Kino’s Journey (Kino no Tabi)

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This anime is also known as The Good Mushishi. I almost wish it wasn’t so. While that descriptor is true, its existence points out the anime’s shortcomings. For all its imaginative moments, it settles into a pattern early on and never deviates. Even the last episodes which aim for some harrowing ends up slotting nicely without breaking up picture.

It’s almost like reviewing Mushishi all over again, but the bigger scope makes Kino’s Journey better with more apparent flaws. Some anime can make it through with a narrow range of emotions, especially if they’re short. Narrow focus on themes is often the source of fantastic exploration of them. By nature, this anime has a wide scope. It follows a person through various countries, each one dominated by a theme.

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This anime sets itself up to be big no matter what. The stories aren’t small and intimate. They’re more about big issues like war, fate, religion and technology than personal issues. A single character from a country may stick out, but everyone in it are mostly the same person. Such shallow characterization can work, but you need someone to react to this symbolism.

Character’s views and reactions are integral to exploring themes. It’s not enough to just have ‘fear’ or ‘technology’ as a dominating presence in your story. You need to connect it to the human condition. You need to show how it affects the people, how they react to it and live with it. The best stories show us characters in such crises, gain their emotional punch from a meaningful struggle.

Kino is better than Ginko, but she shares more with him and not just a similar name. There are literally less than 5 moments in which some kind of personality is hinted at. Mostly, Kino does nothing but observe. When she acts, she’s pure convenience. She helps characters solve their problems by being nice, but what’s Kino’s stake?

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Decisions are another way in which we learn about characters. Decisions that relate to themes are even more meaningful. They illustrate a viewpoint and demonstrate it. Kino makes no choices. She comes to a country, observes what’s going on, does the thing that causes the least conflict and moves on. It’s hard to remember what exactly was Kino’s role in many of these stories. In the last episode, she’s interchangeable with any passer-by. Nothing about her is important to that story, only her role.

That’s a problem you encounter with shitty role-players. A character is far more than their little role. If characters are symbolic of human beings, then human beings have various roles depending on who you ask. Even a soldier trapped in the army will have more roles than just a soldier. He’ll be someone’s good friend, perhaps the commander’s most hated and so on. Kino is defined only by her role as a traveler and does nothing else.

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A role can be a part of the personality, but we need to see how Kino views traveling. A soldier can be patriotic or just in it for the money. Both are different takes on the same role that leads to different characters even if they do the same thing and come from the same background. The anime never provides a view about traveling. There’s something vague about how the world is both ugly and beautiful and this grey area is appreciated, but what else? What do we do about the grey?

Grey areas are difficult and I don’t expect answers, but great storytellers show me how they wrestle with the themes. If you can’t answer any questions – and you shouldn’t, because there are no definitive answers – at least throw something. A question shouldn’t drag itself for 10 episodes. The series barely asks a question, let alone provides angles to look at it. Asking questions is fairly easy. The difficult part is trying to find the answers. That’s when you deal with the ramifications. No question has an effect until you check the possible answers.

Some episodes provide moral choices for Kino to make. They’re generic, morally clean choices. They don’t reflect a coherent moral worldview. Kino only chooses the least offensive path. She doesn’t even struggling with these decisions. Remember that this character has been around the world and to many different countries. Traveling and experiencing new worldviews should either give birth to a new, original one or leave you confused and full of doubt. Kino acts instead like a cliched ‘wise Zen master’, viewing things mostly through indifferent eyes. It’s believable, but only if there was a worldview behind it.

The series is capable of darkness. An early episode shows the humanity of slave merchants. Even if it ends by vilifying them, it shows how they can enjoy family and raising kids and company just like us. It’s odd that in under 20 minutes they create simple but lively characters. Nothing about the slave merchants is particularly unique, but the juxtaposition of their ‘good’ and ‘evil’ side is effective for side characters. Kino never gets such interesting characterization. In the arena episode, she always offers her opponent a chance to surrender. Why?

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The slave merchants aren’t the only memorable characters here. This is where the series trumps Mushishi. Its side characters are driven, sometimes flawed and sometimes immoral. Many of the stories cannot be re-modeled for Mushishi since they deal with humanity’s dark side. The variety in characters and themes also lead to a variety in tones. Although the series is often stuck in its ‘contemplative’ atmosphere – a style which, except for Haibene Renmei, always comes off as pretentious – it experiments with tragedy, satire and adventure. The anime doesn’t dig deep enough. It offers themes but rarely shows their complexity, but the sheer variety of them makes the surface attractive enough.

Some have pointed out that Kino’s Journey is very obvious in its themes. Often characters say exactly what the story is about. In one episode, it’s cringe-worthy. An oppressed tribe literally admits to killing people for the sake of revenge, because oppression. At this point, it’s the artist’s critique of an ideology sneaking up into the character’s mouth. Imagine if a Nazi in a story admitted how wrong Nazism is, but they have to do it because of economic hardships. It’s a lone case. The anime is all surface anyway. The only reason to put things under the surface is because your surface is already full, but Kino’s Journey already has little to say. Such an anime shouldn’t make the viewer put effort. It’s a wise decision to reveal everything, since it prevents an unpleasant air of pretense.

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The art is decent, with strong backgrounds and decent character designs. The character designs are distinctive enough. Town folks get different looks and important side characters look like they can be main characters in their own show. It’s minimalist almost to a fault – the lack of details don’t do anything – but it finds variety in things like mouth size and eye shape. The backgrounds, while similar, capture a unique feeling. A running theme is the idea of the world being ugly and beautiful at the same time. The backgrounds use a mix of bright colors and pretty shapes with a darkened atmosphere to achieve is. It’s not particularly impressive, but it’s nice to see colors that fit the themes.

Kino’s Journey isn’t brilliant. Its popularity has more to do with it not being traditional, rather than quality. Some people are just dying for something without fan service. I’ve seen anime with weirder premises, deeper psychology and better art. Still, the variety in stories and the thematic focus makes it a show that’s worth most of its running time. No one yet knows how you achieve the greatest heights in art, anyway.

3 talking motorcycles out of 6

Toradora

toradoraNote: this series has been dropped at episode 14

Unlike the main protagonist of this anime, I do not have much strength to withstand torture. Put me in the clutches of a diabolical serial killer/torturer, and I have no idea what I’d do. Ryuji, our hero, is one of a kind. Bards should sing about him in taverns all across Tamriel. For 14 episodes, he stands Taiga’s relentless abuse with a smile.

In one of the greatest songs ever written, the extremely white lead singer of the Smiths sings about how it’s so easy to laugh and so easy to hate. Kindness and gentleness are difficult, and I do agree with him. That said, I wonder if the band and their fanbase would change their mind if they saw the anime. Actually, considering how huge this anime is, becoming iconic in the school genre – I think they won’t.

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I’m a defender of the school genre. Many rant about how immature and derivative it is, but few people didn’t go to school. A lot of things happen in school and you meet a lot of people, so it’s a place rife for stories. Its low-key and stable environment actually makes it excellent for stories driven by characters. Conflicts will have to rise from within and not an external UFO coming to wreck the party. These shows rely heavily on their characters, and it’s enough to have a decent, odd cast – see Haganai – to make something decent. Toradora is a major failure because of how insufferable its cast is.

Since we’re talking about symbols and not actual human beings, I need to find a way to explain why and how disgusted I was with them and how that lead me to conclude this anime is horrid crap. Many a great story are about horrible people. In fact, one of the best novels ever is about such a terrible murder. It’s their darkness, their psychology and reasons for being so that makes them so intriguing. How frightening these characters are because we understand them and see us in them. Part of our obsession with villains and their backstories, or with serial killers’ childhoods is because we want to know why they’re like this.

Everyone in Toradora is a bit of an asshole. Actually, only two characters are but they’re so dominant that it’s easy to forget about the rest. Taiga is the big problem, since she’s both the main character and the worst. Tsunderes can often seem creepy, sometimes borderline Gacy-like sadistic. None of them are as bad as Taiga.

The archetype can be funny. Tsunderes’ appeal is their insecurity, how they address the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life – we put up a front in every social interaction, putting a different front in different places. The best Tsundere, Neptunia‘s Noire is all about this. Humor never comes from her being violent – she’s rarely is – but how hard she works on her image.

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In contrast, Taiga is nothing but violence. She reacts to everything with violence, like a 10-year-old playing Elder Scrolls and thinking that it’s supercool to kill every NPC. She may not kill anyone, let alone essential NPC’s but it doesn’t make it any less creepy. In every episode, she beats up people at least 5 times. Her reactions are always with force, causing clear pain to the other characters. I’d expect anyone to beat her in return the first time.

The fact Ryuji stays there is flat-out creepy. Moreover, she treats him with pure condescension. Rarely, if ever, she addresses him in a way that’s not hostile. Early in the series they make a pact to help each other, but Taiga doesn’t actually help him until the middle of the series. All the episodes are about the characters doing stuff and Taiga beating people up. The anime never answers why, exactly, Ryuji puts up with so much physical abuse.

Yes, ‘abuse’ is the only word that can describes their relationship. Switch the sexes. Imagine if Ryuji was constantly beating up Taiga, calling her ‘bitch’ and so forth. It’s nothing but sick. You can only watch it for so long before getting tired of this torture porn thing. Not only Taiga is violent to everyone, she also has a weird entitlement problem. She expects Ryuji to take care of her and do everything for her. She never asks, demands with the expectations that Ryuji must do it for her.

In the end, she’s nothing but a horrible person who beats up everyone but also thinks everyone owes her everything. Now, a character being a terrible human being isn’t enough. How their actions are framed is important and now we get to the main problem. Taiga is framed as okay.

A backstory occasionally rears its head, feelings of insecurity do show themselves. None of is it actually dark, none of it gives us a glimpse into a troubled psych that can only react with violence and cannot connect to people. The backstory may justify anger, but the anime never acknowledge how bad Taiga’s case is. No one around her also reacts like they should. They treat her like she’s a quirky friend, someone who occasionally goes off, like that friend who swears a lot. This is a person who’s in desperate need of help and a lawyer. It’s no longer a person having anger issues but a criminal that everyone tolerates because the plot demands it.

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Such light framing of dark material is unforgivable. Humor doesn’t have anything to do with it, but how the frame never addresses the darkness of it. Physical abuse leaves people with trauma. People react harshly to physical abuse. If people stay for a long time with a physical person, being nice to them and doing what they want it means they got issues of their own. I can’t stress how dark this material is, yet the light framing is disrespectful to anyone who went through physical abuse.

Taiga and the framing of her behavior towers over the anime, so everything else ends up pointless. No matter how hard they try, the creators frame Taiga as quirky and cute. Nothing can salvage the anime, but then again it doesn’t seem they try. There isn’t much in the way of stories or characters. Ryuji is like that dude from Haganai only not as hot. Somehow he manages to be perfect and eventually the center of the harem because he’s nice to everyone and doesn’t have wants of his own. To the anime’s credit, the secondary male actually has a purpose here and he’s a bit hot, but besides being a more energetic nice guy there’s nothing to him.

Other females consist of a wacky redhead who’s entertaining for five episodes and then becomes tiresome. As for Ami, she’s another generic asshole who’s overall unpleasant without the darkness. Like Taiga, she treats people like crap but the cruelty is never meant to shock or make us reflect. Funniest thing is how the anime passes her off as sexy. Not only the characters can’t drive a story, but they look bad.

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Art style is another problem the anime suffers from. No one has a distinctive look. School anime, at worst, create pleasing to look at characters. You may not experience anything profound but there is aesthetic value in the designs, in understanding human beauty. Designs don’t have to break boundaries, but little touches like Sena’s butterfly and deep eye color make an anime more pleasing to look at.

Toradora does nothing like this. Taiga does have a weird hairstyle, but Minori isn’t memorable at all. She has huge eyes and short red hair. End description. Worse offender is Ami who is meant to be the sex symbol. To express this, they gave her a longer hair and slightly bigger breasts. Unlike shows where the characters are actually sexy, her figure isn’t defined or emphasized – which is necessary if the character’s beauty is important to her personality. Her hair is just long without hairstyle quirks. Look at any anime that has a character whose beauty is important and you can always spot details expressing it – just as I described Sena in the above paragraph. The designers decided to do the bare minimum.

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Character designs are integral to how we view them. How people look is a part of them. It doesn’t mean characters should all be sexy (that’s actually quite odd) but their looks should somehow find their way to their personality. If your character is meant to be beautiful, make them beautiful. Toradora is satisfied with just sending the signals, mistaking low effort for minimalism. Minimalism is when you have few details but these details are important. Ami’s design and everyone else’s has no effort put into it. A simplicity that has no elegance, that emphasizes no details is just a product of no effort and laziness.

Maybe the anime drastically improves. I have a hard time believing it. Watching this anime became painful. Witnessing the abuse Taiga inflicts on everyone, and expecting to be entertained and amused by it is too much. Torture porn at least acknowledges its characters suffer even if it expects me to find entertainment in pain. This anime pretends physical abuse doesn’t cause any pain. Truly, it’s objectionable almost on a moral standard.

1 abusive partners out of 5

Another

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What we have here isn’t so much an anime, but an experiment. At least I hope it’s an experiment, because as an anime it’s quite an atrocity. It deserves a place in the bottom of the barrel, not because it’s awful in a unique way. There’s no content, nothing particularly offensive that stick out. It’s just a series of mistakes piling up on one another.

If this is an experiment, it’s an interesting and important one. In fact, as an experiment it deserves the attention of all literary scholars. Finally, a piece of fiction tries to answer the age-old question of what is more important – execution or the idea. Since the end result is closer to vomit caused by excessive drinking (which itself was a means of coping with an awful party), the answer is execution.

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“Execution” is an ironic word to use in the context of this crappy anime, both because a lot of characters die and the anime ends up killing its brilliant premise. Most creators don’t have any idea what ‘horror’ actually means. They think we experience horror when someone holds a knife against us and we need to fight them, but that’s not it. A dangerous situation where there are a few predictable outcomes, some of them bad is thrilling and causes adrenaline but it’s not scary.

People are afraid of walking alone in the streets and of being on the stage, yet no one is going to kill you if you deliver a speech (Unless you’re a politician). The common ground between two is the unknown, and more importantly a fairly hostile unknown. Horror is effective when we know or speculate there is something hostile there and don’t know its nature. The best of horror is striking a balance – having a good enough idea what kind of danger there is, but not enough.

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Horror fiction often features weak protagonists. In order to effective, the protagonists need to know little so they won’t really have a way to defeat the Big Bad. Stories are the scariest not at the climax – it means very little in this genre. Experiencing the unknown is what’s important. A shot of Michael Myers standing outside the house is scary, because we don’t really know what Myers is except the fact he kills people for some reason. More than any other genre, Horror isn’t about a tight structure but strong, atmospheric moments emphasizing how the characters view the world.

The creators commit the horrible mistake of thinking that what works in video games also works in fiction. So the main character isn’t actually a human, but a distinct organism only found in shitty stories called Plotus Moverus. Exploring a mystery on my own is one thing. Merely watching someone else do it is something else. Shows on TV that show you how to cook things have more narrative thrust, more personality. People actually remember all those dudes in TV who talk about food, yet I’ll only remember Kouchi because he starred in this horrible anime.

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Kouchi gives a point of view with less personality than a Wikipedia article, so already we lack any kind of framing for this town. Look at this as a self-insert character, and you get zilch. If Kouchi had a psychology or a personality that would react to the horror, then I could insert myself into him and feel like I’m experiencing the same thing. I could use this story not only to explore the nature of horror but how we can react to horrifying things. Kouchi only gathers data.

The scenary is now responsible to frame this story as scary, and at the beginning it’s actually quite good. People criticized it because ‘nothing happened’, but they just misunderstand the genre. Things don’t have to happen and it may be for the best if they won’t. What should go on is atmosphere. The art and especially the background is fantastic. The colors are varied, yet there’s a slight dark tone to everything – not enough to make it monochrome, but enough to hint there’s something bad going on underneath. This balance is difficult to attain but the series does it. Every scene in the beginning is imbued with uneasiness, empty streets of a small, isolated town and a dark shade over thing because disaster can strike at any moment.

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An episode which takes place at the beach is a perfect example of how well the atmosphere works. There is silence and uneasiness all over it. Every interaction is a bit more hushed. A game of fishing ends with people capturing nothing interesting but kelp and a blowfish. Romance is right around the corner, but everyone is too preocupied with the horror to go with it

Here you get why the premise is so brilliant. By its very nature it’s horror, it’s a premise where people know disaster strikes but not really its nature or how to stop it or how exactly it will affect. Reduce the genre to its bare bones and you get that. Now all you need to do is let the characters do their thing. Let them react to the situation with their personalities. Let it affect their relationship, the structure of the town. Show us the effect of death and the unknown on us, tickle our sense of empathy.

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Mentioning the Saw film at this point, because they’re an example of how this anime failed. The first Saw film featured two dudes locked in a rusty bathroom which is quite frightening, but that’s also because of the mystery – what the hell is that bathroom? The anime does contain a mystery, but instead of letting it be one they solve it in – get this! – one episode. No, really, there is no build-up or any psychological thrust to the discovery. One day a character info-dumps the whole equation. Now the characters only need to find the X, literally.

Remove the mystery and the psychology and all you have left is a dull process of elimination. The side-characters are slightly better than Kouchi but even they don’t do much. The last episodes consist of fire and brimstone and that hardly makes for an effective climax. As an action scene it might serve, but its main role is to revel and swim in the blood of the characters.

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What it reveals is what I tried to suppress all along – that the mystery isn’t actually a symbol for our fear of death, but a plot tool to kill characters. Instead of experiencing this anguish and angt, understand the meaning of fear and trembling and reflect upon the nature of death you enter a guessing game. Every episode is a game of ‘who dies next?’ until it ends with a massacre that might’ve been effective with a different build-up. Too bad it’s just has everyone smiling psychotically while chanting the same sentence.

In the beginning of the anime Stephen King is dropped, a popular writer with great ideas and horrible execution. Even he wasn’t that bad, but the series is loyal to his style. It took an idea so good you can use it to explain the nature of the genre and turned it into a who’s-gonna-die game. The final twist isn’t that surprising either and doesn’t add any meaning, although it could’ve lead to a powerful character moment if Kouchi had something resembling a personality. Write off the popularity of this anime as pure shock value.

1.5 spooky stuff out of 5

Sundays Without God (Kamisama no Inai Nichiyoubi)

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This is such a bizarre anime. I’ve seen anime and movies with trippy imagery. I’ve read stories with pages of gibberish, yet few works of fiction left me with a sense of culture shock like this. Such anime are so original it’s hard to make them truly terrible, since the novelty value is there. Creators also tend to be as confused as the viewer, so they rarely reach their full potential.

When you have a unique premise on your hands that doesn’t owe anything to any tradition, there are two ways to go about it. You can either go full retard, mine the premise for anything it has and throw the kitchen sink along with everything. Since you have no idea how your anime is supposed to work, all you can do is try everything and hope something sticks. There’s a famous anime who did this and it’s called Future Diary.

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The other route is the safer one. You let your story flow, but you never try too hard to understand it. You let characters interact and explore your world, but you refrain from anything too attention-grabbing. The anime will narrow its focus. Its structure will become almost RPG-like, giving the protagonist a basic objective to complete and finish it off.

Sundays Without God takes the latter route, but the result isn’t a complete failure. Despite not playing with the structure, its setting and premise are so weird that the feeling of culture shock is persistent. The stories that make up the anime are also good enough on their own and take advantage of the setting. You cannot tell them in any other context. Still, something feels off. It’s not completely weird, not completely normal and leans towards the weird without mining it too much. The result is anime that’s enjoyable like an ordinary anime while feeling weird.

The best thing about the anime is it unique setting and tone. It’s a perfect example of how you don’t need a lot of details to create a unique world. The world here is simple. God is gone, no one can get born and dead people don’t really die. It’s apocalypse in slow motion. We’ve had a lot of stories about what happens after the apocalypse and we tend to imagine it as something swift and fast. Here, the world is in the process of ending.

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Human beings are resilient things, though. Even if the sun will explode, we’ll most likely try to save something. Survival instinct is so strong that it defies rationality and free will. In this case, the world isn’t ending so much as life reaches its epilogue. Life isn’t bad, but it keeps moving in an ordinary pace towards its ending.

What do you do when you’re the last generation? The anime is essentially about this, but it seems so weirded out by its premise it doesn’t really explore it. The first stories deal directly with these themes – one character is about to be the last of the last generation, which is the worst isolation you can have. The city of the dead is an interesting expressions of the Metaphysical Rebellion – how we can rebel against our circumstances and reject them.

The structure doesn’t prevent exploration of these topics, since many shows used shorter length with depth. The method of storytelling gets in the way. There’s an objective to solve, and the characters spend more time trying to solve it. While the pacing isn’t thriller-like, it’s too fast for such a premise. It doesn’t slow down enough to show how characters exist outside the story.

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Characters’ existence outside the story is one of the best ways to convince us they’re real, to make us care about them and see their humanity. Stories are something humans create and we don’t live in just one. A focused storyteller shows snippets of other stories the characters can have, but then goes back to the main one. A master storyteller can imply these side-stories and connect them to the main plotline. The anime doesn’t do this. Its focus is too narrow.

It’s a shame, because the storytelling is quite excellent. The format is familiar – we have a good, well-meaning character visiting people and helping them. Ai isn’t just a vehicle to tell the stories of these people. Her personality and position is directly tied to her role. In a world where everyone’s ready to die or desperately fighting death, she’s a piece of light. She’s the youngest person alive, a possibility that there might be a future.

She’s not a lantern, though. When things go bad, Ai doesn’t say some nice things and the story ends. Often, she gives those pep talks but stumbles. The world is, after all, ending. Problems still exist and are hard to solve. Ai may be an optimist, but she’s a struggling optimist. We see her doubts, how much she tries to cling to her optimism despite everything.

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This is where the anime’s faults lay. Although this is an excellent usage of such a character, they don’t take it far enough. Ai struggles, but the creators put her so much in the role of problem-solver she doesn’t have time to ingest the struggling. There’s no time to see how the possible failures affect Ai’s psych. Stories don’t always end just like she wants them to, and that should influence her worldview. How do you stay optimistic when things don’t go as expected? Do you blind your own eyes? Do you become pessimistic, or do you accept things as they are? The anime never addresses these questions.

The themes of wishing does make its appearance, but the creators aren’t sure what to do with it. People wish for things. Sometimes they come true, sometimes they don’t and sometimes they come true but the result is painful. It speaks volumes when a messy anime like Big Order addresses these themes better. They’re present, but wishing is not a plot device here and there aren’t enough angles to explore this topic from. It’s just there.

The art style continues the weird nature of the quality. The character’s looks are distinct and memorable enough, but the art style itself isn’t. You can put these characters in a school anime and they wouldn’t feel out of place (except for the outfits). There’s variety in how everyone looks and the school arc lets them show off their designs, but nothing connects it. Characters shouldn’t just look distinct but there should be a style that connects them, quirks that make the design memorable and make you wonder what else you can do with it.

On the other hand, the color schemes and backgrounds are beautiful. The anime finally fulfills potential. The colors are balanced. Light and dark tones are mixed. A burning red or a cold blue is are the dominating colors, and they have just enough brightness to make the world seem normal. There’s also a little darkness in them that reminds you that the world is dying. It’s a balance that’s hard to get. You can easily find yourself in bland colors, but here they’re the perfect mix of darkness and lights that fit the weird tone of the series.

Sundays Without God is a flawed anime, but nevertheless an anime like no other. Its failures hold it back from greatness, and but their nature prevents them from being offensive. When it falls, it’s not because it does stupid things. Rather, it’s too afraid to play with its ideas. They stand on their own, and even as basic storytelling it’s good enough. Someone might one day run away with these and render this irrelevant, but until then it’s worth your time.

3.5 sundays out of 5