This is a difficult one for me to start, I feel I have so much to say and so many emotions tied up in saying it that I can’t possibly figure out where to begin. Instead of just launching into it I’m gonna do something of a preamble about my overall feelings on the show and lay some groundwork so as to avoid having to explain things later on. My intent is to enable me to tackle some specific episodes in relative isolation of the rest of the plot (such as it can be described anyway). To do that I feel a brief overview of not only the show but my relationship to it is required to give me the space to approach each of them in a satisfactory way.
To that end much as the show itself does. The characters of Kino and Hermes are familiar (but mysterious) figures that act as our (often imperfect) viewpoint into the countries that they visit. The familiarity and basic understanding of who our protagonists are allows each episode to focus on the ways which the country they find themselves in bounces off or gels their own understandings. “Country” is a relatively open term in Kino no Tabi, it largely seems to physically refer to city-states but on a broader scale “Country” could be said to be the show’s stand-in term for a Philosophy or Ideology. Kino’s passing through the gates from the outside wilderness is the experience of Kino submerging themselves into other’s world views and in particular the ways they have resolved contradictions in reality for themselves. The show’s whole dreamily slow pace, simple, muted aesthetic and its ethereal jarring audio cues add up to create the sense of a place that is less physical and more defined by the very concept of wandering. Kino is a traveller and thus Kino has no home, the circumstances by which Kino became a traveller closed off the possibility of belonging to their place or identity of origin. Kino lives inside of the traveller identity and with it the strange void of possibility that exists between the walled and laid out ideals of those they come into contact with.
Aside from “a traveller” Kino is a few other things – skilled with a pistol, inquisitive, kind of aloof, young, thoughtful, introspective, owner and operator of a sentient talking motorcycle. Kino lives through movement but Kino’s partner Hermes embodies the concept in a more literal sense. Their relationship is framed as a “pact” whereby Kino requires Hermes for speed and Hermes requires Kino for balance and direction. Their comedic duo buddy relationship sustains a lot of the discussion about and thus the show’s statements on the nature of their experiences. In that sense Kino and Hermes almost exist as the same being and are rarely seen without the other.
The show largely consists of Kino and Hermes talking out some framing concept, coming across a new “country” and coming to grips with how it defines its own existence before moving on once they reach their self-defined time limit of 3 days per stop. A limit defined by Kino out of fear of ever becoming comfortable enough to cease being a traveller. The whole concept is a vehicle to bring up pockets of ideas that usually relate to the beliefs societies choose to govern themselves. It is neither exclusively that nor as dry as that sentence might imply however and is often a gripping, touching emotional experience. Where this concept of wandering outsider passing comment on societies they find could easily go horribly wrong Kino no Tabi sidesteps a lot of those pitfalls. In the show’s dreamy tone alone the idea of solid judgement by writer mouthpiece is eased off a lot and in return the idea of a just-asking-questions disconnected mess is prevented in the show’s capacity for seriously affecting drama. Not only that but Kino and Hermes’ jovial relationship amongst the often sinister or confusing places they visit combined with neither of them truly existing as a morally perfect figure at any one time leaves them feeling less like our teachers and more travelling partners. Kino and Hermes learn and change, they and the places they go are treated with seriousness and depth alongside a propensity for undercutting the tone with gentle reminders that they are simply just two individuals with their own imperfect understandings of the world.
Finally I’d like to state that I’ve never read the source material the show is based on and that I came to the show a long time after it was launched so my context in encountering it may well be strange. It is however a supremely important show for me that some will have noticed graces the header of my (now old) blog. It’s hard to get into that importance in this small of a space but suffice it to say the whole lost-but-not-really-lost wanderer thing Kino has going on really hits home for me and that some of episodes I intend to focus on are some of the most powerful media experiences I’ve personally had. I want to lay this out here because I want to define how difficult and daunting this has made approaching this piece as a project. If I had to pick one thing to define Kino no Tabi I would probably say something along the lines of – “the struggle to be”, but because it exists in such an ethereal space and everything in it is defined by moments of solidity formed from the fluidity of what lies between it is hard for me to say it is anything in particular. With that in mind I will be dropping the explanatory tone and will throw myself into a few “countries” in turn to talk about how they define themselves, Kino, Hermes and also myself.
Country of Adults -Natural Right-
As is typical of the structure to Kino’s journeys in this episode Kino arrives in a pleasant country, is greeted enthusiastically by a culture that treats travellers well, shown around town and to an inn by a local. Inevitably the great secret that the country is built on is revealed – usually the sacrifice of some value or the unforeseen consequence of a new way of living. In this case the presence of a vague and sinister operation to become an “adult” is casually dropped into conversation by Kino’s tour guide who is herself about to reach her 12th birthday and thus be required to undergo it. The operation itself isn’t explained beyond “opening up your brain and picking the child out” but it’s function philosophically, socially and narratively is to answer the dilemma of being required to work and not wanting to. Throughout the episode prior to this moment the concept of “adult” is defined by various characters and questioned by Kino. The country’s defines an adult as someone who is required to perform labours they either morally oppose or simply do not want to do. In asking what Kino’s job is his guide decides that “traveller” cannot be a job because the good elements outweigh the bad and that a job is “not supposed to be fun” and “something you have to have”. Kino presents a dilemma within the answer to the prior dilemma – someone who is not a child but does not “work”.
The leaders that benefit from the labourers of their country are never shown, their only presence is in praise for developing the operation that allows one to become an adult labourer and in the suffocating presence of an almost comically sinister trenchcoat wearing state inquisitor. It is notable then that nobody defines their work by how it benefits them, by way of “social contract” or by enthusing about what their work produces. Simply they work because labour is what is expected of them by the prescribed values of their society, a society that is run by leaders that have explicitly medically conditioned the importance of “working with a smile” into them. Without beating around the bush this is an apt description of modern capitalist society. The historical moment at which we live is defined by the contradiction between an ideological demand for “work” and an economic lack of requirement for that work to be performed. This began as a (no less exploitative) “contract” between owner and labourer in society that stated, much as this country does, that society functions by incentivising labourers into work they do not want to do and that without leaders and “job creators” to do this society will collapse and the labourers survival with it. Per this ideology those who do not work and thus starve are not consequences of the system but of their own failure to adapt to “work”. This model of failure and shifting of responsibility from society to individual necessitates the maintenance of a morality based around work itself in which because those who suffer do so because they don’t work those who do work are the only ones who deserve to not suffer. It is a neat little circle of justification that endlessly establishes itself while isolating labourers further and further even while it sells them a concept of shared identity. Worker becomes all one is expected or allowed to be and as failure is sold as personally immorality any attempt to reckon with natural empathy one would feel to the victims of failure becomes subsumed into a resentment that asks “why are they pitied and not me? I’m the one working”.
Within that manufactured thought lies the root of countless historical hatreds and the lie it has been built on has become so entrenched into society that the ideology of “work” is seen as simply an outgrowth of nature. It is a twisted system by which the beneficiaries of all this strenuous labour hide themselves while turning their labour force into a self-policing unit that raises more unquestioning workers and casts out all others. It is built on the praise of the powerful by the marginally less powerful down the chain hoping to rise up it or seeing themselves as operating in a contract of fair compensation with those above them. The capitalist brings an illusion of stability to those with the power to participate in societal discourse just as “the leaders” of this country brought peace through the operation. In both cases what is ignored is the system of scarcity and work that exists is their creation to begin with, the comforting lies they present, the scapegoats they hold up and the ideology of the morality of work embodied in the operation all convert community life into an engine that drains the labourers for the good of those above them. By defining work as a moral good by virtue of it being unrewarding the leaders craft a docile workforce willing to accept the constant leering presence of managers meant to keep them in line. If work is required because it is moral then those who cannot or will not do it have no right to claim suffering – as suffering itself is what makes work moral. The worker now hates the weak for claiming to be weak by simply existing at all as doing so shines light on the cracks in this whole scheme. A life lived in service of a prescribed moral system is a life that can come to identify with it and therefore even noticing the signs of their own exploitation can lead to a retreat back to comforting hatreds.
As the neat circle of “work” justifies itself so to does the hatred for those who don’t fit it – work is moral because you have to suffer for it therefore not working entails no suffering therefore the destitute are liars looking to leech off the workers. The knowledge of a parasite within the system manifests itself exactly where the true parasite wants it’s hosts to be targeting. As such it becomes easier and easier to overlook not only the “normal” suffering of their new targets but to actively victimise them in a way that now feels revolutionary. Indeed as “work” becomes the sole moral value of a society the old contract by which work is meant to be compensated can be done away with, as workers become enforcers of “work” they also help to undermine one another’s station. If anything at this point working for nothing for as many hours as possible becomes the most applaudable thing one can do (see any number of “uplifting” stories about homeless people working 4 jobs to survive). Demanding compensation is then seen as undermining order and shirking one’s duty to work. This cult formed around the idea of work defines itself in terms of productivity but in truth its function is to lower the costs of labour and undermine the possibility of working class solidarity that has historically stood between the capitalist and the pursuit of pure profit. It is upon this cultish set up that our idea of adulthood hinges – that growth is learning to accept ones exploitation because it is the very exploitative nature of our work that makes it and thus also ourselves good people. In this country nobody can be permitted to be a “child” as to do so would undermine the whole system it stands upon, Kino’s guide never questions the idea that one “has to work” and that one “cannot enjoy work” because there was never the possibility of doing so within this walled reality. People must be forcibly made into “adults” and if they cannot be then they must be disposed of.
As is also standard on Kino’s journeys, Kino packs up and prepares to leave. Kino is openly judgemental of the social order he has found in this country but as an individual traveller he has no capacity to change it. What he inadvertently does however is cause his guide to become a “defect”. Kino’s guide discovers through interaction with Kino that her understanding of “work” is contradictory, that the value system her walled off country ascribes isn’t a universal law of nature. The result is that Kino’s guide inquires to her parents about the possibility of not undergoing the operation to become an adult. The parents immediately turn on Kino and quickly a mob forms demanding he leave, a demand which Kino is only too happy to fulfil as he says he believes if he stays he will be killed. The intervention of a passing inspector assuages his fears on this front with the explanation that since he has followed all the rules assigned to the identity of “traveller” the only adult thing to do would be to ensure his safe passage. The inspector redirects the fury back to its “correct” target, the young girl who guided Kino through the country. She is “a waste”, “an ingrate” and ultimately “a failure”, the very thing the world of “adults” cannot suffer to exist. Her parents raised her and now must dispose of her for the good of the country. The crowd and her parents themselves nod, congratulate and chuckle along with their assurances that they have to do their adult duty and the girl’s father advances on her with a knife smiling as he goes. Kino leaps in the way to protect her, Kino is killed and the crowd is left wondering why an adult would make such an non-adult-like decision before resuming their merry murder scene.
The girl backs up against Hermes, the bike she had helped Kino to name after his friend, as she watches the scene in shock. A voice speaks to the girl reminding her if she stays she will die, she responds that she doesn’t care because dying would be better than becoming “like them”. Presented with the choice between adulthood and death the voice offers the girl a third option – run. It is only after hopping on, riding, escaping at the voice’s behest that the girl notices where it is coming from – the bike Hermes. Collapsed in a field outside the walls of her home she and Hermes talk. Hermes mistakes a mournful utterance of Kino’s name as the girl’s name and after a moment of surprise the traveller throws the marker of their last day as a “child” away shouting “I am Kino!” The bike asks what his own name and Kino tells him that it is Hermes because “Hermes is Kino’s old friend”. Kino is now somewhere where “daughter”, “child” and “adult” mean nothing and Kino is now “Kino”, “traveller” and their very identity exists in the act of running. Kino learned from Kino it was possible to live differently and in losing everything comes to adopt Kino’s lifestyle and masculine presentation.
Kino’s escape comes from an undoubtedly traumatic event, one that arguably creates the persona of Hermes from a moment of desperation and the memory of Kino saying he could talk to the bike. Through landing outside of their birth society explicitly by otherisation from it Kino comes to a whole bunch of conclusions at once. Not only that the ideology of work is flawed and that choosing to travel is a possible and valid way to live, but that they – adrift in the sea of potential that makes up the world outside countries, can be Kino, they can be anything. Kino’s first act of self definition is to assume the identity of the man who showed them the holes in their society. In so doing Kino implicitly falls outside the definitions of gender and from Kino’s ambiguous presentation prior to this flashback episode it is clear Kino understands exactly what that means. Kino is no longer the innkeepers daughter on the verge of adulthood, Kino is Kino the traveller. Perhaps Kino would have always come to these conclusions without the intervention of Kino to spark them or the operation to stop them or perhaps the moment of becoming other simply undermined all belief in any social structures in the same instant. Either way Kino exists outside of countries and Kino is instructive in what this operation is meant to prevent.
I didn’t initially mention that the Kino that starts this episode is not our normal Kino nor is he the Kino we finish the episode with. I have similarly left out a core component of what delineates “adult” and “child” in our conceptions of productivity and work. Kino’s transition into minority figure at the same time as Kino’s “becoming defective” isn’t a coincidence. The systems that define the ideology of work and concepts of “becoming adult” or “failing to become adult” (in other words “remaining child”) explicitly demonise not only not working but anything that can be seen to detract from work. Disability marks one out as a hindrance to the cult of work as the idea that one has a harder time or simply cannot work is incompatible with work as moral imperative. Disability can only be tolerated where those who have disabilities suffer them quietly and get on with work, disability can only be applauded when people are seen to commit to work “in spite” of it. “Work” priotises the normal and just as a “traveller” is an incompatible existential threat so to is anything else that threatens to demonstrate contradictions in the circular system that defines “Worker vs. Shirker”. Racial and sexual identity in turn are viewed as threats to that status quo and therefore work, in the established system where those who extract labour value from workers manage to pass the blame onto the weak and transform worker into enforcer what we in reality have is a system of hierarchy based on identity. Workers who belong to the majority identity are encouraged to band together to protect themselves from those who seek to “profit off their labour” by continuing to exist in a society that keeps them poor and out of work by holding “work” as a gift to be granted by the powerful. Minority groups cannot work because they are denied work, because they are denied work they are thought to be unable to produce value and are thus rewarded less. Minority groups are increasingly thereby denied access to education and the connections required to advance their position or interests and then if they attempt to argue for their right to exist regardless they are decried and pushed out as a threat to society.
In the work definition disability and minority identity automatically become defined as “not worker” by those that benefit from using them as comparison to themselves. It is a self-fulfilling system when the belief that all outside the norm are unproductive is used to justify cutting them out of the means of production. Further still minority groups do the work those with the room to choose their work choose not to do as they are left to struggle over worse positions of precarity. The resulting reliance on cheap desperate labour by the leaders then leads to minorities being saddled with the blame for the system of wage reduction entailed in valuing “work” over all else. The system that has been imposed by those who actually own the property, those that define what it means to be “adult”. “Normal” then is seen as “adult” and difference is seen as a failure to grow up, any queer individual has commonly heard the refrain that acting as though discrimination exists makes them immature and they’ve certainly been told at some point in their life that they will grow out of being themselves. The logic is always there even when stated with concern – “being this way will make it harder to be employed” and one cannot be an adult without employment. Infantilising descriptions are common in cultural descriptions of racial minorities going back throughout western capitalist history and it is quite obvious there is a culturally assumed lack of rationality (adult common sense) in individuals outside whiteness – depicted as stupidity, violent natures or whatever else. Women are “hysterical”, leftists are “crazy”, so on forever, what ever is not “work” is therefore not “adult”, or “rational” as right wingers would have you put it.
That the ideology of adulthood necessitated the death of a child is no surprise. In reality violent movements to force out migrant workers, the assault of queer individuals who have the temerity to exist in public, the systematic denial and humiliation of those with disabilities and the election of those who promise to extend all of the above are accepted parts of modern society. For the sake of its peace “adult” society requires any who cannot become the working normal adult to be removed. The very struggle to survive of those on the fringes is an offense to “adulthood” and “grow up” is a common line from those who consider themselves above physically violent victimisation of the oppressed but just fine with the denial of the system that keeps them propped above them in judgement. A murder is a murder whether it is done via a knife or through the explicit denial of resources one requires to live. A system which denies resources based on a hierarchy formed around “work” whereby only the majority get to be counted as “worker” is a society that at its heart relies on mass murder (without even getting into where those resources are appropriated from in the first place). A society that defines struggling against these confines or even believing that the hatred and capital flows that enable them even exist as “irrationality” and therefore “insanity” is one that pathologises all things that are not “work”.
For my own deep attachment to this episode of Kino no Tabi all of this is important. It positions Kino in a way that formed a deep personal link between me and them. Sitting here unemployed, mentally ill and queer in my home performing no kind of “productive work”, I am often reminded of how the society I exist in (and yet feel completely outside of) considers me. I’m a “parasite” that has failed to “become adult” and it is in my queerness and my struggles with mental health in an unsympathetic world that have resulted in where I am today – dropping out of education, falling into an extended depression, struggling along with recovery. This very essay will be seen as the product of an irrational mind that won’t simply grow up and learn to accept reality. In Kino I see another outsider (a fellow traveller if you will) and though I’ve stopped running the nature of existing within running from your own original imposed social reality and never sticking around too long in any others feels almost like a comforting home to me. I struggle to live within the confines of what my country expects of me and its majority values would cast me as a leech at best. Kino was cast out in a moment, I slid out over the course of many years but in having to run I’ve still found myself roaming from projections of reality just for the thrill of exploration.
“Adulthood” is often thrown around in a more benign form that nonetheless echoes the concept of having become a proper productive person. Media is judged on the basis that “an adult” wouldn’t have the time to engage with it and in a common form of that is the insistence that “becoming a parent” means you “grow out” of things. The issue isn’t with that statement as a whole so much as it is the implication of parenthood as inevitability and thus also that parenthood is in itself adulthood. “Adult” in entertainment classification means violence and grit often relegating empathy to things classified as “for women” which naturally translates to “childish”. For me this kind of language automatically withdraws queer lives from being considered “adult” and while that may not be the intent it is hard not to hear those echoes emanating from culture at large. The concept that free time should be considered “childish” is a huge factor in maintaining the belief people should be always working, the belief that people who struggle to survive simply are refusing to grow up and take life seriously. “Free time” too is something thrust upon those who cannot find employment or compensation for their labour for whatever reason, the aesthetic laid out in this argument not only lays the blame at the victims feet but implicitly shames them for using that time for essentially anything. It is ultimately part of the structure that valorises work at the expense of all else – the complaint that one doesn’t have enough free time is of course entirely merited but the framing so often relies on juxtaposing that against those that have more rather than those denying them the free time to begin with. This echoes a trend in political organisation too where people throw around “basement dwellers”, “armchair activists” and resort to suggesting people have too much free time when conflicts of identity come up internally. All of this reflects a culturally enforced view that those who do not work are stealing from those that do, the very logic that underpins the whole structure of who does and does not get to count as a “worker” or an “adult”. Though one may not intend to advance it it remains under the surface as all of us were taught it from birth.
Kino is forced out of the society of adults by the simple act of questioning whether things have to be this way. The act of fleeing renders Kino neither “adult” nor “child”, Kino becomes simply – Kino and through that Hermes becomes Hermes. It is only by being outside the binaries of this “country” that we can become ourselves and recognise the selves of others. That’s why “I am Kino” is one of the most affecting moments I’ve experienced in media.
A Traveller who averts their eyes from the truth can’t become happy, Kino