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Kino No Tabi cover Kino No Tabi by Keiichi Sigsawa

Tokyopop trade paperback - 207 pages
Copyright 2000; English text copyright 2006
Cover art and interior illustrations by Kouhaku Kuroboshi
Translated by Andrew Cunningham

Book reviewed October 2006

Rating: 5/10  (Mildly Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

          One of the fastest growing segments of the American entertainment industry is Japanese anime and manga.  Many of the most successful anime and manga have science fiction or fantasy themes, yet I find surprisingly little overlap between fans of anime/manga and prose SF/F.  Otaku (anime fans) are often entirely unfamiliar with contemporary written SF/F, and too many SF/F readers have never seen even such classic SF anime as Cowboy Bebop or Ghost in the Shell.

Kino No Tabi is one of the first in Tokyopop's new "Pop Fiction" line of young adult prose novels, which hopefully will help bridge this gap between anime/manga and prose SF/F.

This is the first of an eight-volume series of Keiichi Sigsawa's Kino No Tabi stories.  This series, subtitled The Beautiful World, was first serialized in Japan beginning in 2000.  Many American otaku are familiar with Kino No Tabi from the 13-episode anime series, created in 2003 and released in the U.S. in 2005 under the title Kino's Journey.  (There was also a 30-minute prequel made in 2005, which has not yet been distributed in the U.S., and a second film is in the works.  The series has not been adapted to manga, although there have been illustrated editions of some of the stories.)

Kino No Tabi follows Kino, a young girl traveling aimlessly on Hermes, her talking motorcycle.  Kino is 12 at the beginning of the book, a bit older in most of the stories.  She remains childish in some ways, as is Hermes, but she is also heavily armed and tough as nails.  Sigsawa tells us nothing of the place Kino and Hermes inhabit except that it is comprised of large tracts of wilderness separating various independent city-states.  The book consists of six short stories, typically recounting the three days it takes for Kino and Hermes to learn about the latest city-state they have chanced upon.

This book is entertaining and easy to read, in large part because the relationship between Kino and Hermes is so charming.  The writing style should appeal to anime fans and manga readers as well as fans of young adult fantasy such as Eragon.  Moreover, Sigsawa plainly has something to say in these stories, beginning with his central premise, introduced in the book's very first page: "The world is not beautiful, therefore it is."

Despite these strengths the book is not as compelling as it might have been, because its narrative framework distances the reader from the story.  In most of the places Kino and Hermes visit, some dreadful thing has already occurred, which Kino and Hermes are then told about after the fact.  In one town they learn that the development of telepathy has ironically forced people to avoid each other, in another they see that a generations-long war has been replaced with something even worse, and so on.  (Because the cities' fates are driven by scientific or social changes, not by anything supernatural, I consider these stories science fiction rather than fantasy, talking motorcycle notwithstanding.)  In each instance, the story is essentially over before Kino and Hermes arrive, and there is little for them to do but shake their head/handlebars in dismay.  Oddly enough, even though Kino No Tabi started out in prose and was only adapted to anime later, I find this more of a problem in the novel than in the anime series, which better manages to keep the viewer involved in the story through the many flashbacks.

Most of the individual segments of Kino No Tabi are best viewed not as complete stories, but as parables.  The parables are exaggerated to the point of absurdity in order to make Sigsawa's point.  In "The Land of Majority Rule," for instance, Sigsawa conveys the danger of tyranny of the majority by showing a purely democratic city, where the citizens have voted to execute one another until at last only one person remains.  I suspect this kind of morality play will work better for young readers than for skeptical teenagers; indeed, the series has been compared to the famous children's book The Little Prince.  However, many parents will find it inappropriate for pre-teen readers, because Kino No Tabi is surprisingly violent and morbid, replete with stacked corpses, an exploding head or two, and miscellaneous onstage murders and attempted murders, beginning with Kino's own father trying to kill her for insolence.

By building his narrative around these exaggerated cautionary tales, Sigsawa undercuts his central premise, that the world's imperfections are what give it beauty.  It is rather difficult to see the beauty in the barbaric ends met by most of the cities Kino passes.  The cities' stories have played out horrifically before Kino even gets there, so there is never any opportunity for the sort of redemption that might support Sigsawa's thesis.

          The exception is "Coliseum," the last and thankfully longest story.  ("Coliseum" was not the final story in the original Japanese edition, but Tokyopop has rearranged the stories' sequence.)  "Coliseum" is the one segment of the book where Kino has an important role to play in what happens to the city she is visiting, and for that reason is certainly the most exciting tale for a young reader.  (I can say this with confidence, because I read this book out loud to my 10-year-old son, and he was on the edge of his seat throughout "Coliseum.")  In this story, Kino is forced into a competition of deadly combat.  Because Kino goes out of her way to avoid killing her adversaries, this tale partially offsets the book's violent tone.  Even better, the story's outcome provides the only transcendent moment consistent with Sigsawa's premise about beauty.  "Coliseum" closes the first volume of Kino No Tabi on a strong note, and hopefully signals good things for the volumes to come.
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Copyright 2006 Aaron Hughes

Kino No Tabi Japanese anime art (right)

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Links to other Kino No Tabi and Kino's Journey reviews and websites:
passport to the beautiful world .|. a kino no tabi website
Kino's Journey - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Keiichi Sigsawa - Wikipedia

For information on more science fiction and fantasy books:
Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

This page was last updated - 20 June 2013