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Comic review: 'Kino No Tabi: Book One of The Beautiful World'

Katie Haegele
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Kino No Tabi: Book One
of The Beautiful World

by Keiichi Sigsawa
Tokyopop ($7.99)

Meet Kino, a free-thinking, pint-size world traveler who cruises the globe on a talking motorcycle, fighting injustice wherever she finds it. She's a cultural relativist, kinda, but she definitely knows the difference between right and wrong. She's like Tank Girl meets Kant, only more butch than both. She's my new personal hero.

"Kino No Tabi'' is the first book in a new series about the itinerant Kino and her trusty sidekick/conveyance, Hermes (a reference to the Greek god of travelers, not the overpriced silk scarves). Originally a nine-book series of Japanese "light fiction," "Kino'' is now in English thanks to Tokyopop, the publishing company almost single-handedly responsible for bringing manga to the English-speaking American masses. And though "Kino'' is not an example of the comic-like books, it does feature a few lovely, spare drawings by illustrator Kouhaku Kuroboshi and was made into an anime series.

As it has with its pulpy manga books, Tokyopop produced "Kino'' as a beautiful but inexpensive paperback, so thick and pleasing to hold and look at that you want to eat it. On the cover is an illustration of a smiling young woman touching a child's head, her skirt pooled around her on the ground - both of them surrounded by barbed wire and human skulls. The image hints at the series' overarching conceit that "the world is not beautiful, therefore it is."

Kino left her home village at 12 or 13 and has been on the road since, a permanent traveler with a thicket of spiky black hair and a great big pistol strapped to her leg. (She believes in peace, but practices her shot every morning just in case.) On the back of Hermes she sails through lush forests, open fields, and deserts, stopping in towns and villages along the way to learn about the people there but never staying for longer than three days.

One of the most striking things about her travels is that every village she and Hermes visit in this first book has something bizarre and unhappy about it. In one place, the villagers underwent a treatment that made them truly empathetic, experiencing other people's feelings as though they were their own. But their experiment in being good turned out to be a big mistake, as Kino and Hermes learn. In every place they visit they learn something new - and often disturbing - about human nature.

The stories read, in turn, like sci-fi cautionary tales of progress-gone-wrong or classical philosophy lessons. The book is true to its "light" moniker in one sense: It's a quick and pleasurable read, and Kino and Hermes have - somewhat improbably - the hammy rapport of an old-school comic duo. But the novel is shot through with a feeling of melancholy, even desolation, and the ideas behind the stories are sophisticated and spiritual.

The book's most delightful feature is Kino's androgyny. She's a girl, technically, but she's certainly not girlie, either in appearance or attitude.

The interesting part is that she doesn't feel the need to identify herself as female, even when there's some question. The guard in one city mistakes her for a boy, to which she says, "Don't call me `boy.' I'm not a boy. I'm Kino." (The anime series plays with her boyish appearance even more, apparently, leaving the viewer guessing for a while. Check the description on Netflix: She's called a he!)

Kino was yanked out of normal living at that strange crossover time of preadolescence, which seems to have put her in her own category: She's not a child or an adult, not a boy or a girl. She's Kino. Her identification as herself takes precedence over any other identification, making Sigsawa's book an unusual and empowering version of the parentless, Pippi Longstocking-style tomboy tale. It's such good fun accompanying Kino as she hurtles through the countryside that when she and Hermes bed down in the dark forest at night, it's nice to realize that their adventures have ended only for the day.

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