Friday, February 7, 2014

Kino's Journey and the Imprinted Identity

An understated gem among slice-of-life anime, Kino's Journey (2003) follows the travels of the titular protagonist through various bizarre and unique lands.  If you haven't seen it, you should see it.  Even if you aren't concerned with androgyny, you should see it.  But while we're here, let's talk about androgyny.

Aboard a sentient motorcycle named Hermes, Kino rides with no particular destination. The fearless, gun-toting traveler has only one rule:  Stay in each country for exactly three days and two nights, just long enough to experience its customs but not long enough to get too attached.  From a traditional country that imposes cruel coming-of-age rituals on its children, to a mechanical country that found a way for people to read each other's thoughts, the themes explored are outlandishly exaggerated yet hauntingly familiar, and they often raise strikingly philosophical questions about real human nature.

One more such philosophical question might be implicitly raised through the main character's own identity.  Until the fourth episode, there is no indication whatsoever – not through clothing, not through mannerisms, nor through discussion – of Kino's gender as either male or female.  That's because there's no need for it.  Kino doesn't particularly identify with either label.  Kino's singularly well-affirmed identity is that as a traveler, as nothing more than an (allegedly) impartial observer of the surrounding world....

Incidentally, the animation of Kino's Journey is based on a series of light novels by Keiichi Sigsawa.  The original text is able to successfully sustain this sense of gender ambiguity for the first several chapters thanks to the gender-neutrality offered by Japanese grammar.  However, in the English-translated novel (just one novel, as sadly only the first volume made it overseas), that ambiguity was abandoned, due to the impracticality of avoiding words like "she" or "he" via third-person narration in such a gendered language.

To avoid spoiling gender in English prose:  I've been attempting it in this post so far but boy is it difficult.  It's worth considering whether the allowance for ambiguity in the Japanese language has anything to do with the androgynous aesthetic being so common in Japanese artistic subcultures.  Language, after all, is an unavoidable presence in (groups of) people's lives, one that is constantly reflecting and re-shaping our ideology whether we're conscious of it or not.

The lack of gender-neutral options in English grammar is troubling in more contexts than just the translation of Kino's novel.  In English-speaking culture, if a person doesn't fall within strict categories designated by "she" or "he," there is quite literally no way to refer to that person but through dehumanization ("it") or through the stripping of individuality ("they").  Isn't that troubling?  Of course, while gendered language may contribute to social injustice, we can't go so far as to say that gender-neutral language automatically creates social justice.  Japanese society, like plenty of other societies that use gender-neutral language, is still no bastion of gender equity.

...So, what was the point of that linguistic tangent?  There is a point!  The point is that people are constantly shaped in ways we don't realize.  And the next point, infinitely repeatable in regards to androgynous themes, is that something as simple as how we see gender itself – a fact like "boy or girl" – can't inherently characterize an individual.  No true "identity" is established at a single hinge; it's an indefinable, continuous process.

Indeed, in Kino's Journey, the protagonist's fluid experiences are what mold the unique character.  It's hard to be a traveler without internalizing the contents of those travels.  Though Kino may intend to be a detached observer, there is no doubt that the traveler develops opinions on all encountered along the journey.  There is no doubt that the people Kino meets along the road are deeply influential.  "Kino" isn't even Kino's birth name, but a name borrowed from an important figure in Kino's past.

Kino works so well as an androgynous character because self-restraint from imposed identity is a deliberate part of Kino's personality.  At least in the gendered respect, Kino more or less manages to succeed.  But, fortunately or unfortunately, it doesn't always work.

[  "The world is not beautiful, therefore it is."  ]

That's the thought-provoking tagline of this highly insightful series.  See it, and you can't help but be driven to consider some more of the ambiguity and the inconstance in your own "journey."


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  2. I for one appreciate you not giving away the character's gender, gonna go find this now.

    Thanks for the good read, yo