Premise: The story follows the travels of Kino, a young adventurer who rides a talking motorcycle named Hermes. They explore the people and cultures of different places throughout their adventures, spending only three days at each location.
I've often seen Kino's Journey (I'll use the translated name) described as a collection of fables, but I've always felt that description is inaccurate. See, by definition fables have some sort of moral or lesson they teach, but that is in direct conflict with what is one of the greatest accomplishments of the series. But before I get into that, let me make a disclaimer. Kino's Journey is my favorite anime show of all time. That's not to say I think it is necessarily the best anime show of all time, but it is the one I like the most. What I want to make sure you understand is that this review, like my others, is not merely an announcement of that fact. My goal is not just to tell you what I think of the series, but also why I think it. That's one of the ways I try to keep some semblance of objectivity and importance to my readers. We'll see how it goes with this one. With that out of the way, let's get into the review proper, shall we?
I like to use Mushishi as a comparison whenever I talk about this series. Mushishi is the sum of a lot of really good parts, and then some. Kino's Journey is on the other side of the spectrum. The animation and art can be sparse (and are less than perfect to begin with) and the stories aren't always totally accessible, but in spite of this it remains something special. Mushishi is the result of everything in the production process, from the source material to the animation to the sound, going nigh-perfectly; Kino's Journey is a prime example of how to overcome the limitations that arise in production.
The secret to Kino's Journey is simpler than you might think. Some might describe it as immersion, while others might call it simply thinking. See, the lifeblood of this series is in the questions it - and you - ask. Kino's Journey is supposed to be about Kino and Hermes physical journey through their fictional world, and it is. But it's also a journey, both for them and the viewer, through humanity, philosophy, and psyche. It's brutally honest and unflinching in its approach to these topics, and that makes it all the more intense an experience. The backbone of Kino's Journey isn't narrative, it's thought. That's the secret; it makes you think. With that context, everything about the series falls into place.
Let's start with the story. There's no overarching plot to the series, beyond that Kino and Hermes are traveling with no particular destination or other end in sight. Every episode - with the exception of a two-parter in the middle - is its own, self-contained story. What makes each of those stories so charming is that all of them are about something. Every episode has something, be it a facet of human nature, a piece of philosophy, or some hypothetical situation it wants to explore, and they are all devoted to telling that story. There's no filler in the show as a whole or the episodes themselves. Every scene drives the main story along.
I suppose I should explain my earlier statement and describe how this is different from a fable, which has a moral to teach. See, Kino's Journey doesn't present an idea; it explores it. It's not a series that wants to just introduce an issue and spoon feed you the "answer." It wants you to think about it and draw your own conclusions. That's what I like best about this series; its neutrality. It's also why I'm so impressed with it. This series is devoted to exploring an issue, but it doesn't want to just pick a side and say it's "right." Being objective in anything is an accomplishment on its own; not choosing sides while also being passionate about the subject is another entirely. The series has a devoted purity to exploring its ideas that I can't help but find endearing.
One nice side effect of this is how much it engages and involves the viewer. It's hard to be detached from a series when it's actively trying to make you use your brain. As a result, that immersion I mentioned earlier starts taking effect. Have you ever wished you could experience the story in the world of an anime show yourself? This might be as close as you can come. The title suggests it's Kino's journey, but it's yours too. There aren't singular, always correct solutions to the situations brought up, so when you ponder the questions that arise in the episode, your thoughts are as worthwhile as any of the characters'. The series brings you along and involves you in the story itself, even if you can't influence the discrete plot points in the end. Add in a world that's both starkly different from and at the same time oddly similar to our own reality - and a main character you get to know as a person - and it's hard not to lose yourself in the setting. Even if you don't, however, I still think there's a lot to be said for how invested you can become in this series.
And finally, the stories entertain in a more traditional manner as well. Though they're episodic, most have a driving narrative and logical plot that you can follow while ignoring all the philosophy. Granted, the allure of the stories grows dimmer when viewed this way, but there are twists, turns, conflicts, and adventure throughout. The series as a whole even manages to come full circle and accomplish a sort of meta-narrative, quite an achievement for its format. In the end, the story of Kino's Journey is something to be appreciated from all angles. Whether you look at it as an exploration of human psyche, an episodic travel story, or simply a set of assorted tales, this aspect of the series shines.
As for the characters, this is quite possibly the best part of the show, entirely for the main character Kino. I say this not because of dramatic growth or development (though those do come into play), but because of depth. Throughout the interactions they have with the people around them, you learn a lot about Kino and Hermes' personalities. By the end of the show, you've come to know the main character as a human. Capricious, kind, stoic, jesting, attentive. There's no one side to Kino, just as there's no one way a human acts all of the time. That's why I consider our protagonist such an achievement; Kino is perfectly balanced between consistent and dynamic so as to feel "real," and I can't think of a better kind of character to lead a series like this one. As for Hermes, while I found his character less interesting, the interactions he has with Kino are fantastic. Casual bickering, debating, and lots of dry humor pass between the two, and that makes him seem human as well (odd considering he's a motorcycle). Though the way other characters interact is very well done too, the main characters are something else. I could probably watch an entire show of just Kino and Hermes traveling through the wilderness talking to each other.
Where the visuals are concerned, however, the quality is a little less clear cut. One of the reoccurring phrases and themes of the series is "The world is ugly, and that lends it a sort of beauty." The visuals would be the same. On the one hand, the art is. . .less than breathtaking. Geometrically shaped people, sharp lines, and occasionally drab backdrops are just a few examples, and the animation is bare bones (likely due to a small budget). Some of the art "problems" can, of course, be attributed to the design style, which is more a matter of personal preference than anything else. But there's also something endearing about how the characters look. Even more than that, the art has a nice synthesis with the characters and settings. The people appear simple, much like how the questions the show asks are seemingly simple. But there's also a deceptive detail to them, in what they wear and how they carry themselves, just as there's a deep complexity in the answers to the aforementioned questions. Perhaps it's not as genius as I'm making it sound, but I've never minded the visuals I can otherwise only call poor at face value, so there must be something about them, and I think this is it.
I don't have much to say about the sound beyond the fact that I loved the voice acting and thought the music was very fitting (due to its exotic vibe), so I'll end things here. This review hasn't done the series justice; that much I know. I will simply leave a standing recommendation for the series. You may like it or you may not. It is too special and too unique, however, to not try it at all, so I urge you to give it a chance. (Just make sure you watch episode 2 before passing judgment.)