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Kino’s Journey: Anime Review & Ramble

Kino’s Journey: it’s about gender because it’s not about gender.

Based on a light novel series by Keiichi Sigsawa, this 2003 anime follows the adventures of a young woman, Kino, and her talking motorcycle, Hermes, as they travel to various countries in a steampunkish land, where they often encounter situations that illustrate the darkness of human civilization and occasionally its light.  It’s one of the most philosophical episodic anime I’ve seen, with stories ranging from fairly simple morality play to (more often) profound and challenging moral problem.

There are many excellent reviews of Kino’s Journey, so I want to focus here on one aspect of the series: the fact that Kino is a girl.

Kino and Gender

Kino is one of the very few female anime protagonists whose sex is almost irrelevant.  Female protagonists are a minority in anime, and usually even the best written are embroiled in issues relating directly to femaleness: the tropes of romance, gender relations at school, being the “warrior woman” having to test her mettle against men who tend to dismiss her, etc.  Kino is not defined by any such tropes.  Indeed, in the first couple of episodes, it’s not clear if she’s a boy or a girl (particularly given the Japanese convention of using women to voice boys).

Kino inhabits a society that is basically patriarchal, though not typified by the oppression of women.  Some women are scientists, gunslingers, engineers, lone travelers; some wear trousers and aren’t stared at for doing so.  But in the main, most professional work seems done by men.  Most women wear traditional dresses and appear to function as wives and mothers or, in more “modern” countries, as office workers.  Within this frame, Kino codes herself as “masculine” insofar as she wears typically male travel clothes, keeps her hair short, and carries a gun.  But she does not seem to be transgender or gender dysphoric.  For example, as a younger girl, she wore a pink dress for a long time and showed no signs of minding it.

Kino, as much as is humanly possible, exists outside the culture of gender.  She refers to herself as “boku,” a masculine pronoun, but gently corrects both people who call her “boy” and those who call her “miss.”  “I’m Kino,” she tells them.  Her communication patterns read as neither typically “male” nor “female.”  She lacks the forwardness, assertiveness, loudness often associated with the shounen hero and, likewise, the sweetness or shoutiness associated with the shoujo heroine.  She responds to no one in romantic or gender-coded terms.  (Among other things, she provides excellent representation for asexuality.)  She does not try to “pass” as male and is usually recognized as female, yet she varies considerably from the female norm, in both her culture and ours, in making no attempt to tailor her clothes toward female attractiveness.  On the contrary, her pants and coats are functionally loose and unrevealing, which leads me to…

A Digression on Art Concepts and Clothing

While the “functional and unrevealing” fashion sense is certainly true in the anime, there is no shortage of very beautiful Kino’s Journey art (from the light novels, prequel series, and other sources) that depicts her in much tighter, more traditionally sexy clothing, though still travel attire.  I prefer the anime’s approach.

Mind you, there is nothing wrong with a woman looking sexy.  There is, however, absolutely something wrong with a cultural stance that a woman must look sexy to be a valid human being.  Anime, in general, reflects this stance indefatigably.  Kino is the only postively coded, post-pubescent, major female character in anime I know of who is not stylized to look sexy or traditionally cute.  The only one.  And so, yes, that artistic choice does important cultural work, and, yes, in spite of the very high quality of so much of Kino art, the choice to sexualize it needles me.

Kino coat

Kino appears to have outgrown her trousers.

Kino

Really time to buy some better fitting pants.

Kino

Much more comfortable!

Being Oneself

Kino is Kino: her personality is exquisitely well drawn, a nuanced mix of innate traits and responses to childhood experiences, many of them traumatic.  Her life history has taught her not to judge and not to trust and, at all costs, to avoid emotional entanglements.  Her life choices arise from this human center within which her physical sex and its cultural expectations exist as a factor but not a very important one.  She is a significant role model, particularly for girls, not because her choices are perfect–indeed, her self-isolation bears the marks of her early trauma–but because she is herself before anything else.  In contrast to the common trope of the young woman who, if we’re lucky, is depicted as something of a person, Kino is a person who happens to be a young woman.  She is shown to us as fully human.

Quick Bullet-Point Review

Story
The story is entirely episodic, though it includes a little backstory.  Some episodes are better than others.  The strongest of them make very fine storytelling indeed.

Characters
Kino is fantastic, as I’ve discussed above.  Hermes, her motorcycle, is mainly there for her to have someone to talk to: he’s cute without much substance.  Other characters are not much developed.

Art & Presentation
The art is rather stylistic, in keeping with the fairytale feel of Kino’s adventures. The music is okay.  This isn’t a series I go to for its art, but the character concept for Kino is great and the voice acting is quite good.

Content Warnings
This is a pretty dark, though not graphic, series.  It engages with issues like war, murder, slavery, betrayal, etc., but eschews sexual violence.

All in All
I highly recommend this series!  It also has a prequel series and a short sequel, which I have not seen, but I recommend the main Kino’s Journey anime unreservedly.

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9 Comments

  1. i really like that when you write down : She is shown to us as fully human, its very inspiring somehow, when all around us reality is quite disappointing, you say that this thing is even more human then most people are. I agree and admire the character Kino is but too bad there is not a lot of people like her.

    • Arwen Spicer

      Thanks for your comment! I think there are more people like her than we know, largely because their narratives are not told. By the same token, I think we’ll see more people displaying her strength of identity the more positive role models like her we have in fiction.

      • i love Kino, she is exactly like me and even i was called names as a child, ive been called ugly because i have glasses, tried contacts and now nly wear contacts for performances. I cut my hair really short, to make a statement that im who i am for me and not for someone else.

  2. Im interested in your statement that, unless I have misunderstood, Kino’s history has taught her not to trust. What is it about Kino’s character or actions that communicates this to you?

    • Arwen Spicer

      Hi Brandon, thanks for your comment. SPOILERS for Kino’s Journey in my response: In her childhood years, Kino had a couple of experiences that seem to really undermine trust. First, when she refused to be “lobotomized” in her native country, her parents turned on her and tried to kill her. Now, she knew this was the custom of her country and maybe had some reason not to be surprised, but this still seems very harrowing. Her only family became a mortal danger she had to flee from (and, of course, they showed no remorse because they’d been altered to only show positive emotions). After that, Kino bonded with her Master, who lied to her about sending her off on a routine mission and, in fact, sent her off to grapple with a murderer. Her Master did it “for her own good,” to teach her to be strong, independent, and confront the unexpected, but it seems that an explicit part of the lesson was “trust no one,” not even the Master she had bonded with as something like a second mother.

  3. kino is agender. It really concerns me when I see people describe agender experience and then go on to continually misgender the character in question. You flat out said that they correct people who call them male AND female.

    Cis people: get better at this. It’s 2015, you have the internet. Read a damn wiki page about gender and stop using 20th century “WELL THIS CHARACTER HAD NO PROBLEM WEARING PINK SO THEY MUST BE A GIRL” like seriously do you realize how fucking arbitrary and ridiculous that is, how cheap and shitty toward the amazing complexity of human experience? Imagine explaining your views of gender to aliens, ok? And then imagine them laughing at you.

    • Arwen Spicer

      Hello. You posted this comment in 2015, and I just saw it. I don’t think I ever got a notification of it, so it was never approved. I wonder if I didn’t get a notification because it was listed as spam due to the profanity. I would prefer not to have the profanity. I feel we live in a rather frightening moment when we need to promote civil discourse (more now than when you wrote in 2015).

      As to your comment itself, I think you are objecting to my calling Kino “she”? That’s what you mean by “misgendering”? I agree with you that Kino is agender. That’s a very succinct way to say what I spent a paragraph trying to say. I do not agree that means that Kino must go by the pronoun “they.” You make a very good point that there’s an amazing complexity to human experience. Does that have to reduce to the pronoun “they” being the only option for someone who fundamentally identifies as agender? I will also note in passing that I wrote this entry in 2012, when pronoun choice was not nearly as much discussed as it is now. For example, the school where I teach only formally introduced it into documentation in 2016. That said, I still call Kino “she” when I discuss the series, and I don’t think that invalidates me as an ally for gender flexibility. (Contrary to what seems to be your assumption, I don’t identify as fully cis-gender myself, though I don’t identify as fully agender either: as you note, it’s complicated out there.) Now, I don’t speak Japanese, so I can’t track with precision how the text refers to her. I do know Japanese uses pronouns much less overall, so it’s probably less of an issue. I don’t know if Japanese really has a convenient “they” choice? It seems to have “kare” (m) or “kanojo” (f)? “kono hito”? And that said, Kino doesn’t come from Japan or the contemporary Anglophone world. She comes from a world whose styles of dress suggest the mid-20th century to me, but it’s a fantasy land overall, so I don’t see on the basis of what I must assume Kino would feel attached to being called “they.” She does correct people who call her “ojo-san,” but that’s more like saying “miss” than “she.” From a worldbuilding perspective, gender roles, dress, etc. in Kino’s Journey suggest to me that she lives in a world that discusses gender less than ours/is less gender flexible, and therefore, if anything, I’d expect “they” as an explicit choice for not identifying as “he/she” probably isn’t in use, at least in most countries Kino goes to.

      I’ll own I’m still training myself to use “they” as a singular personal pronoun, and still training myself to ask about pronoun preference. That’s not because I object to it; it’s because it’s new (relative to my whole life speaking English). It’s like learning to say “isn’t” when you’ve said “ain’t” all your life. But I do think that assuming that, in a fantasy context, “they” is the only proper choice is a different kind of limiting. I don’t have any problem with someone writing a post in which Kino is called “they,” and I don’t really see any problem with writing one in which Kino is called “she” (in the absence of any more context on pronoun use in the text itself).

  4. I like your breakdown of this anime, but you are placing your cultural expectations based likely off what you have read and seen in what your normal culture is. A prime example if for instance American movie teen boy protagonist had a caring next door neighbor type and a new girl come into his life expectations would lean him towards the person who has always been there for him I.E next door neighbor. In Japan not only is this not normally followed but is generally regarded as a failure if the protagonist was forced to follow this(generally forced through death or movement. In other words I do not see your interpretation as wrong as much forced on the character via your own cultural bias. What you see as sowing mistrust is generally viewed as a right of passage in Japanimation. I think earlier poster was correct in saying that her actions in no way show this distrust, especially given her retreat from the town and is kinda the whole point of the anime(and I’m not just peeing on your I am woman hear me roar parade) that human behavior is in the eye of the beholder and is why Kino’s sex is so ambiguous and changing(not sex change character change) throughout the whole series. What I am trying to get to it’s pretty easy to tie causation to anime and often impossible since 9/10 its watered down manga anyways. Also that’s the point anime is generally aspirational authors want to inspire “good” behavior and thought in their readers.

    • Arwen Spicer

      Joshua, thanks for your comment. I’m honestly not sure what you’re referring to. I agree that I would consider “distrust” a theme in Kino, but I don’t actually see where I’m discussing that here? Looking over the review, I seem to be discussing gender. Anyway, if you’re referring to something like Kino’s master betraying her trust as a normal right of passage, I’ll certainly take that on board as a piece of cultural difference.

      As to my “I am woman hear me roar parade,” that’s not how I would describe expressing relief at finding an engaging, gender non-stereotypical female character. It’s not how I would describe it because I don’t see anywhere in what I wrote any strong assertion of “woman power/woman’s voice.” I see myself praising a story that writes an unconventional female character whom many, including myself, might find a validating role model in some ways that allow us to be more comfortable in our own skin. Feel free to clarify.

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