime. Sorry, wait, I misspoke. I hate anime. Anime is Japanese animated television about jerks with hearts of gold saving the world, tripping into the breasts of their unfathomably tolerant and smitten (and/or meaninglessly violent) female friends, and in which the same six characters – barely even archetypes, just characters – appear in every single show, whether it’s set in a medieval fantasy land or outer space or modern day Tokyo, and whether the character’s occupation is ninja, cyberpunk police officer or the actual devil.
What I like is animation. What I like is genre fiction. And so there’s a certain amount of anime – the least anime of anime – that I love. Kino’s Journey is the top of that list. It’s the anime I’d most recommend to people who don’t watch or like or care about anime.
Kino’s Journey is about the protagonist travelling across a mystical world and spending three days in each of the countries she encounters in order to learn about their unique customs. Her only travelling companion, and the only other recurring character, is her Motorrad, a talking motorcycle she calls Hermes.
There are elements of science fiction to the story, but “mystical” is the best word to describe the world. Kino’s Journey is allegorical. There is drama, and some action, but it’s as much a philosophical journey as a physical one.
In the first episode, The Land Of Visible Pain, Kino and Hermes visit a country which appears at first to be populated solely by machines. After some exploration, they discover that there are other people, but that each one is living alone, having isolated themselves from one another due to the mental exhaustion and pain of being able to hear each other’s thoughts.
It’s a common twist on a common science fiction idea, and later episodes are far bolder, but it’s a strong start and a statement of intent. The key to it is that Kino doesn’t try to save the country, or to convince them to change the mistake they’re making; she simply learns about how they live and then drives on. The ending is wordlessly heartbreaking.
And heartbreak is frequent. Kino’s Journey is always gentle and human, but it’s also about brutality, loneliness, and episodes frequently end in tragedy. There is kindness and compassion, but at the very least each episode ends with the melancholy of Kino saying goodbye and continuing on her journey.
In this way, the closest game equivalent is 80 Days. And also like 80 Days, the show has a refreshing attitude towards gender. Kino’s Journey is based on a series of Japanese novels which refer to Kino using genderless pronouns, a thing Japanese can do comfortably and English can’t, whereas through voice acting the anime depicts Kino as a young woman. Yet her gender is still irrelevant, as it is to the women she meets on her travels whether they be leaders, inventors, or murderers.
I’m holding back. I want to dish about all the different countries Kino visits, the density of ideas and what makes them interesting, but that would be spoiling. I want to splurge the story of episode four, or episode 13, or my favourite, episode two, and explain what makes them beautiful. Kino is a beautiful TV show; lyrical and wise and heartfelt and crushing. I want to rave about how cool Kino is; a strong, silent-type who is resolute, calmly independent, who wakes up before dawn each morning to clean her guns and practice her quickdraw, and who drives a talking motorcycle.
But you should just watch it.