I'm not going to try to start a debate here over whether or not anime is art. I can almost here the breathless panting of weebs the world over trying to shout over the tired, disinterested "meh" from folks who don't sleep with waifu body pillows. Whether or not anime counts as art depends largely on taste and perspective, and that's just fine. If you like it, yay. If not, good for you.
However, there is one show that I would unequivocally consider art. It's beautiful, thought provoking, inspiring, ugly, and painful, sometimes within the span of a few breaths. Few works in any medium display so many aspects of the human experience, and even fewer do so without apparent agenda or passing judgment.
That show is Kino's Journey.
The premise is simple: a young girl named Kino and her talking motorcycle Hermes travel the world, exploring countries and having adventures. Along the way, they meet new people, explore new ideas, and occasionally get into trouble. If that sounds like nothing special, that's because it's not. The young person exploring the world trope has been done again and again, to the point where it's become a subgenre in and of itself.
There are a few things, however, that make Kino's Journey stand out from the crowd.
The first is Kino herself. She is, in many ways, the ultimate dispassionate observer. Throughout her travels, she makes a point never to get involved in the lives of the people she meets. She listens, she observes, but she rarely passes judgment. Her goal is to see the world and try to understand it, not to shape it, and that's something we don't see very often. Even when she's fighting for her life, she maintains her composure, and the few times it slips, it serves to make the emotional impact of the scene hit like a freight train.
And she will have to fight for her life. It's made clear very early on that Kino is a very dangerous human being. She's compassionate, but when put in a situation where she has to fight, she's utterly ruthless. She doesn't have any superpowers, just a Colt 1851 Navy, a Colt Woodsman Match Target pistol, and an absurd amount of knives. All of which are put to good use at some point or another.
She's also notable because she is in no way, shape, or form, a sex object. In just about any medium, but anime especially, we expect our heroines to be sexy. Kino isn't. She's extremely androgynous, to the point that several characters mistake her for being a boy. Her gender just isn't important to the story, so it's never really something we're supposed to pay attention to. In fact, that's something of a trademark of the show. In thirteen episodes, there's not a single frame of fanservice. That, in and of itself, is an accomplishment.
Then there's her talking motorcycle, Hermes. Hermes is everything Kino isn't. He's often irritable and grumpy. He whines and complains. He's also extremely naÃ¯ve, and doesn't know much about the world around him. That makes him a decent stand-in for the audience, since Kino has to explain things to him about the way their world works.
It's also worth noting that he's the only reoccurring character on the show. Aside from a two-parter in the middle of the series, each episode is a self contained story, and often, there are several stories in an episode.
It's the stories themselves that really resonate. Each one looks at a different facet of the human experience. They cover a wide range, with no real thematic connection between them. Some are hopeful, some are thoughtful. One episode highlights the pointlessness of our everyday routines. Another examines the horrors of war and the true cost of peace. Another examines religion. You never really know where any one episode is going to go until the very end, and you never really know what the journey is going to cost you, the viewer.
See, this isn't just a show that makes you think, though it will do that. Oftentimes, Kino's Journey hurts you in ways you didn't know were possible. Nothing is sacred, and nothing is safe.
Not even the cute little bunny.
This is a show that cuts deep, which is astounding, considering you'll never really get to know anyone other than Kino and Hermes. It pulls no punches with the characters or the viewers. Though it doesn't especially wallow in darkness, it doesn't shy away from it either. Some of the darkest, most soul crushing moments in television history occur within these thirteen episodes, and not even the most heartless bastards will walk away truly unscathed.
Despite all that, the overall tone of the show is optimistic. Despite the horrible things Kino sees, and sometimes has to do just to survive, she still keeps travelling. If the show has a theme, it's this:
"The world is not beautiful; and that, in a way, lends it a sort of beauty."
The complex thoughts and ideas of the story are juxtaposed against a decidedly simplistic animation style. I've often heard people dismiss it as a kids' show after watching a few of the less violent scenes, though anyone who would show Kino's Journey to young kids probably shouldn't be trusted with them. Others who have seen the whole thing tend to view the animation as a detriment, as if it takes something away from the overall worthiness of the show.
The show makes effective use of a muted color palate to hit home some of the bleaker moments, while using oversaturation in other moments to give it a dreamlike feel. The art style is simplistic, but the animation is fluid, the action easy to follow. It worked for me, at any rate.
Despite only lasting 13 episodes (16, if you count the OVA and two short movies), I'm hard pressed to think of another show that's had such a lasting impact. I first watched Kino's Journey almost ten years ago, and I keep coming back to it all this time. If you want to dive deeper into the universe, it originally started as a series of light novels by Keiichi Sigsawa. Only the first book has an official translation, though there are fan translations if you know where to look.
The light novels are also scheduled for another anime adaptation, starting in October of this year. Whether or not it'll be any good remains to be seen. I'm skeptical. The original series was as much a product of its time as anything, and I'm not entirely convinced they'll get things right this go round. If so, great. If not, well, the world is beautiful, even if it's not. I'll always have the original to keep me company.