Kino’s Journey Revisited

There has been a lot of playing to nostalgia lately in pop culture, but no more so than in Hollywood. For example, the Gunsmith Cats Kickstarter was going on in March and April, and Crunchyroll’s backlog of classic anime grows larger by the week. At the same time though animation does not tend to reboot old shows as often as American television or Hollywood does, so it was a surprise when the understated Kino’s Journey series was getting a reboot after more than a decade.

While there are some issues with the new series, such as Kino looking slightly more feminine in this incarnation as well as the pacing of the series seeming to emphasize violence and action, it is interesting to go back to Kino and their life of constant travel as someone who is a queer person, and as someone who is trying to follow not only queer studies in the US, but also in Japanese cultures and elsewhere. I unfortunately cannot separate the choice for Kino to be portrayed androgynously with the series and with its reception: many animated series seems to use a character’s androgynous appearance as a plot point or for comedic value. In Kino’s Journey, while Kino may represent the viewer more easily this way, the androgynous appearance is not a cliche. Kino just lives their life, going from town to town and just trying to experience life, instead of trying to be a disruption. The fact that the character of Kino comes across as more obviously female in the renewed series, then, is a change that cannot be overlooked. Why the change?

Perhaps this is an aesthetic choice or a choice rationalized with market and audience. Like I mentioned, the portrayal of Kino in the first series was more androgynous: there were very few hints to the viewer as to how they identified, and their language use even did not reveal too much about their gender. The renewed series did give more of a feminine touch to Kino’s character design, but also changed the focus and pacing to seemingly concentrate on action sequences. If it was an aesthetic choice, then why? In Japan, clothes are not necessarily indicative of gender, and indeed lately in the news one can see Japanese and Korean stars talk about feeling genderless in terms of dress and style. They wear the clothes they want to, whether it is Lolita fashion or urban punk fashion, and that is that. Japanese beauty products are marketed to men as well, and even recently there have been a surge of Japanese businessmen looking to nail polish and nail art as a way to not only proclaim group status (such as painting their nails in company colors) but as a way to demonstrate some style.

Which brings me to my next observation: if the changes were because of the times, or because of changing trends in the market, then what does that mean for “the market” and who is the intended market for Kino’s Journey? In the Japanese animation industry, most animation is admittedly for the Japanese domestic market first and foremost. While there are exceptions, such as the second season of Big O or the development of Space Dandy, and even though simuldubs are becoming more and more commonplace, the primary focus on the Japanese market remains the norm by the studios and decision makers themselves.

My final point though, which may nullify the first two, is finding out that the voice actor of Kino from the first series played a major role in pushing for a new series. In that case maybe it is just a recognition that the story of Kino might be applicable to audiences even a decade or so after the first series, and a hope that more people can discover them.

Ancient Magus’ Bride, Depression, and Hope

When I first started watching The Ancient Magus’ Bride on Crunchyroll, I was struck by how it began. Here was a protagonist so far in the depths of despair that she seemingly sold herself in auction to whoever might have her, reasoning that at least someone in this world would want her, and coming to the conclusion that whatever might happen, it would be a marginally better alternative to suicide.

This setup exists in the manga as well, to the extent that some fans call it “Stockholm Syndrome: the series.” The protagonist is bought at auction by Elias the powerful mage, he takes her to his house calling her his bride, and so begins the series. I could see this critique: for the first several episodes, Elias occasionally remarks to be careful, that he owns her. Chise, the viewpoint character, seems to have no sense of self-worth and constantly demeans herself and her actions.

It was not just other women who voiced this concern: there were men too, who viewed the dynamic between Elias and Chise as abusive. It reminded them of Beauty and the Beast, they said: the captive rationalizes the abuse, and falls in love with her captor. They did not want to see it past the first couple of episodes, male and female alike.

And yet, it still seemed to me Chise had agency. She was in the depths of severe depression and was considering suicide. The animation did not show her full story right away, but we saw her contemplating suicide from a school rooftop before making the eventual choice to take buyers on their offer: in the manga, and as details of Chise’s life in the anime slowly are revealed, we saw that not only had her magical status brought her abandonment and despair up to that point, but we saw Chise making a bargain with the auctioneers. In fact, in the story, she pocketed half her selling price, which came to 2.5 million pound sterling. While yes, she was acting out of self-destruction, she retained some degree of agency in doing so. More to the point, the series asked for the viewers to at least have some empathy with Chise in this: viewers did not need to support her self-destructive decisions, but were asked to try and understand what may have led Chise to believe that it was the only option left to her.

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