Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
A Brief Introduction to Kino's Journey
I tend to bump into what become my favorite anime series during the summer, perhaps because I have somewhat more time and am more willing to sit down and devote my attention to unfamiliar shows. This summer has been no exception: I finally made time to watch Lerche's 2017 adaptation of Kino's Journey (キノの旅, Kino no Tabi), directed by Tomohisa Taguchi. I usually enjoy works by Lerche--the studio behind other excellent animated series such as Assassination Classroom and Hamatora--and I'd heard good things about the source material over the years, so when you factor in that the title character is played by one of my favorite voice actresses (Aoi Yuki), it was only a matter of time before I watched this anime. I'm quite glad I did, too--it's a pretty excellent show overall, and well worth watching.
Kino's Journey is an adaptation of a Japanese novel series by Keiichi Sigsawa. The novel series, which began publication in 2000 and is still ongoing 18 years later, consists of collections of related science-fiction short stories, most of which feature the titular Kino and her talking motorcycle Hermes. I regret to say that I have yet to read the original novels (though I plan to fix this as soon as I can), so I went in to this adaptation with no knowledge of the series beyond the premise: a woman traveling the world alone on a sentient motorcycle. Each episode of the anime features one or more of the short stories selected from the existing novels, and they are in no particular chronological order and each mostly stands alone. This means the structure of Kino's Journey is somewhat unusual, as it lacks any real overarching plot, instead focusing on vignettes from Kino's travels. This gives the anime a feel more akin to a collection of related short films than a traditional season of an anime, and it works quite well.
With that introduction out of the way, I'd like to delve into more detail regarding the anime's first episode, "A Country Where People Can Kill Others." I said earlier that each episode of Kino's Journey could function as a standalone short film, but that is especially true of the first episode. I might be inclined to call "A Country Where People Can Kill Others" the strongest opening of any anime I've seen... but in order to explain why, I'll need to go through the episode bit-by-bit and pick it apart. Note that there will be spoilers for this episode from here on out, if that concerns you, but I think it would be just as easy to appreciate the episode even knowing what happens in advance, so I wouldn't be too worried about it. Still, consider yourself warned.
Lost in the Forest・b
The anime opens with Kino lying awake at night, softly explaining her worldview to Hermes. Her monologue is backed by strains of acoustic guitar and beautiful animation--Lerche's use of color is consistently excellent, and Kino's Journey is no exception--and this sequence largely sets the tone for the rest of the anime. Even in its more intense moments, the anime has a calm, reflective, almost detached feel. In the opening scene, Kino expresses that she occasionally experiences feelings of self-doubt, and explains that in those moments she finds strength in the beauty, vibrancy, and diversity of the world around her. She says that she knows that as long as she continues traveling, she will periodically undergo hardship and suffering, but she expresses her resolve to continue traveling in spite of that.
Aside from being generally beautiful, this scene accomplishes three things, only two of which are initially apparent. First, it provides what will prove to be valuable insight into Kino's character. I do not know if the source material is the same way, but in this adaptation, at least, we almost never see into Kino's mind. Hermes has traveled with Kino for long enough that he usually understands what she is thinking and feeling without much explanation, and Kino is quite good at concealing her thoughts from others, frequently leaving the viewer to speculate about Kino's motivations and goals. Most episodes reveal Kino's thinking--or, at least, hint at it--towards the end, but the insight provided in this opening scene helps the viewer to go along with Kino on her journey even when her thoughts are not clearly expressed. She is later shown to be an exceptionally capable individual in all respects, and she does not often outwardly show when she feels upset or unsure. This opening, however, assures the viewer that Kino does have a complex emotional life, which occasionally reveals itself in her behavior: on a few occasions she makes choices that seem out-of-keeping with her calm exterior, and it is those moments that remind us that Kino, as she tells us here, is very much human and has her own doubts and internal struggles.
The second thing this scene accomplishes is it immediately establishes the overarching theme of Kino's Journey as a whole: the world is a beautiful place in spite of, and sometimes because of, the bad things within it. Very few issues in Kino's Journey are one-sided--some good tends to come out of the worst of situations, and even the most utopian places have flaws. No character in Kino's Journey is morally perfect--not even Kino or Hermes--but this is rarely if ever accompanied by the angst typical of moral ambiguities in science fiction. Most of the people in Kino's Journey accept the bad with the good as a matter of course--just as we do in our everyday lives--and move on without giving it much thought. This is not to say that the anime doesn't explore its moral questions in detail--it absolutely does--but the attitude towards these questions is not one of stress and urgency, but rather one of curiosity and a desire to learn and grow. It's pretty refreshing, actually.
The opening scene manages to convey all of that in a grand total of two minutes.
A Country Where People Can Kill Others
Following the opening scene, the episode begins in earnest. In the set-up for the episode, Kino encounters a traveler resting by the side of the road, and in the course of their exchange, Kino learns that the country ahead is known for not prohibiting murder. The traveler notes that thievery is permitted by law, but that murder is not. He says that he felt stifled in his own home, which had strict laws and strong public order, and liked the idea of moving somewhere where he could be as violent as he pleased. He also informs Kino that a well-known serial killer named Regel lives in the town.
The traveler asks Kino to travel with him, and she politely-but-firmly refuses (along with a deadpan quip that she could easily steal his belongings if she wanted). A bit more travel brings her to the outside of a walled-city--the aforementioned country--and a guard at the gate warns her that murder is not prohibited by law within the city and asks if she is sure she wants to enter. She confirms that she does and passes through the gate. The "country" in fact looks much like an idealized version of a small town in the American Midwest in the early 1900s, complete with early cars and dirt roads. The town is calm and peaceful, with no signs of fear of public disturbance--it's entirely normal. After finding an inn to stay in, Kino observes to Hermes that that very normalcy is strange. For a country where people can kill others legally, there is surprisingly little violence.
Kino spends the next day riding around the town, and eventually she stops at a small shop. The owner is a kind, larger man, and he gives Kino a little more than she pays for, saying everyone should be kind to travelers. Kino then notices a large rifle propped up against the wall behind the counter. She asks if it is there to deter theft, and with a light laugh, the man shakes his head and says that no, it's for killing people. Hermes asks when he would do that, and he replies that he never knows, so he keeps it there just in case. She afterwards encounters a group of kind elderly men and women--one of whom has a pistol in her purse--and one of the men invites Kino to meet him for tea in the morning to hear her stories from outside of the town.
In the morning, the two share stories, and eventually the man invites Kino to consider settling down in that town. He says he believes she would be a good fit for the town, as she is someone who can kill people. After a long silence, she shakes her head in refusal, and he sees her off as she begins to board Hermes to leave the town. As she turns to leave, however, the traveler she met on the road earlier accosts her. The townspeople stop what they are doing and watch the exchange for a bit, but before long, the traveler threatens to kill Kino, at which point everyone watching immediately turns and walks away.
The traveler tells Kino that he has officially become a citizen of this town, and she responds by saying that he is not acting like it. She looks around and sees the townspeople now watching from inside doorways and behind windows, mostly out of sight but still very much present. The traveler aims a pistol at Kino, but rather than draw a weapon of her own, she simply hides behind Hermes. The traveler begins to pull the trigger...
...and a crossbow bolt pierces his arm, forcing him to drop the weapon. A group of armed villagers advances on the traveler. The group is led by the same elderly man Kino had tea with earlier, and he explains that because murder is morally reprehensible, anyone who attempts murder within the city's walls is put to death by the village as a whole. The fact that murder is not prohibited by law does not mean it is accepted culturally. It is permitted not in order to allow indiscriminate killing, but rather to prevent it--as attacks on innocent people are met by immediate an unhesitating corporal punishment, the city's public order is upheld and murder is rare. Kino understood this, but the aggressive traveler did not. The elderly man approaches the traveler and introduces himself as Regel--the same name as the serial murdered the traveler had said lived within the city--and then puts the man to death.
Kino leaves the town and encounters a traveler resting by the side of the road. The final scene of this story is a mirror image of the opening scene, with the traveler's posture and some of the dialogue matching the opening exactly. This traveler asks Kino if the country up ahead is a safe one. He says the country in which he formerly lived was very dangerous and he had to kill people just to keep himself alive. He wants to settle down in a peaceful place where he will no longer have to kill anyone. Kino assures him that he will be perfectly at home in the town she just left, and that it is exactly what he is looking for. The town, as the viewer now knows, is meant for people who desire peace and tranquility but are willing and able to do what is needed to uphold the public order. This is why the old man asked Kino to stay in the town, and it is why this second traveler will be happy there.
An Extended Metaphor
This vignette is, at its core, a metaphor for the rule of law and the social contract. There are multiple possible ways to interpret this, and I'll go through a few of them one by one.
As an American in 2018, it's tempting to look at this on the surface level and see a parable advocating broader access to guns as a way to ensure public safety, but I think this would be a misreading of the episode. While the anime itself aired in late 2017, the short story this episode is adapted from was written in 2002 in and for a country with exceptionally strict gun control laws. It's true that the overt plot of the episode involves an armed and trained populace preventing the murder of an innocent woman, but I believe the episode is not quite so literal. Kino's Journey is largely metaphorical, and this episode is no exception.
I would argue, instead, that this is an exploration of the concept of a social contract, the idea that leaders and laws do not have power innately, but rather take their power from the collective acceptance and support of the people. The town's attitude towards murder is essentially a distillation of this concept: in this case, rather than the law not having power beyond the will of the people, the law prohibiting murder does not exist except in that the people of the town enforce it. This is a clear representation of the concept that laws are simply a way that members of a community enforce their expectations and norms in order to protect each other. While this isn't exactly an earth-shattering realization, it does present an interesting way to look at the concept of what laws are and how they work. It's easy to describe what laws do--they protect people's rights, enforce certain behavioral norms, et cetera--but the question of what they are on a fundamental level is a touch more opaque. "A Country Where People Can Kill Others" is a relatively easy-to-grasp (albeit overly simplistic) answer to that question: laws are the accepted standards of behavior by which a community determines what is and is not permissible, as well as established punishments for transgressions of those standards--established and upheld by the people of the community.
This representation of law also raises an intriguing question of responsibility. In this episode, the community directly murders the traveler in response to his misdeeds, so they are clearly accepting the moral implications of enforcing their laws. They seem to have no qualms with killing the man--they have weighed killing the man and allowing him to kill an innocent and decided killing the man is the more ethical choice--but it can be somewhat jarring (or even creepy) that no one in the town seems to feel any hesitation or guilt regarding his execution. Regel, as a symbol and executor of the law of the town, is a serial killer in that he has likely killed many people, but his killings were (arguably) justified in that they were an extension of the desire of the town's populace to maintain public order.
This, too, is a part of the metaphor. In our society, where transgressions of laws are punished by police and courts and the like, few people feel a direct moral responsibility for the enforcement of these laws. We do not feel personally responsible for imprisoning people or fining people or (on rare occasions) putting them to death because we are not directly involved--and even those who are directly involved are simply executing the existing laws. "A Country Where People Can Kill Others" attempts to remind us that these laws, and the punishments they inflict, are at their core an extension of the will of the people--especially in democratic nations--and we are as responsible for the consequences of our laws as are the villagers who calmly execute the murderous traveler. And, again, these people believe they are in the right, just as we generally believe it is right to enforce our laws and punish criminals to uphold public order. This first episode of Kino's Journey doesn't imply that this is a bad thing. All it implies is that we each have a personal responsibility to be engaged in ensuring the laws we enforce are laws we believe are justified. Remember that this town, where the people are able to execute an attempted murderer with no hesitation, is otherwise a calm, peaceful, and happy place. The rule of law is necessary for a functioning society--otherwise you're left with something like the chaotic nation the second traveler was escaping from--but it's also important to examine those laws from time to time. If there is anything unsettling about the villagers executing the would-be murderer, I think it's that not a single one of them bothers to question whether their response is justified. A democracy in which existing laws are never questioned or revisited is not much of a democracy at all.
As a side note, another way to look at this episode relates to something my father idly conjectured once. He asserted that the laws in the United States do not prohibit anything. You are allowed to go out and kill someone if you want to--you'll just be arrested and punished severely afterwards. Our laws do not prevent behavior, but rather enforce consequences. We are, in effect, free to do anything, so long as we accept the consequences: jail time, fines, potentially death. This is somewhat of an extreme way to describe our legal system, but it actually fits perfectly with "A Country Where People Can Kill Others." As the old man says, "Not prohibited" and "Permitted" are different things. The town has no law prohibiting murder, but it does have a law (a de facto one, at least) punishing the act. Laws in the real world work much the same way, not stopping people from doing things, but penalizing them for violating certain rules.
Lost in the Forest・b
Just like the final scene of "A Country Where People Can Kill Others" mirrored its first scene, the final scene of the episode as a whole--which takes place after the credits--mirrors the episode's opening scene. It takes place at night, and the only image is a burning campfire, with Hermes's and Kino's voices over the top. Hermes observes that Kino has been placed in dangerous situations multiple times while traveling and is skilled enough to easily settle down and find a job. He asks why Kino continues traveling in spite of this. The final line of this scene is also the first line of the episode--the ending scene itself is what happened directly before the episode's beginning.
This contextualizes the first scene and completes the opening's third function--establishing Kino's reason for traveling. While you can get a sense for this just from the first scene alone, hearing Hermes's question solidifies the significance of the opening soliloquy (which isn't truly a soliloquy, but Hermes describes it as such, so I'll use the word). Without the context of the question, the viewer is more inclined to understand Kino's references to travel as a metaphor for life--full of hardships, but worth pushing through in spite of them--but being provided with the original question at the end of the episode reinforces that the opening lines are also literal. This establishes that Kino's journey and the larger metaphor that is Kino's Journey do, in fact, exist simultaneously. Both layers are equally important, and the anime would not be itself with either missing.
The final scene is also an impressive structural move that makes the episode feel something like a complete circle. The episode wraps around on itself, with the last five minutes or so essentially being the first five minutes played out in reverse: woods>traveler>town becomes town>traveler>woods. The first and last lines of the episode being the same--not just the same words, but literally the same moment in time, closes the circle, creating an impressively satisfying conclusion that few full-length films are able to replicate, let alone 22-minute anime episodes. It's really brilliant.
There is one other thematic purpose for this scene, though, and it relates to the entirety of Kino's Journey, not just its first episode. The anime opens with an answer, and ends with the question to that answer.
Many science-fiction works (and works of fiction in general) strive to find answers to questions, but Kino's Journey takes the opposite approach. Kino's Journey is less about answering questions and more about questioning answers. Many of the episodes start after Kino has encountered the episode's core conflict, so instead of wondering how Kino will solve the core problem, the viewer is left wondering what problem Kino is solving or has already solved. This contributes to the reflective and relatively calm tone of the anime--even in what should be tense moments, the viewer rarely knows what is at stake, and by the time the viewer learns what the problem was, Kino has already solved it. The question is given after the answer, and that question provides a new way to look at what has already been presented. It forces the viewer to actively contemplate the concepts around which each episode is built. A solution presented in reaction to a known problem is easy to accept without thought, but when Kino's actions are presented without context and then only later explained, the viewer is challenged to reconcile her actions with the situation and determine retroactively whether Kino's actions were justified.
It's a fascinating structural twist, and it makes Kino's Journey one of the most engaging anime series I've watched. It's masterfully crafted and carefully constructed throughout, and I highly enjoyed it.
The first episode, though, remains the highlight.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition