Kino's Journey - the Beautiful World-
Episodes 1-2

by Gabriella Ekens,

How would you rate episode 1 of
Kino's Journey - the Beautiful World- ?

How would you rate episode 2 of
Kino's Journey - the Beautiful World- ?

Note: I am aware that there exists some controversy over which pronouns to use for Kino. Without spoiling anything, I will be defaulting to “they/them” for the duration of these reviews. It's not a big part of the story or anything, but I want to make my approach clear from the beginning in order to minimize any confusion down the line.

Once upon a time, there was a person named Kino who went on a journey. This journey has lasted 20 whole light novels so far, and it took them to lots of different places. As a rule, Kino only spends three days in each place, since that's how much they believe is necessary to get a sense of the culture. Fortunately, all of these places can be summed up by a fairly basic philosophical dilemma, so this is the perfect amount of time. Kino's primary companion is a talking motorcycle named Hermes, which is somehow a totally normal thing in this universe. Together, they continue to see the world, and we get to experience this journey with them all over again. This is the second adaptation of that popular series of light novels, but the first Kino's Journey anime is remembered as a cult hit of the early 2000s. As someone who saw that show a decade ago but remembers very little about its stories now, I look forward to rediscovering them with you through this remake. I have fond impressions – if not vivid memories – of the series, so I look forward to seeing where these feelings were anchored.

Our introductory story is a fairly simple yet thought-provoking parable. Kino travels to a land where murder isn't outlawed and witnesses how they maintain order. On the way there, they meet a guy who's really enthusiastic about the whole “killing isn't prohibited” thing. He expects the place to be a violent free-for-all where he can finally satisfy all of his sadistic urges. Wisely, Kino gets the hell away from him as soon as they can and enters the city, which they find to be surprisingly normal. Soon enough, however, Kino runs into that violent jerk again. He's eager to off our protagonist over a perceived slight, putting Kino on the defensive. However, before things can get too deadly, the entire town busts out their own weapons to stop him. It turns out that while murder isn't explicitly prohibited here, it isn't permitted either, meaning that this whole society has agreed to summarily execute wanton psychopaths like this guy. He's taken down right before it's revealed that this would-be killer's idol – a former bandit king – is actually the leader of this society. Kino then leaves, having gotten the taste of this land that they wanted.

Basically, this episode is a thought experiment as to what society might look like if everyone had the equal capacity for a fairly liberal definition of self-defense under the law. The answer is: not all that different, ideally. Widespread violent atrocities are generally the result of a power imbalance in which one group (due to possession of money, weapons, physical strength, higher class or station, etc.) has a structural advantage in exerting force over another. If everyone were equally capable of defending themselves, violent crime would be disincentivized, since pulling it off would be a real roll of the dice. Most real-life societies don't try to eliminate such disadvantages outright, but rather establish the state as an overwhelming force to punish those who break its laws – i.e. “thou shalt not kill.” In this way, the central mechanism that discourages murder in this hypothetical society isn't all that different from our own – it boils down to overwhelming retaliatory force either way. The big difference is that instead of our citizens taking up arms themselves, we all tacitly approve the state doing so on our behalf. In exchange, we agree to be subject to that state and give up some of our ability to personally defend ourselves. That's why it's illegal for all of us to just buy tanks to drive around or whatever. (I'd be able to say “buy our own military-grade guns” if I lived in most countries other than the United States, but whatcha gonna do?) That's how the theory goes, anyway.

Throughout all this, Kino mulls over the morality of the actions that they take to defend themselves on their travels. Self-defense is the law of the land here, so this city's system is just an extension of Kino's own conduct, as unpleasant as that may be sometimes. Still, the system has its advantages. Namely, it eliminates the necessity of the law's consistent application when its subjects can be reasonably evaluated as not posing a further threat to society. This is made clear in the case of the traveler Kino meets on their way out. He seems like a decent guy, but he had to do a lot of nasty things to survive wherever he came from, and now most places treat him as persona non grata. In this country, however, it looks like he'll be able to live peacefully, since they don't seem to treat murder as a black mark on a person's soul.

It's a prevalent theory in cultural studies that the formation of taboos goes hand-in-hand with the development of law as a downward imposition by the state. Taboo is a function of this type of system specifically, since it serves to make people scared of something when they don't rationally understand why it should be avoided. So law-as-downward-imposition doesn't put a lot of faith in the capacity of individual citizens to act in their best interests out of reason alone. This is very different from the society that we see in this episode, where individual citizens are empowered to defend themselves, because they're enlightened about the incentives of maintaining the social order. Despite exhibiting discomfort with its occasional brutality, I think this episode as a whole encourages a positive reading of this society. (I'll also note that this fable has the potential to read quite differently from within the US, where gun ownership is normalized and controversial. Guns are uncommon in Japan, so this scenario must come off as much more abstract.)

That's a lot of words over what is a fairly simple story by Kino's Journey standards. I'm a little afraid of how long these write-ups could get as we go further into the series. Luckily for me, we're doing a double feature this week, so prepare for even more words. In the second episode, Kino travels to a country where a mad king forces all visitors to participate in gladiatorial death matches. While this is an iconic story from the first anime (the show's only two-parter), its execution is strange in this remake. For one thing, it's all condensed into a single episode. Most of Kino's matches take place over the course of a single montage, which is bizarrely played for comedy. This takes meaning out of the original story, which explored all of the different combatants' unique reasons for fighting. There's also not much in terms of a lesson by the end. Kino enters a country with this weird horrible murderbowl system, kills the king to stop it, then manipulates the population into killing each other as comeuppance. They got what they deserved, I guess? Kino comes off as sociopathic throughout this entire thing, maintaining a blasé smile as they plot the destruction of this entire kingdom. But that's just not in their character, from what I remember. I don't understand any of the adaptive choices in this episode; it's just a bad adaptation, unfortunately.

For those unfamiliar, this story made way more sense in the original version, where they actually explained how the kingdom works in detail. In the original anime, the guards were also part of the underclass, which means we were supposed to be sympathetic to that one guy at the end instead of mocking him. Kino also had personal beef with the King because he tried to make the female finalists his wives, and he was generally more of a performative psychopath rather than a non-character as in this remake. Kino's decree also worked in a way that didn't make them seem like an irresponsible lunatic – the new deathmatch for kingship extended only to the city's first-class citizens, not only exempting slum-denizens and other underprivileged captives of the city, but adding in a rule that anyone who harmed the underclass at any point in the battle would be disqualified. It also established a short time limit before the murder would start, so anyone who wanted no part of it could get the hell out of dodge. Also, the whole thing didn't immediately devolve into folks tackling each other in the stands upon Kino's decree. That's just gruesome, and it makes Kino seem like a terrible person. This version of the story just doesn't mean anything. Was there anything approaching a moral in all that? "It's rude to force your guests to participate in spectatorial combat?" Well, duh. How is that applicable to anything?

So this second episode was just a total failure of adaptation, taking out crucial parts of the story while actively adding things that subtract meaning. That's awkward, especially after my generally positive impressions of the first episode. Thanks for delivering this hot-and-cold combo on the only review week where I have to cover two episodes at once, Kino's Journey. Off to a great start there. At least there was some nice animation during the climactic swordfight. (Although I do miss the first show's more abstract and cartoony art style – it suited the tone better.) Going forward, I hope that this adaptation will follow the first episode's example rather than the second's. They might be trying to front-load the series with all the violent action stuff, so maybe the show will take a chill pill when it gets to the more contemplative and talky scenarios down the line. For as dumb as this episode was, I'm also looking forward to more of Shizo, who is a recurring character in the light novels. To paraphrase Hermes, this anime is going to take us on a journey – I'm just not sure if it's a beautiful one yet. I hope I won't be disappointed.

Episode 1 Rating: B+

Episode 2 Rating: C

Kino's Journey - the Beautiful World- is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

Gabriella Ekens studies film and literature at a US university. Follow her on twitter.

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