I remember when I first started watching Kino’s Journey: The Beautiful World I was struck by the seeming detached and aloof nature of Kino’s character. The first thought that came into my head was “Wow – Kino seems like a Buddhist.”
I was taking an introductory course on Buddhism and Japanese Culture at the time, so the fact that I immediately connected Kino to the material I was learning in class is no surprise. But there’s something to be said about this statement. First, it shows the core nature of interpretation: you have to pick a certain framework to interpret from. You need to be coming at material from somewhere, since there needs some system in place for establishing value and whatnot. The second thing is that it shows that it is possible to actually look at Kino through the lens of Buddhist philosophy. I decided to try and do this for our final project in this class, and it turns out it’s possible without too much of a stretch. This says something interesting about the nature of the show.
I’d like to first note that I’m not the first one to take Buddhist ideals and apply them to anime – Illegenes has applied them while looking at Shin Sekai Yori quite a number of times to great effect, as well as in Bounen no Xamdou. I’m also sure others have done this before me. Nor am I the first to attempt to analyze Kino’s Journey, with many others from Ghostlightning to AceRailgun to TheBigN coming at the series from a variety of angles. The fact that the show can stand up to many varied approaches – mythological, psychological, world-building, philosophical, theological – shows the depth the series holds and the style of it’s narrative.
Kino’s format is episodic – it is a series of narratives that are mostly contained within one episode (there is one two-episode arc) that are independent of each other. While some do have elements linking them to each other, at no point is a timeline really defined. As such, many of the stories work as parables or fables, which contain messages within them that are meant to be insightful or instructive (paradoxically, even a parable with no message at all can teach us something when we attempt to find one). The fundamental nature of these types of stories is that you really get out what you put in – that is, the message you get is highly dependent upon what framework you’re using to look at them. This means that Kino’s Journey has a lot to teach us, and also that any analysis must be taken with a grain of salt. That being said, the powerful nature of the parable is that many frameworks will tend to give relatively similar (or diametrically opposed) answers, and so the results of any analysis is valuable and somewhat universal. Comparing multiple frameworks then can frequently lead to somewhat universal messages that speak to the fundamental nature of the human condition.
Anyways, my essay for the class is posted below (this one was much more tractable for an independent post than my fandom essay which I’ve broken into a post series), modified slightly to better fit this format. There are a few spoilers, so if you want to avoid those simply read the introduction and conclusion. Also, I’ve set up links to articles for some of the terms that might not be common knowledge throughout the essay, but if anything is still confusing please feel free to ask me in the comments!
Kino’s Journey through the Eyes of Buddhist Philosophy
Anime (アニメ) has become an artistic medium of both Japanese and global importance as a form of entertainment. Originally designed as children’s cartoons, since the 70s and 80s the anime industry has become its own genre and has ventured into more serious domains, with movies like Akira and Ghost in the Shell taking many overseas fans by storm with their dystopian atmospheres, probing questions, and unabashed displays of nudity and violence. Many more recent anime – for example, Natsume’s Book of Friends and Mushishi – have continued to make forays into the religious and the philosophical realms as they attempt to deal with deep issues that plague us today. Kino’s Journey: the Beautiful World (Kino’s Journey) is one such show. Based on a light novel series by Keiichi Sigsawa, Kino’s Journey follows the adventures of Kino and her talking motorcycle Hermes as they travel the world, never settling down in one place for more than three days. The 13-episode anime (plus its two movies and OVA) is episodic with a strong emphasis on atmosphere, dialogue, and quiet contemplation rather than action or plot, and displays elements of prominent Buddhist thought throughout. The show’s structure pays homage to the parable, its message focuses on the non-dual nature of things, and many of Kino’s actions reveal a sense of non-attachment and veneration of life, all key elements of in Buddhist teachings and philosophy. The strains of Buddhist thought that run through the series provide a means of interpreting the show’s attitudes toward existence and give insight into some of the Buddhist influence in modern Japanese thought.
The structure of Kino’s Journey’s bears striking similarity to the nature of the Buddhist parable, most prominently represented by the teachings of the Lotus Sutra and the Zen parables of Dōgen. First, Kino’s Journey is almost entirely an episodic show (there’s only one two-episode arc), with each episode consisting of a self-contained narrative that tells a story whose true message can only be understood by some connection, allegory or metaphor. Similar to how Dōgen’s stories (e.g., in How to Raise an Ox) and the Lotus Sutra are meant to be an expedient means that lead us to a higher truth, the episodes of Kino’s Journey can be viewed as intended to raise questions and get the viewer to think about the deeper issues at play in each episode.
For example, during the OVA Kino and Hermes visit a land where the entire population builds a gigantic tower as high as possible, in the hope that someday it will collapse so they can repeat the process. The people do not know why they continue to build the gigantic tower and participate in this tradition, but they do so regardless. Here, Kino encounters a young man who wishes to travel with her in order to escape this fate. Kino denies his request, but tells him that he is able to travel alone if he pleases. The young man departs anguished, but doesn’t decide to travel on his own. The next day, after he petitions her again, Kino tells him that if he doesn’t want to make the same tower, he can try something new. She throws out the idea of using colored bricks and engravings to start, noting that there are many options open to him. The episode ends with the quote, “To take you with me is – impossible.”
Many of the events that take place during this episode are meant to represent something larger, something more abstract, from the building of the tower to the inquiries of the young man and Kino’s final response. From a Buddhist perspective, building the tower could represent samsara, with its cyclic nature and, through the eyes of the young man, endless suffering. The young man’s inquiries and ultimate inability to extricate himself from his ‘fate’ could be representative of mankind’s inability to remove itself from samsara. Kino, in contrast with the young man, could be seen as having transcended samsara into nirvana since she is able to travel freely between different countries, which may correspond to different cosmic realms of nirvana. Kino’s final answer to the problem of the tower’s monotony gives the solution to this dichotomy, illustrating the non-dual nature of samsara and nirvana through the use of the colored bricks and engravings.
Another element of Kino’s Journey that mirrors many Buddhist parables, especially those from the Lotus Sutra, is the concept of time. There seems to be no element of time visible in the overarching narrative of Kino’s Journey. Most of the episodes are deliberately standalone so that they can be watched in almost any order. Also, Kino and Hermes are made to seem almost ‘ageless’, unchanging in mannerisms and appearance from episode to episode (excluding episode 4 and the first movie which provide backstory). However, the episodes are frequently linked through subtle references to each other. For example, Kino encounters a land that follows its priests’ interpretations of a book of prophecy in one episode, and later encounters its inhabitants in a separate one, invading another country due to their priests’ predictions. In this way, the viewer imposes a sense of time on the narrative. Nonetheless, there is no evidence as to which events occur first, except the order in which the episodes were released or the order in which the viewer decides to watch them. This implies that the element of time that we have imposed on the overarching narrative is a construct, a fluid concept that is subject to change. Just like how the narrative of the Lotus Sutra defies all constructions of time in order to imply that it is ultimately illusory, Kino’s Journey’s seems to accomplish much of the same.
On the other hand, the stories in Kino’s Journey are not as fantastic as those in the Lotus Sutra, and more strongly resemble Dōgen’s Zen parables, which function more as anecdotes with an underlying message frequently non-dual to the story itself. The actions of the story are not only an allegory to underlying messages but also are the messages themselves. Kino blends these elements together into a story that is more than itself but not quite beyond itself, combining the dual nature of the wise anecdote and the metaphorical parable. We can again take the example from the land of the giant tower. While the events that took place can be related to more abstract concepts, the events themselves are also embodiments of the concepts. The construction of the tower is all-encompassing and only can be escaped through death, an allegory of samsara that also is samsara. The young man’s inability to escape represents our plight and also is his plight. Kino’s resolution is meant to be illustrative of the non-dual nature of samsara and nirvana, but also is a non-dual solution to the plight of the young man, turning the process of building the tower from one of endless suffering to one of enjoyment and satisfaction.
In terms of non-dualism, Kino places particular emphasis on the non-dual nature of reality throughout the show. Director Nakamura Ryutaro proclaims that the core message of the show can be summarized in the following statement: “The world is not beautiful; therefore, it is.” This commentary can be viewed in the light of the non-duality between samsara and nirvana that has become a staple of Mahayana – and subsequently Zen – Buddhism. This quality of beauty in imperfection and transience, known as wabi-sabi, has held sway over Japanese aesthetics for hundreds of years. Inspiring this awareness in the ephemeral nature and imperfection of all things, known as mono no aware, is seen as one of the highest accomplishments of Japanese art. Examples of this can be found throughout Japanese art, from the feelings evoked from Yoshimoto Banana’s novel Asleep to the style and subject materials of Nihonga paintings. Kino’s Journey, whose key message and style is a celebration of wabi-sabi, is meant to inspire this sense of mono no aware, showing clear Buddhist influences from the concepts of non-duality.
Furthermore, throughout the show the viewer is asked questions that hint at the non-dual nature of reality. This is clearly represented in the Kino’s personality and actions. One example we can take is the quote: “To take you with me is – impossible.” This implies that all our journeys are ours to make, and that we must travel our own path. This seems contradictory, however, because Kino travels with Hermes and they are two separate people. The solution then must be that Kino and Hermes are in fact one and the same, two identities that are really non-dual: Kino and Hermes are one. Kino’s gender is another such mystery. Earlier episodes show her as a girl while later episodes seem to hide her identity by portraying her as male. The first Kino’s Journey movie even shows her vacillation in self-reference between the female/neutral 私 (watashi) and the male 僕 (boku). Her identifications might imply that male-female dichotomy is in fact also non-dual, and that the two separate gender identities really are one. Another example of Kino’s non-duality concerns her purpose as a traveler. Normally, the goal of a traveler is to reach a destination, travelling being merely an in-between, transient phenomenon. Kino, however, answers that the purpose of a traveler is simply to travel. The lack of destination in mind transforms the means – travelling – into the goal –destination – and shows that they are indeed also non-dual.
The structure of the show also contains many non-dual elements. As mentioned above, the episodic nature of the show implies the illusion of time. In contrast, time is stressed from episode to episode via both the duration of Kino’s stay and the time she has spent travelling. This is another contradiction that shows that both elements are in fact non-dual. Time is both real and illusory – the only timeless certainty is the fact that everything experiences the ravages of time. This view is a profound Buddhist realization that forms an essential element of the doctrine of dependent-co-arising. The episodic nature of the series also seems to imply standalone stories and the lack of an overarching narrative. In spite of this, a narrative does exist, constructed by the viewer. Furthermore, each episode imparts messages that are aimed at a cohesive whole, showing that they are in fact connected by an underlying ideology. Thus, narrative and non-narrative, separation and connection, are again shown to be non-dual.
Kino also establishes an almost dreamlike atmosphere, giving a serene quality to the story. Kino’s travels are portrayed as real events: we follow her journey with Hermes to the different countries they visit and both her behavior and all the people they encounter seem believable. However, many of those countries seem like realms of impossibility and fantasy, in stark contrast to the realistic tone of the narrative. Everyone’s unquestioning acceptance of Hermes, a talking motorcycle, further lends an element of magical realism that serves to give the show dream-like qualities. Dreams, subjective and naturally ephemeral, and reality, objective and seemingly eternal, are brought together in Kino’s Journey to show their non-dual nature. For example, Kino’s encounter with ‘the Author’ in a land of book collection and censorship ends with him asking if she will ever know whether her journey – her life – is a dream or reality, explicitly questioning this distinction between objectivity and subjectivity. The series also undermines this distinction from a different direction, making sure that for a majority of the series travelers do not refer to Hermes explicitly during conversations, leaving the viewer to wonder about Kino’s mental state.
Kino’s character and journey parallel Buddhist ideas surrounding non-attachment, virtue, and discipline. Throughout her travels, Kino’s interactions with others are largely impersonal. Although her advice and conversations are often intimate, she rarely forms a strong relationship with anyone in the countries that she visits. Additionally, Kino limits herself to a maximum of three days in each country she visits, so as not to become ‘tied down’ to any particular person or place. This type of behavior, seeking non-attachment and resisting desire is one of the main tenets of Buddhism. One can even compare Kino’s journey to that of a bodhisattva, since during her never-ending travels she continually resists attachment while imparting wisdom and helping others. In fact, a famous female bodhisattva Kannon seems to share a number of parallels with Kino. Besides the possible similarities between names – Kino and Kannon – the name Kannon actually means “Observing the Sounds (or Cries) of the World,” which seems to be precisely what Kino is doing on her travels.
Kino also possesses trademarks of Buddhism’s Six Perfections – giving, morality, patience, effort, meditation, and wisdom. Kino’s benevolence towards others appears often. Examples include helping starving strangers trapped in the snow and nursing them back to health as well as helping an exiled prince come to terms with his past during a tournament where competitors are meant to fight to the death. Her patience is emphasized through her calm behavior during her visit to the land of no war and her treatment of the anguished youth mentioned earlier. Throughout the show, the viewers also see her effort to live and travel morally, abiding by the rules of each country to the best of her ability. The most notable example of this is her acceptance of the conditions upon visiting the country with the Coliseum, where she agrees to participate in a fight-to-the-death tournament rather than resist and fight her way out. Throughout the tournament, however, Kino takes no life, instead helping her opponents come to terms with their defeat.
Her wisdom shows especially during her conversations with others. A particular jarring example of this is the dialogue during Kino’s encounter with a travelling couple, composed of an ex-murderer who has since reformed his ways and his victim’s wife. While inside a bar, the man asks Kino what he should be most careful of during his journey. Kino replies that it’s easy – just as in living an ordinary life, the most important thing is not to die. Once outside the country and away from prying eyes, the woman kills the man in revenge. She later asks Kino, who was nearby, why she did not intervene. Kino’s reply is simple: “Because I’m not a god.” Kino’s replies in both these instances are simple, yet wise and profound. Kino’s displays of effort and meditation are intertwined, focusing on methods of violence reminiscent of the incorporation of Zen doctrine into the Japanese martial arts. Her moments of meditative reflection can be seen in scenes where she is practicing with the pistols she carries around with her at all times. These moments are deliberately showcased in multiple episodes during the early morning and displayed as scenes of contemplation, where the world is quiet and peaceful. These qualities serve to heighten the comparison of Kino to a bodhisattva.
This focus on Kino’s capacity for violence as meditation also emphasizes some of the apparent contradictions inherent in the combination of martial arts/meditation and the Buddhist teachings to venerate life. Through the understanding of dependent co-arising, one learns that everything is connected. Furthermore, as the Lotus Sutra teaches, all beings have Buddha-nature and the capacity to attain enlightenment. Taking life, regardless of the circumstances, stifles a being’s chance at enlightenment and is thus seen as an irredeemable act. While in most Buddhist teachings this philosophy mainly concerns humans – the beings with the highest chance of attaining enlightenment – it frequently extends to animals as well, and is the reason many practicing Buddhists also are vegetarians.
Given the reality of violence, Kino’s Journey also deals explicitly with the concept of completely non-violent ideologies. For example, Kino encounters a woman who refuses to resort to violence under any circumstances. She seems to have never encountered any who would do her harm, but it turns out the reason is because her male companion has been protecting her in secret all along. By protecting his companion, at odds with her non-violent ideology, the man allows her to spread her naïve ideals to try and make the world a better place. This story justifies the use of violence for self-protection, illustrating that ideals alone cannot protect you from harsh reality. It also argues that in order to do greater good in the long run, one must be able to ensure their survival, which parallels some later Mahayana thought concerning the bodhisattva’s use of violence in order to grant more people salvation and enlightenment. The key element in both trains of thought, however, is that this use of violence must be done without anger, hatred, or fear, but instead sadness and compassion.
Kino’s use of violence is always shown dispassionately yet tinged with sadness, while for the bodhisattva giving such emotions an outlet is seen as failing to uphold their Buddhist teachings. The show goes to great lengths to show Kino practicing and using her marksmanship skills in order to survive, but always stresses her sadness at the taking of another life. For example, when Kino was nursing a group of starving men back to health, she had to kill some rabbits for food. Kino devoted several scenes show both Kino’s deadly aim and also her heartfelt apologies to the creatures she had just killed. At the end of the episode, it turns out the men she had rescued were slavers who wished to capture her. Kino kills them all without blinking an eye, but expresses a regret at the loss of life of both the humans and the rabbits, considering them equals.
Examining Kino through the lens of Buddhist thought gives insight into the influence of Buddhism in Japan today and illustrates the methods by which the show tells its stories as well as the messages they hold. The structure of the show draws many parallels to parables in the Lotus Sutra and Dōgen’s teachings, and the short stories in each episode connect to more abstract philosophical concepts. The show also displays a profound appreciation of the non-dual nature of things and prominent Zen influences, from the wabi-sabi aesthetics to the dialogue. Also, Kino’s character reflects many fundamental Buddhist concepts, such as non-attachment and the veneration of life, which manifest – and contradict – themselves in her actions and her interactions with others. Intriguingly, other anime that contain more overt Buddhist/religious elements, such as Mushishi, display striking similarities in both structure and character interactions. Using a Buddhist framework, one can gain insight into how these ideas are expressed in popular media forms today and try and learn what anime has to teach us about how we live our lives.
 There’s not a good explanation of this concept, so here’s a brief one. From the viewpoint of ‘dependent co-arising’, nothing exists as a singular, independent entity. The phenomenal world, and all phenomena in it, as perceived through the senses, arises from causes and conditions, are always in a constant state of flux, and are destined to change – and eventually pass away – over time. There are no inherent or permanent characteristics by which anything can be described as they continuously change from instant to instant – ironically, the only unchanging fact is that everything changes. All phenomena are then ‘empty’, bereft of all inherent meaning.
 While this similarity might actually be more than coincidence, from what I have gathered ‘Kino’ isn’t a female name, a Japanese name, or even a normal name at all. Rather it’s a contraction of the German word “kinematograph,” a variation on “cinematograph,” which means “a motion-picture camera, projector, theater, or show” (Merriam Webster). In the context of Kino as an observer, this choice seems pretty clever. Also, on the same subject, the choice of ‘Hermes’ as the name of the motorcycle is equally clever, if slightly more obvious.