Kino’s Journey and Moral Neutrality

The 2017 series of Kino’s Journey: The Beautiful World is available on Crunchyroll and Funimation. The 2003 series is available on HiDive.

Kino’s Journey is one of those shows that, despite appreciating it very much, I watched just a sampling of and only finished up some months later. But coming back felt in every way like I never missed a beat, which is exactly the right effect for this sort of show.

It’s possibly the closest you could get to a real anthology series while retaining a single protagonist throughout; less than a handful of characters appear more than once throughout the entire series, all of them largely value-neutral nomads. By providing us these recurring viewpoint characters and giving them minimal initiative, we can share an unbiased view into the show’s various “countries” (more akin to city-states). And at the end of each episode, they move on, leaving no lingering attachment and giving us a clean plate to approach the next subject.

As the titular character and protagonist by default, Kino is very much a blank slate. Aside from her demonstrating resilience and keen observation skills, the only distinctive factor we can glean about her personally is a “live and let live” attitude; always an observer, occasionally a catalyst, but never the one to force a decision. Even her appearance is androgynous and unassuming; she’s designed for her presence to melt into the background and be acted upon while the real focus of each story is allowed the space to breathe and conduct itself without being judged out-of-hand.

Oh, and Hermes, the talking motorcycle? The writing gives him a distinct “it is what it is” treatment. Functionally, he’s there to give Kino a relief character to bounce off of without instigating the kind of debate that would force the show to pick sides on any episode’s subject matter – he is, after all, just a motorcycle, with simple motorcycle-y needs. As an artifact, he indicates within his first minute on-screen that Kino’s Journey has no ambitions to make its core cast a pivotal factor in its trajectory, as nobody makes effort to draw attention to the motorcycle that is somehow capable of human speech.

Both of our core characters being very subdued and insular feels like a strength for this vein of episodic, contemplative show. Usually standalone stories within a longer series come with one of two common drawbacks – either the characters inevitably have more information than the audience in the beginning (resulting in uneven exposition and an implied “correct” perspective) or you’re subject to some longer ongoing plot that interjects and can distract from a level examination of an unfamiliar situation.

Kino’s Journey deliberately avoids that.

I’ll the Black Mirror episode Hang the DJ for a point of comparison to episode 9 of the 2017 series of Kino’s Journey here, but providing context will involve an overview of each episode, which I will endeavor to keep vague. If you’d rather skip past any potential for spoilers, you can safely resume reading below the next image.

Hang the DJ is a great bit of self-contained fiction, and one where the final scene is left open enough not to champion nor condemn the topic it presents. Unfortunately, the steps that the audience must follow to arrive there are markedly less ambiguous. As the protagonists start the story with more knowledge than the viewer, for the first fifteen minutes of the episode’s 51-minute runtime, we spend as much time trying to infer the rules the episode’s setting as digesting the actual dialogue.

Since audiences will by default empathize with the viewpoint character of a story, their attitude toward the world and its morality inevitably colors the impression we’re given of it, as our primary source of exposition is in their conversations. Throughout most of the second and third acts, the story readily makes assumptions that the audience has sided with the romantic-but-chaotic actions taken by the lead characters, because that’s the obvious reading of the situation as it’s been presented. By that last, seemingly-open page of the script, we’ve already been conditioned by the rest of the episode to consider the situation as constraining, unreliable, and even backwards-thinking.

Country of Accruing Virtue from the episode Various Countries of Kino’s Journey sets us again in the middle of a scene, but instead our given protagonist is largely silent. She only speaks up to probe her expositor as an outsider, posing the same questions that the viewer is likely to arrive at or could use to form a more complete picture, and receives her answers in a factual manner. Although the lion’s share of the spoken text in the story given as a monologue from a gentleman that is a product of his environment, it’s never a given that we agree with him in any way, as our go-to frame-of-reference character has no stake in or stance toward the laws up for discussion or their implicit values.

The situation is permitted to play its stated rules out to a logical conclusion – there is no upsetting of the fruit basket, least of all by our protagonist. Instead, we’re free to feel pity on the gentleman, paint him as an allegory denouncing human nature, or use him as an example of deep-seated good in humanity, all in equal measure. Then there’s the laws governing his circumstances, which are laid out to the viewer but never in any dialogue criticized nor advocated for; again, we could call these laws anywhere between ideal, perfectly fair, and utterly disingenuous.

The closest Kino gets to a strong reaction.

Neither situation lines up with the workings of a modern-day, real-world society, but does that by necessity make either an incorrect solution to the problems they strive to address? What are the base ideals from which we approach these foreign models of society, and do our views hold up outside the place in which we’ve grounded them? In Kino’s case, we’re invited to come in with our own impression and tinker with it throughout the episode as the situation evolves. In Black Mirror’s case, we’re strung along by the plot, shown the proper places to exercise empathy before finally being presented with an opportunity for interpretation only at the denouement. They take two different approaches to the same vein of speculative fiction, but they encourage very different kinds of reading from the viewer as a result.

Kino’s Journey may be, for some, a bit too unwilling to engage with the ideas that it puts on offer. But its aim appears to be more in allowing any possible takeaway from its scenarios to be equally valid rather than planting a flag in the ground and allowing space only for agreement or rebuttal. While the latter is definitely a better way for the viewer to engage with the text directly, the former can lend itself to as many different stances as there are impressions taken from the main text, nearly one for every different viewer. And, depending on how it suits you, that can be far more provoking.

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