The imaginary travelogue is a venerable form of fiction. Often allegorical, parable-like, or otherwise symbolic, it has a tradition of being used especially as a form of social critique and commentary. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress detailed the inner movements of the spiritual life with symbolic places and people. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels saw the protagonist travel to several different nations (including a floating city called Laputa, immortalized later in anime by Hayao Miyazaki) that reflected back on the absurdities of his society. Both Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince and Kino no Tabi’s most immediate predecessor, Galaxy Express 999, had the characters visit different, symbolism-laden planets that reflected different aspects of the human condition.
Kino no Tabi is an evocative, if somewhat uneven, contributor to this genre. Its charms and its weaknesses stem from the genre it’s working in, and the insights and pleasures to be found have to be taken on their own terms.
JRR Tolkien taught me to distrust allegory. He confessed to a “cordial dislike” of the genre in the preface to The Lord of the Rings, and his central objection to it was that it imposed a single, obvious meaning on a work rather than allowing the reader to discover multiple meanings on their own. As he put it:
I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
Kino no Tabi is closer to the kind of fiction that Tolkien would dislike. The various countries that Kino visits are clearly meant to be symbolic of certain human tendencies or desires. The Land of Adults, where Kino comes from, is meant to be a comment on a certain notion of mature “responsibility” taken to a logical end. The vignettes about work and labor, with its mindless railway workers and bored office drones doing whatever they are told, almost reads like a quasi-Marxist parable. The focus is not on character and plot, as in traditional storytelling, but on idea. If Kino no Tabi is to succeed, the ideas have to be compelling, and sometimes, they are not. The work episode felt especially heavy-handed, for instance, and the one about the failures of apocalyptic prophecy was overly predictable. This is the sort of weakness that allegory, parable, and other didactic forms of fiction tend to have.
And yet, many of these stories have “cracks,” as they were, where something more complex or even twisted creeps in. The most effective stories are the ones that feature surprising plot turns that complicate the otherwise neat ideas being presented. Mild spoilers below:
[spoiler] For instance, we see a deeply personal, not to mention violent, side to the Land of Adults (episode 4). We also get to see Kino’s gender, which was not entirely clear up to that point—her mild androgyny is a distinctive feature of the show, befitting her role as an Every(wo)man on a journey. Those you help may not necessarily who they seem to be (episode 2). Servants and masters often change places (episode 10), and frequently pleasant faces hide darker truths (episodes 12, 13, and others). [/spoiler]
These aspects, along with the more human backstory we get for Kino, allow the complexities allegory often flattens to complicate matters. This is why I found many of the stories more affecting than not, and the spare and effective use of haunting music aids in giving a thoughtful, melancholy mood. They often match the frequently unsparing view of human nature on display. The frequently witty interplay between Kino and her motorrad, Hermes, helps to lighten what otherwise would be a somber mood. Kino’s Journey is not quite the master of atmosphere and control that Mushi-shi is, though at its best it comes close.
The animation quality is spare at best and frequently lacking in detail, particularly in the backgrounds. This tends to reinforce the symbolic nature of the storytelling. Ghostlightning has complained about the lack of consistency and realism in the world-building along these lines, but I believe this actually befits the nature and genre of this series. This isn’t a traditional SF or fantasy story where those are important markers of quality. The “countries” Kino travels to are more akin to Bunyan’s Vanity Fair or Swift’s Laputa than Middle-Earth. They exist as object illustrations rather than detailed worlds on their own. Nevertheless, there is an excessive use of lens flaring and other shortcuts, and director Ryutaro Nakamura pulls the Anno-borrowed text-on-screen montages he used in Serial Experiments: Lain again.
Series like Kino no Tabi probably can’t be expected to be the norm in anime. There was a very specific vision and purpose behind this and, in the final judgment, it more or less succeeds on the terms it set out: to be an interesting collection of parables, allegories, and fables about the absurdities and sorrows of human life. Whether one enjoys this anime will depend in large part on what you’re looking for—rich character development or long, serial plots, the things that first brought me in as a fan, are not on offering here. Despite some vague similarities in the spare, mostly quiet mood, this is certainly not the “healing” or calm sort of anime either—there’s a surprising amount of violence, often sudden. But if you’re looking for something that will inspire a mood of thoughtfulness, a “hmmm, I see” kind of reaction, then this show is well worth your time.
The Dusty Disc Review is an ongoing series of reviews of anime DVDs Mike never finished watching for one reason or another. Some are now out of print. All reviews are of the original Japanese language versions. Of course.