For me personally, the term “episodic” is usually not a compliment when it comes to anime. It depends on the genre, of course: comedies work better in an episode-by-episode format than dramas do, because there’s only so much of a dramatic arc that can be squeezed into 22 minutes. At their worst, episodic shows devolve in a “monster/case/artifact of the week” and repetitive formulas — this was very common back when more shows were 26 episodes instead of 13 and need more filler.
Making a dramatic, episodic show work is not impossible, but it takes superior writing — there’s no room for lost time when you’re trying to tell a fairly complex plot in a short span of time. I’ve already talked about one show that does it, Paranoia Agent. While it has a continuing story, each episode (until the very end) is a separately crafted piece. Cowboy Bebop, which follows the standard plot-filler-plot-filler-plot structure, has filler episodes that are individually so good you’d never notice. Today I’d like to talk about another show that does this style very well!
Kino’s Journey is the story of the travels of a girl named Kino and her “motorad”, a sort of talking, sarcastic, sentient motorcycle, named Hermes. It doesn’t really have a plot in the conventional sense — Kino is travelling the world basically just to see what’s in it, and most episodes have her visiting and dealing with some strange place or other. It has a fairy-tale, allegorical feel to it, which is part of why it works so well in an episodic format.
The world of the show is the first oddity — it’s hardly explained at all, with only a few hints available from context. It is a world that, at one point, had advanced technology — Hermes seems to be an AI, nanomachines are mentioned, and hover-vehicles are not unknown. Some unspecified catastrophe has fragmented the land and made long-range travel difficult, splintering mankind into many tiny city-states. Kino is one of the few who dares the roads (apparently the world is constantly in flux, as she mentions maps quickly become unreliable) and goes from one city to the next as a visitor. The cities all have fairy-tale names, like the City of Silence or the City of Towers, that reflect their nature.
Kino herself begins as something of a cipher, an androgynous figure in a long coat. Even the fact that she is female is a little bit of a spoiler, though it’s revealed fairly early on. (Japanese, lacking English-style pronouns, makes this much easier to pull off.) She’s not exactly in disguise, but she uses male speech patterns and generally leaves her gender unmentioned. The only real continuing story in the series is hers, and we gradually get a more intimate view of her life, and she transitions from being the viewpoint through which we see stories to a more active participant.
Each story — sometimes two per episode — is a tiny gem. Often they revolve around Kino discovering the true nature of a community, or some secret that is not apparent on the surface, somewhat like the better episodes of the old Twilight Zone or being the player in an adventure game. She visits a city full only of robots, a city where no one speaks, and so on, and by patient investigation finds out their histories. Other stories revolve around strangers she meets on the road, and the paths they’ve taken in the strange, almost dream-like world.
It’s science fiction, not in the hardest sense, but reminiscent of the old-fashioned “think piece” SF that used to be a mainstay of the genre. There’s no techno-jargon, but the stories explore the social implications of new inventions or new modes of living. They’re not always fully literal — again, there’s a fairy-tale quality that makes them seem more like allegory, while in-universe things are often smoothed over by unreliable narrators.
Kino’s Journey is firmly on my list of favorite shows of all time. Like any episodic show, not every episode is a hit, but when it works it works brilliantly. The thing that makes it great is, essentially, its economy; the writers are experts at conveying a great deal in a small space, and there are times when they say more with a line or even just an expression than another show might in a long speech. One little bit that has stuck with me may be my favorite anime moment ever, where a single glance substitutes for a whole lecture on moral priorities. (Lack of spoilers make the wonderfulness of this sort of thing hard to explain!)
The closest resemblance among other shows that I’ve seen is to Mushishi, another quiet, episodic show. Kino’s Journey is slow and understated, rather than brash and explosive; Kino is an expert gunfighter and a master of the quick draw, but she is only occasionally forced to resort to violence. Those looking for action will not find it here, but if you’re looking for something thoughtful and kind, and featuring a relationship between a quiet girl and her sarcastic motorcycle, you’ll enjoy this.
Next Time: Summer Season!
Django Wexler is the author of fantasies The Thousand Names and The Forbidden Library. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not watching anime, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.