Given that there are two adaptations of Kino’s Journey, it’s only natural to compare them. The original Kino’s Journey has long been a cult classic within the anime community, so announcements of a revival were obviously met with a mix of skepticism and excitement. With a totally new staff people were worried and looking at it now, it’s easy to see why. The new show is popular enough but negative comparisons to the original are everywhere. I’ll be upfront here: I prefer the 2003 adaptation. That said, I still enjoy the 2017 version quite a bit and I’d like to explore the specific ways in which the two releases differ.
There’s no definitive thing which makes the 2003 adaptation a better show than the 2017 adaptation. The reason why the original is better comes down to a billion tiny things that slowly add up and ultimately create a work which is simply more interesting.
To begin with, we need to discuss the core difference from which all these tiny things spring: the tone. 2003’s adaptation has an incredibly unique tone. If I were to compare it to anything, it would be Serial Experiments Lain. This is because the original was directed by Ryutaro Nakamura, the director of Lain, who unfortunately passed away in 2013. The tone he crafted in the original was off-kilter in the best of ways, feeding into the themes of the story quite well. To do this he took quite a few liberties from the source but I’m of the opinion that direct adaptations should be avoided if necessary, which was the case in 2003.
2017, on the other hand, is directed by Tomohisa Taguchi. I’m not going to say that Taguchi is an awful director because that doesn’t seem to be the case. But the simple fact is that he doesn’t come anywhere close to the brilliance of Nakamura. Before Kino he had only directed Persona adaptations and Sousei no Onmyouji. Those works have some interesting visual direction, sure, but they lack the fantastic sense of tone and mood that Nakamura’s works demonstrate. Of course, expecting that would have been absurd. Nakamura was a unique director whose style can never be fully replicated. Had Taguchi attempted to follow the style of the original, it probably would have turned out worse than it is. But I think it’s important to acknowledge this change in directors, as it’s central to the death by a thousand cuts that’s led to a work which won’t be held up as a cult classic.
Even from a brief look at the visuals of both shows, this difference in tone is clear. 2003 is a show which is grimier in every way. Take a look at the character designs. In this adaptation, Kino’s clothes are all dark and muddy colors. Their brown jacket is the brightest of their clothes but even that isn’t all that bright. This design varies more from the light novel illustrations but it does a good job at fitting the mood. Kino’s 2017 design is much cleaner. Their clothes pop more and their skin is shinier. This is true for the character designs across both shows in general but it’s important to look at Kino’s design in particular because they embody the show’s ideas.
This visual difference extends beyond the character designs. To be quite blatant, the 2003 adaptation is never bright. Even when it’s colorful, such as the time when Kino is among the red flowers in episode 4, the show is very muted. This does a great job at setting an idea of what the show is like. The countries in Kino’s Journey are mostly pretty awful, with few exceptions. That said, while the drawings are dull and kind of ugly, there is some beauty to them. This embodies the show’s idea of “the world is not beautiful, therefore it is.”
Unfortunately, the world of 2017’s Kino’s Journey is beautiful. Sure, the countries are just as bizarre as always but they’re almost all bright and shiny. This might seem like a minor gripe but the entire concept doesn’t really work to me if the world is beautiful. In the abstract, this show looks a lot better than 2003 but within context, 2003 does a better job at crafting a visual narrative that fits the show.
One thing that frequently gets pointed out in regards to the original’s visuals is the scanlines. This show did not need scanlines but it put them there for a reason. The scanlines invoke the idea that the show is somewhat historical, that it can last the way it is. Furthermore, it adds to the grime that I mentioned earlier. CRTs are a great embodiment of grimy, old technology, and that’s even truer today than in 2003. CRTs aren’t beautiful and are just technologically inferior to modern TVs but they have a charm that makes them wonderful. Once again, this ties into the show’s major themes.
Another area influenced by the director which clearly changes between the two works is the structure. 2003 is made in a very deliberate order. It constantly builds up the harshness and absurdity of the countries, the 3-day rule, and the show’s philosophy. Its layout is honestly perfect for how it’s done. This is particularly true for Land of Adults and A Kind Land, though I’ll get back to those later.
2017, on the other hand, is haphazard and boring in its structure. The harshness and absurdity of the countries is built up, but none of the rest is. The 3-day rule is practically never established, as Kino breaks it multiple times. Furthermore, the show constantly shifts away from Kino, putting Shizu or Master in the pilot’s seat for an episode. This wouldn’t be a problem if it were a 2 or 3 cour series but in a 1 cour series, it detracts from the focus on Kino’s philosophy and way of doing things, making the episodes that do focus on them significantly less interesting, though again, I’ll be getting back to this later. Even worse, the episodes that do focus on them often highlight their fighting ability, something which was muted in the original even if present.
Those who like 2017 more often feel that way because it sticks closer to the source material. This is true. The light novels do change perspective and don’t always focus on Kino. However, they do that after many chapters that put Kino in center stage. 2017 does this right out the gate. In general, I find 2017 to be an adaptation which is held down by trying to emulate its source material. As I said, I rarely prefer direct adaptations to ones that take liberties and that’s quite true here.
Now, I think it’s important we look at three distinct stories to highlight the differences between these two adaptations. These three stories are the only ones which are shared between both versions. They are Coliseum -Avengers-, Land of Adults -Natural Right-, and A Kind Land -Tomorrow Never Comes-. These three stories showcase the adaptation philosophies that went into these shows and do the best job at demonstrating why I and others prefer the 2003 version.
We’ll start with Coliseum. To be honest, I’ve never been much of a fan of this story, even in the original. It’s the least interesting story that 2003 adapted, made worse by being stretched across a whole two episodes, which I don’t think it really needed. However, seeing the way 2017 handled it has given me a bit more fondness for the original. 2017 is a direct adaptation of the book and because of that, it’s quite quick. There’s never any time to really care about what’s going on. Kino is badass, Shizu gets introduced, the end. It’s fine but it hardly showcases anything interesting.
2003, on the other hand, gets a lot more in-depth. The characters, particularly the King, are significantly fleshed out. Shizu has a very different characterization here but it works quite well in my opinion. The focus on the depravity of the country and the way it’s supported by its slave and poor populations gives it a bit more depth that makes it interesting. Like I said, it’s no masterpiece and it’s still my least favorite story in the original. But even that little bit of interesting material does a lot in making it a better telling. I was bored out of my mind watching the 2017 version, while I’ve at the very least enjoyed watching the 2003 version both times. That said, this episode is fairly minor all things considered and is really only there to introduce Shizu in the newer adaptation.
The bigger issue is with the other two stories. This is where the structure comes up again.
I’d like to start by saying that I’m actually quite fond of the way 2017 adapted these stories. I think they’re some of the best of the show and the directing of them was really quite good. If I didn’t have 2003 to compare to, there would be no issues. That said, I do, so there are.
2003 adapted Land of Adults as the 4th episode while making A Kind Land the finale. This is very important to the structure. Land of Adults further elaborates on Kino’s character and how they came to be the way they are. A Kind Land is meant to parallel Land of Adults but with a major change at the end. This is heavily sold in this adaptation. Kino and Sakura’s parents look almost the exact same and their countries are remarkably similar as well, in addition to them having the same names, something already present in the light novels.
Having A Kind Land as the final episode really works with the structure of the show up until that point. It’s the first episode where Kino considers breaking the 3-day rule, it’s one of relatively few countries with nothing particularly strange about it, at least in an off-putting way, and it’s a strong emotional moment to close out the show and show why Kino was so determined to follow the 3-day rule from there onwards. In essence, it perfectly distills everything the show had been doing up until that point. The similarities with Land of Adults are there to throw off the viewer, only for them to realize too late that the country really was a kind land.
2017, on the other hand, puts these episodes back-to-back and switches the order. This ruins the effect entirely. It means nothing that Kino almost breaks their 3-day rule when they’ve already broken it multiple times in the show, even if there were excuses. The parallels, while still there, are quite a bit weaker. When Kino’s backstory comes first, it’s easy to see why they care so much about Sakura upon meeting her. When Sakura comes first, the viewer isn’t as invested in the country, because the parallels aren’t there yet.
Of course, the other issues with tone are still present in these two episodes but like I said, I do really enjoy them. The original’s off-kilter atmosphere really works, with Land of Adults really coming across as creepy. The way the show uses sound and framing to portray paranoia almost makes it feel as if it’s an episode straight out of Lain. The 2017 version brings some great visual motifs like the bluebird though, which help to make up for the less interesting atmosphere.
A Kind Land doesn’t fare quite as well. The 2017 version doesn’t focus quite as much on Sakura herself, which makes the death of the country at the end significantly less impactful. It’s always going to be easier to care about an individual than a group of nameless people. The 2003 version did a better job at building up to the climax with the lingering shots so common to this adaptation. Again, 2017 still did a great adaptation of this story but it simply pales in comparison.
In all, I think the 2017 Kino’s Journey is a good show and is especially good given the circumstances. Nakamura isn’t going to come back from the dead to direct a new season, so his flair can’t be brought back. And at times, such as in the 2007 movie, his flair did not make the show better in the slightest. But I do feel bad about the fact that the 2017 adaptation won’t survive as a cult classic. As in many cases, the direct adaptation is not the best. Well, what can you do? If you like the 2017 version and haven’t seen 2003’s, give it a shot. It’ll be worth it.
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