Kino’s Journey (2003) is one of the great classics of anime: directed by the late Ryutaro Nakamura (Serial Experiments Lain) with his characteristic eye for negative space and eerie, melancholy sound design, the series is a quiet but purposeful sequence of short stories ranging from the fantastical to the mundane. All of them are about human nature, and as Kino meets various people, we learn a little more about why Kino is on that titular journey.
There’s one more thing, too: Kino is an agendered character. While the series doesn’t shy away from the knowledge that Kino is AFAB (assigned female at birth) when discussing their past, the present-day Kino the viewer meets is almost never gendered in dialogue—and when they are, it’s a notable and commented-on diversion from the norm. Because of the choices made by this adaptation, Kino becomes something incredibly rare: a nonbinary, AFAB anime character who isn’t a robot, alien, or sentient rock, but a human being.
One of the issues in English subtitling is the indirect nature of Japanese as a language. Whole conversations can be held without using a third-person pronoun to refer to someone else, meaning how characters refer to themselves is one of the primary means of determining their gender identification. Kino, for example, uses the polite, softly masculine “boku” as a personal pronoun; the narration generally avoids third-person pronouns entirely (though the 2004-era ADV subtitles do not reflect this); and other characters predominately refer to Kino as either “Kino-san” or the gender-neutral “traveler” (tabibito-san).
There are two stand-out instances where Kino is referred to by gendered forms of address—and both times, Kino corrects the speaker. During “Coliseum (Parts 1 and 2)” Kino is referred to first as “little boy” (bouya) and “missy” (ojou-san). In both cases, Kino responds with a variant of “Don’t call me that. I’m Kino.”
This is worth noting not just because Kino shows discomfort with being gendered, but because they don’t complain when people refer to them as “traveler.” If the best way to determine a character’s gender is to take note of how they refer to themselves, then we have our answer: the only times modern-day Kino discusses how they’d like to be addressed, it’s to say they explicitly don’t want to be called a boy or girl.
No one in text calls Kino non-binary, mind you. For starters, the equivalent term “X-gender” was extremely new at the time (dating to the late 1990s/2000) even within Japan’s queer community. It’s highly unlikely that a cis director would have heard of it, much less thought to use it.
This is an important consideration with older works: the increase in awareness of LGBTQ terminology among cis and straight populations is an extremely recent phenomenon. As such, one has to read the text to see if it has the qualities of a certain group, not whether that group was explicitly name-checked.
Take, for example, how Kino’s backstory so strongly reflects a trans childhood. This was almost certainly not intended by author or director, but it resonates all the same—particularly when looked at in tandem with older Kino’s rejection of gendered pronouns.
All of the “countries” in Kino’s Journey have their own rules and societies, which are often wildly different from one another. In Kino’s case, their homeland was “the land of acting like adults.” It’s a country of sharp binaries: all citizens are either adults or children, with the change demarcated by physiological difference (in this case, a forced brain surgery). Kino—who was given another name at birth that is never specified and which Kino thinks of with distaste, in much the same way trans people will discuss their deadnames—is almost due for this surgery when the traveler comes to town.
This traveler, the original bearer of the name “Kino,” takes a liking to young Kino and spends time with them. During this time, young Kino asks traveler Kino if he’s a child or an adult. And he replies “neither.” He’s a traveler. This captures young Kino’s imagination, leading them to reject the mandated surgery and search for their own way of growing up.
Kino’s story is one about the bodily autonomy of children (as well as a sharp critique on the idea of “doing what’s necessary” in one’s work), since the adults of their village are allowed to do anything to their child-property up to and including murder for disobedience—but the subtext of identity and gender is evocative. Kino lives in a world of binaries, unaware that there are any other options. When a caring mentor tells them there are other options, Kino takes on a new name, a new identity, and changes from feminine to masculine-androgynous dress and pronouns. Just as they rejected the defined parameters of child/adult, they left the confines of man/woman behind as well.
What might be most striking of all is the way Kino doesn’t change following this revelation. “Gender reveals” are a popular thing in anime, and it’s not uncommon to treat or even draw a character differently after their assigned gender is made known to the audience. Persona 4’s Naoto Shirogane (AFAB) had much attention paid to her breasts in a specially placed hot springs scene. No. 6’s Dogkeeper (AFAB) is assumed to be an ideal caretaker for an infant after the reveal, despite showing no interest in human children or child-rearing before. Fushigi Yugi’s Nuriko (AMAB) was out-and-out drawn with broader shoulders and a flatter chest despite wearing the same clothes.
These are only a few examples of a widespread tactic. But Kino is drawn and treated exactly the same following the peek into their childhood. Their design never changes, and people still call them “traveler.”
A brief word about authorial intent, death of the author, and reading a text. Authorial intent, particularly choices made in adapting works, can and do influence how a work is read. The author of the Kino light novels, Keiichi Sigsawa, has for example had no problem with signing over Kino’s design for sexualized marketing over the years; by contrast, the art design on the Nakamura anime is deliberately soft and round for characters of all genders. There’s a clear creative hand at work here.
Whether or not director Nakamura set out to create A Nonbinary Character (something that, again, he likely wouldn’t have had terminology for), the decisions he made in adapting the light novels—including making the designs overall more androgynous, placing Kino’s backstory earlier in the story rather than as a late-stage reveal, and having characters act the same whether they know Kino’s assigned birth sex or not—are crucial components.
Kino is not nonbinary because their “real” gender is a mystery. Kino is not someone who’s hiding their gender. They were assigned a gender at birth, and decided to change their presentation and how they wanted the world to refer to them; and all of this is included as a background matter-of-course as Kino is having their adventures. It is an immensely powerful, singular experience. Kino is truly rare and special, not just one of the only transmasculine characters in anime, but the star of one of the medium’s great stories.