Kino's Journey -the Beautiful World- (2017)

Maybe the REAL Kino's Journey is the friends we made along the way! This seems like a cheap joke to start off a review... and it is. However, it's damn near the truth of how the new Kino's Journey operates. With the light novel series by Keiichi Sigsawa featuring over 20 volumes of mostly standalone short stories, it's hard to put a narrative throughway into the entire venture. The "Beautiful World" now being exceptionally larger than at the time of the 2003 adaptation, the makers of the new one asked the fans of Japan what they would like to see and then made an episode list from the results (Though they ignored some results and put episodes that weren't ranked, and those tend to be the worst ones here. We'll get to you, "Fields of Sheep...."). The series made from the results seems to be a fandom antithesis of Ryutaro Nakamura's original anime, increasingly focused on the supporting cast and inflating everyone's mythic stature more than 2003's ultimate quest at finding the beating heart underneath Kino's jacket and coat. These are the bar stories of Kino and her friends with added flourishes while leaving out some of the personal details.

The different approach may actually be more of a benefit to the series than most may gather. I warn you this review may contain too many observations that seem like backhanded compliments or too many comparisons to director Nakamura's anime. I can't help it. The 2003 show is one of my top five anime and will continue to be such for quite some time, I imagine. I recently wrote about how that version was pretty darn close to being a perfect adaptation for me. If you're looking for the legendary "objective critical review" that some anime fans at the ANN forums seem to think exist, you might want to stop reading this and start your own endless journey now. Anyway, if one is going to do a follow-up to something like that, perhaps it's best to try something entirely different.

-the Beautiful World- is a remake from the ground up. It's musically and visually divergent with the selection of stories and their order completely independent from the original, even if there is some overlap. I can't speak for anyone who comes in completely cold, but the first episode seems to do a mixed job at introducing the character, concept, and structure. Telling a story from the fifth volume, it mostly plays it straight with a few character details shoveled into conversation. There's enough to give the newer viewers a decent idea of how this works, but it certainly seems like it's leaning towards a members-only approach.

If you're unfamiliar with any of the works involving Kino's Journey, it follows the titular Kino, an androgynous traveler who goes from country to country on their talking motorrad (motorcycle) Hermes to learn the culture and history of each place. She only stays in a nation for three days and then moves on in a seemingly endless journey (The three-day rule eventually gets relaxed later in the series, but this version never really explains why). What this normally does is make the country homogenized into one idea or concept that gets explored, usually with a darker edge (But not always). The first episode here inspects the idea of a land where killing is legal, but the nation is nothing how one would expect it to be. Many of these act like fables, but there isn't necessarily a single lesson to be gleamed except merely to think about the parts of life that we take as givens. This is far from a "both sides" deal as there are points where it takes clear stands, such as slavery being an inexcusably terrible thing.

While the general framework still applies, for what the new version is really after, one has to go to the retelling of "Coliseum" in the second episode. This was done as a two-parter in the 2003 rendition, adding a whole bunch of material the light novels didn't have to completely cover the country of a hedonistic king who forces foreigners and the lower class to battle each other to become first-class citizens. We get to know how the country came to be, the supporting cast of gladiators, and the battles have tension to them because we know these people and the extra time gives more space for the fights to develop suspense. "Coliseum" in -the Beautiful World- rushes through all of this and honestly, the impact is pretty flat. What is important is not what is missing, but what they choose to use their time on.

The entire country is almost a tertiary matter to introducing Shizu as a lead character. He is essentially a mirror to Kino, a man who is looking for a land to call his own with his talking dog Riku, but is constantly turned away by iron-clad immigration policies. The 2003 series gave him a more fleshed-out character and his similarities to Kino were taken more as subtle jokes (Kino waves away Hermes' assertion that he witnessed Shizu's dog "nonsense" spouted by her talking motorcycle). He's used here more as a "substitute teacher" for when Kino's not the lead. He gets his own repartee with his dog and eventually a child known as Tii, yet the broad strokes of Kino's tories tend to rule the roost. These are characters presented as legends, even as most people involved are still alive to keep them from being mythology. Rather than the modern television dramas that really get into the psyches of their protagonists, 2017's Kino's Journey treats them more like epic heroes with a bit more nuance.

There are a few times in the books where Kino has to resort to completely toppling a government or acting as a national hero. While Kino tries to be a passive observer for the most part, they don't always have the luxury of going about their business. In this series, it seems like it's something that happens every other week and Kino eventually takes a certain relish in it. One of the stories adapted is "Bothersome Country," a giant moving machine of a sovereign land that eventually finds a walled, isolationist nation in its path. Kino eventually volunteers into becoming a sniper to protect the country's mural (As non-lethal as a sniper can be), and by the end will have another murals made in their image created by grateful children. The 2003 adaptation would never approach this in such a matter as I think the director Ryuturo Nakamura (May he rest in peace) would be more fascinated by the moral dilemma of what country WOULD have the right of way in these circumstances, and would not have the hero worship of Kino shown in such a way.

Again, this isn't necessarily bad, but the series sometimes goes too far in this direction and takes away not only some of the heart of the matter, but loses its mind as well. The 2003 and 2017 version each have missing pieces of information on Master, the person who trains Kino to be the thoughtful badass we see for the majority of the material. Kino says in the initial anime that they can never tell anyone they know Master, and the new version explains why in an episode called "Historical Country" where she instigates change in a foreign land by holing herself up in a tower for days and shooting the corrupt authority figures and even some of the non-corrupt ones. Nobody is killed, but as Kino explains, sometimes gunshots to the legs are a fate worse than death. This change is explained as a catalyst to a wonderful era by a man who was there and shot by Master. It comes off as weirdly optimistic. Even Sigsawa as a gun advocate knows there are emotional reactions to gun violence that don't play by the rules of reasonable society in a few of his other stories.

The new project is overseen by director Tomohisa Taguchi, a man mostly known for doing a ton of work on anime projects for the Persona franchise. Most relevant here is his job as director for Persona 4: The Golden Animation. This was made from spare parts of the mainline anime adaptation with the extra story that was added into the game's second release. Once again, we have an incomplete narrative stitched together with occasional inspired ideas on different ends of the cloth that don't flow into each other. While not nearly as scattershot and wretched as Golden since the nature of Kino's Journey is episodic, the faults are still there.

The final few episodes include arguably the most important and iconic stories of the Kino lore, "Country of Adults" and "Kind Country." One is Kino's origin story (At least, the initial one) and the other is the moment when Kino reaches the point of no return on their direction in life, and to understand the impact of the latter, the context of the former is vital. For one thing, Kino's guide in "Kind Country" is an inn-keeper's daughter called Sakura who is named after a flower and gets teased for it. In "Country of Adults," we learn Kino's past as an inn-keeper's daughter named after a flower that can be slightly changed into a terrible insult that the other children throw at her. Knowing Kino is essentially watching their childhood played out if it didn't get twisted the way it did is essential for everything that follows. The new series plays them out of order and all but severs the personal connection for Kino. Why?

To be clear, both episodes are well handled in the remake and manage to put their own visual spins onto classic short stories. The autumnal surroundings of "The Kind Country" are incredible and fit the narrative, even if it is a bit on-the-nose. There's a play in the middle explaining the country's history that is quite a bit better than most expositional plays. "The Country of Adults" doesn't lay on The Twilight Zone twist as thick as the 2003 edition, but gives an effective sequence in Kino's POV showing how she's processing an unbelievable series of events unfolding in front of her. There are simply emotional slam dunks the makers choose to ignore in favor of making each episode single-serving. It doesn't even make sense from THAT standpoint, as they go out of their way to establish who Shizu and Tii are before featuring them.

I fear this may be the makers being too star struck to approach Kino with any proper dissection. The final episode in this season is "Fields of Sheep," where Kino, a survivalist who only kills when they have to but does ultimately respects life and regrets doing so. Well, they do until they're confronted with sheep hellbent on killing her one way or the other. The series' approach is portraying them in a Michael Bay fashion as they incinerate, run over, and shoots dozens of the sheep to escape. I'm just going to say this is quite possibly the worst story in the entire history of Kino's Journey handled in about the most brain-dead way possible, especially given what is learned later that assumes terrible things about the descendants of animals bred for fighting.

Surprisingly, the best episode is simply a hodgepodge labeled "Various Countries." Despite an intro where a bandit scopes out Kino and Shizu and notes how amazing they are and aren't optimal robbery victims, the other episodes capture the strengths of Sigsawa's stories in short, effective bursts. It goes from looking at a meritocracy through the eyes of someone playing the system their entire life to get away with a horrific act to a credits sequence where Kino and Hermes literally drive through a message from the light novel author. The latter is one of the times the franchise has fun with Kino being confronted with evidence that they're a character in a storybook (Perhaps a reference to the other episode 9 in the 2003 version, where it literally starts by Kino and Hermes reading a story about something that will happen to them later). If you need a little piece of what this franchise is about, I'd lean more towards checking out this episode by itself and going from there.

Visually, the show is impressive. The backgrounds are breathtaking and both the opening and the ending animations are among the best I've seen this year. The CG used is occasionally distracting, especially the animation of the ground moving forward that looks like they squished a looping background from a 60's cartoon and made it the floor. However, it is really handy for animating Hermes as a motorcycle accurately. The show itself has a few artistic flourishes, but mostly plays it straightforward with solid detail work, focusing on making the technological and social disparity between the countries as realistic as possible. Even when countries were light years ahead in technology, Nakamura's version made them feel like they were more-or-less from the same early 20th century time frame. Here, a moving country seemingly built from the futuristic world of Heavy Object clashes with a country that has Soviet World War II technology and their differences are night and day.

Now I am going to be that guy who prefers the 2003 version again nagging on the new one for stuff that is preferential, but there are glaring issues with this approach. Placing it in the past and giving it a more fable-like feel allowed the countries to not be taken as literal countries without fussing about whether they were viable or not. Making it realistic opens up the idea of them being taken as they are and questioning their plausibility. In my curiosity, I've looked at the views of people new to the series, and yeah, a decent amount of them discuss the logic loopholes and question how impossible these ideas would be to implement. Is it how I think these stories should be interpreted? Well, no, but presentation is an important driver to telling an audience how to read a work, and I can certainly see how the new anime would lead viewers down this path.

The music is vaguely curious, with a mishmash of genres from light jazz to techno loops with nothing particularly memorable. I must admit it took a bit to adjust to Kino's Journey being given a standard anime opening song, but I adapted. Everything is fine, but it does feel like the music is more to fill the time than to enhance the mood. It leaves so little of an impression that I don't know anything else to talk about here. AGAIN, not necessarily a bad thing. It's just not intrusive or focused on one genre, which is in itself a valid approach.

I have no qualms with the Japanese voice talents. Everyone plays the characters well, and the familiar characters who existed in the old version are portrayed here by people who embody their roles without being held back by previous voice talent. There's nothing that stands out, but nothing needs to stand out for it to work.

In fact, most of the series is pretty okay. Until "Fields of Sheep" came along and thought wholesale slaughtering of animals was the right thing to do to show how awesome Kino is, I was going to give it an ultimately positive write-up. Unfortunately, the uneven nature of this rendition is punctuated and underlined by the direct choice of the anime producers (From what I understand, it didn't make the audience poll of stories to include and was chosen by the makers themselves). If you want an up-front sampling of what the light novel is about good and bad, this is all right, I suppose. That is drastically different than my reaction to the 2003 version which is, "You haven't heard of this? Well, SIT DOWN AND LET ME GET YOU SOME SNACKS! WE'RE GOING TO WATCH THE FIRST DISC RIGHT NOW!" Yes, the Ryutaro Nakamura version adds things and is often not a "faithful" adaptation, but it was made by people who took the work, really thought about how to portray its essence and make it resonate for a viewing audience, and then made an animation showcasing what the stories made them feel. Adaptation gets a bad wrap most of the time, folks.

Despite my mixed opinions, I do hope the series continues if nothing else to give supporting character Photo a place to shine. She is given prominent placement in the opening, but only has one episode where she is mostly abused as a slave in her origin. The episode is good, but it rushed her happy ending and then does nothing with her. I had hoped there would be one episode that gives here a chance to be the woman she turns herself into and not the person she was forced to be. This is a microcosm of the forethought Kino's Journey -the Beautiful World- lacks in just being a list of single stories linked by its characters who are portrayed as rumors and legends.


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