Another great example of late 1990s anime! Beautiful art style, winding storylines that don’t quite fit a single genre (for more reasons than one here), and entertaining characters that scream nostalgia and classics. Trigun is above all entertaining, and has some academically interesting parts as well. It’s somewhere between a masterpiece and a giant mess though, and it’s sometimes difficult […]
Another great example of late 1990s anime! Beautiful art style, winding storylines that don’t quite fit a single genre (for more reasons than one here), and entertaining characters that scream nostalgia and classics. Trigun is above all entertaining, and has some academically interesting parts as well. It’s somewhere between a masterpiece and a giant mess though, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell which it’s closer to. Nevertheless, it’s a lot of fun to watch (and listen to!). I will always recommend anime from this era. This one is a great example of it.
This Vash guy…
I’m going to sidetrack hard right away and say I can’t get enough of how Meryl Stryfe says “Vash the Stampede.” The voice acting from this era, for this kind of show, is already very humorous in the first place—you can almost feel yourself on the verge of laughing just listening to these people talk most of the time, regardless of what they’re saying—but hearing Miss Meryl say it is a hidden gem in this show. I think it even adds a little to Vash’s character itself.
So Vash is the wandering gunman who leaves death and terror and destruction in his wake. His massive overcoat, evil genius glasses, spiky bleached hair, and big silver plated pistol leaves all those who identify him in fear. If they can identify him that is. Because usually nobody knows who he is even when he’s right in front of them. One of the things I found funniest things about this show was that for the first maybe seven or eight episodes, Meryl and Milly Thompson weren’t even sure they had the right person. This effect was so profound that I wasn’t even sure the man was actually Vash for a while! That was great.
But it was him. And the reason most people didn’t know was because they insisted Vash was this legendary figure of evil and destruction, bigger than life (and all other humans supposedly), a Tasmanian Devil, or like Mel Gibson says of William Wallace’s legend: “If he were here, he’d consume the British with fire from his eyes, and bolts of lightning from his arse.” No, not only is Vash not causing all the legendary destruction (usually), he’s just a normal guy, and everyone has a really hard time believing that.
Let me check that: he’s not a normal guy. He’s on the total opposite end of spectrum from the monster that legend has created for him. He’s a nutjob. He’s a clown, a doofus, always being playful or funny, never being serious about anything. He’ll say the most ridiculous things with a totally straight face. “I meditate every morning diligently,” he says at the beginning of one episode as he meditatively sits looking out the window. “I quit after three seconds.”
This is really the reason people don’t believe he’s “The Humanoid Typhoon.” No way this pathetic goofball could be a legendary outlaw, the man with the $$60,000,000,000 bounty on his head. I don’t understand the “$$” either, but, true story, I had an editor once edit that to just one “$” in a piece I published elsewhere, but it really is supposed to be that way.
But Vash does have a serious side. He’s quite old actually, and has lived a long life on this Tatooine-esque planet Gunsmoke. He lives life frivolously, but his past is shaped by tragedy, loss, hardship, and life or death choices, times when his ethic was challenged and forged hot in his heart. Rather than these experiences hardening his heart, he’s become a big teddy bear of a guy under normal circumstances. It’s kind of sweet. But his serious side does emerge. When push comes to shove, the teddy bear goes away, and a steely-eyed and unwavering gunman emerges. He fights mostly without passion or emotion, doing what he needs to do to secure victory and then bringing the encounter to a close, whereupon he will return to the clownish self that drives Meryl nuts.
A couple of quick things about this character that really stood out to me. One is that this kind of character appears a few times in anime. A young male protagonist who’s legendary in combat but clownish in actuality, and who eventually has to face the demons from his past and becomes a lot more serious throughout that process, changing the tenor of the show along the way. Most of you probably think of Plunderer when you imagine this character type. Licht, the protagonist from that series, is almost exactly the same kind of character as Vash, actually sharing many characteristics. While I doubt Vash is the first character of this type ever to appear in anime, he certainly seems to have set the standard for this character type thereafter. Trigun was from 1998, while Plunderer aired way later in 2020. I feel it’s no accident that Licht is so similar to Vash. That kind of homage is always fun to see.
However, this character type has some issues, issues that create other potential issues that are difficult for the storywriter to avoid. Whenever a character changes personality so drastically, you always run the risk, as a writer, of accusations of letting the character “break character.” Sure, it’s part of Vash’s “character” to have a serious side and a clownish side. Nevertheless, it feels like he’s breaking character a bit when he becomes super serious. But on top of that are the other issues that arise from this almost inevitably.
Vash is very principled. Appropriate to his life-loving and energetic, funny personality, he insists he will not take a life with his famous weapon. Once the serious gunman personality is forced to appear, inevitably this ethic is challenged. Two writing challenges emerge here that make the path very stony for a storywriter. First, obviously the storywriter has to set up scenarios where Vash doesn’t have to shoot anyone yet still wins his battles easily. I needn’t emphasize how difficult that would be for a writer to pull off without his or her work seeming totally ridiculous. It’s all too convenient that a gunman, of all people, can somehow win all his fights without shooting anyone. Really? To the author’s credit here, this mostly works for Vash. It’s credible enough. It’s the other challenge that I have a bit of a problem with.
I realize it’s part of the story that Vash’s ethic is challenged. But is the point of the story to glorify the heroic Vash because he stays true to his principles to the end? Because if it is, then this does not occur. Vash does shoot more than one person in the end. It makes him question himself, bringing out an even more serious side of his character, but he does it all the same. He “breaks character” quite drastically. This is my point about this character type. Ultimately there was no way for the author to manage Vash’s character through these very trying encounters without Vash killing someone. So if I have any problem with Vash as a character, it’s that this character type inevitably will break its own character type in the end. There’s almost no way around it. That’s a little frustrating to a viewer.
Perhaps I make too much out of it. Outside of all that academic stuff, Vash is a fun and evocative character. His backstory and ultimately his resolution to everything is mostly satisfying in a character sense. And the clownish Vash is great. Masaya Onosaka does a great job with this voice. He’s from a different era, though what a great era it was! The only other thing most of us have probably heard him in is One Punch Man as Puripuri Prisoner (don’t get me started on that). Everything else he’s done is well in the past. I love this voice acting style from this era in anime. It’s so recognizably different from most anime voice acting today (2022). When I say you can listen to most of this show and feel like you’re just about to laugh the whole time, I’m not kidding. I watched most of the early parts of this show with a big smile on my face just listening to the characters chatter. Vash plays a big role in that.
The second biggest player in that regard though is Meryl Strife. Hiromi Tsuru is forever famous as Bulma from the massive Dragon Ball empire (though she plays many different voices in that series actually). She appeared in hundreds of anime from as far back as the early ‘80s all the way to the early 2000s. I’m sad to say that she passed away in 2017, or she might still be at it today, as many of the VAs from Trigun still are. She is so funny as Meryl Stryfe! Meryl is absolutely one of those characters you could listen to and just burst out laughing. She’s so emphatic, and everything she says is so overdone, it’s hilarious. Meryl’s a lot of fun.
Milly Thompson is almost as funny. She’s so energetic and simple and sweet. She’s the muscle for Meryl in their mission to minimize the damage caused by Vash (the insurance agent thing is really funny too). But she’s just a big goofball. She gets along with anybody, but definitely with Vash. She has a really big gun she uses, almost a machine gun kind of weapon. Perhaps this was the inspiration behind her Thompson name. She’s a lot of fun too.
Nicholas Wolfwood is a curious character. You could almost pull him out of this show and plop him down in the middle of One Piece and not think anything was out of place. I’m still not completely sure what kind of themes he represents in this show. I believe he’s supposed to be like a Christian priest of some kind, though we’re in a weird world here in this show, so I’m not 100% sure about that. But he has character flaws that he struggles with, often playing the antagonist to Vash, often playing the ally. He snakes his way around the tale in this manner, playing whichever role the author needs of him. It works. There’s certainly a lot that could be said about him, but I don’t want to go into too much of that now. I like his character. It’s a rare time when a Churchman type character is treated as a good guy (as he is most of the time) in anime, and that’s always good to see.
There are a lot of antagonist characters. I won’t go into all of them here. A lot of them could be randomly thrown into a One Piece or a Jojo too and the viewer wouldn’t know the difference. They’re sort of classic villain types in that sense. The chief villain is Knives, Vash’s brother from their unexplained origin. I kind of get the twins thing: it’s an old tale. One turns out one way, the other the opposite, and they end up fighting to the death in the end. There’s not a whole lot more to it than that, from my view at least. Again, I probably could dive into it, as the author undoubtedly put more thought into it that this little paragraph gives him credit for, but it suffices for the point.
Of the myriad of side characters, I really like Rem Saverem. She’s the sweet lady that raised Vash and Knives after they were picked up by her ship on another planet. She’s sweet, she’s beautiful, she’s smart, and she has a wonderful voice courtesy of Aya Hisakawa, who is most famous for the 2001 Fruits Basket (Yuki Souma), but who I remember best as the indomitable Priscilla from Claymore. She’s a really heartfelt character. If I may bring up One Piece one more time, she gives me a very similar feel as Bellmere, perhaps for her motherly and tragic role. I often remember these two together for that reason.
This anime is somewhere between character- and story-centered. These characters are pretty nice, and play their roles well. Like many shows from this era, the show drags on a little too long after a while and the characters begin to lose some of their shine when that happens, especially when they change character a little as the story changes tenor along the way. So I’m not especially excited by these characters, but I also find them memorable and entertaining, and that’s two really big parts of great anime characters.
Sometimes you’ll look at an anime, and you’ll look at its manga or LN source, and you’ll think “Those look really similar.” Other times, like with Trigun, you’ll look at both and say “One looks like manga, the other looks like anime.” I don’t say this is a bad thing, just that one distinctly looks different from the other without actually having a ton of obvious differences. If I had to categorize the differences for Trigun, I’d say the manga looks a littler weightier, a little more serious, than the anime, which looks more adventurous and comedic. Or, the manga looks like it’s just barely seinen, and the anime looks like it’s just barely shounen. It’s curious.
I like this style from this era. Pointed chins, hard angles, lots of shadowing, all the strands of hair, and the eye shapes that you basically see in this era and not a lot elsewhere. It always makes me smile just seeing this style. Like the voice acting, it always has you just on the edge of smiling. It’s entertaining just looking at it! That’s a big deal. Perhaps this is just a personal preference, but still, it does something for this audience of one that art styles characteristic of other eras don’t categorically do.
How does one categorize the genre for a show like this? Sci-fi dystopian space Western? Or could we just make a new genre called “Mad Max” and go with that? Anyway, the coloring feels right for whatever you want to call this genre. It’s colorful, flashy, but a little dull as well, although the dullness of color could be because of the film that aged before it was converted to digital, something I’ve discussed about pre-millenium anime before. Everything feels techy but also really dusty. Which basically is the way everything is in this show. So it works perfectly!
Vash’s design is nice. I love the tall broad-shouldered hero here. The wild hair and the evil scientist glasses are exciting and mysterious. This guy is definitely someone’s husbando type somewhere. He has that excitability-factor like these kinds of punkish, wild, bad boy/girl characters have. This comes through strongly visually. The flowing red overcoat, the spiky blonde hair, the mechanical arm, the broken but muscular body—if this were a girl I’d be bouncing off the walls falling in love. How’d I get into this territory?
The animation itself is pretty typical of ‘90s anime. It’s good, but doesn’t astound the senses. I will mention one part of the animation though: gunslinging. This is always something one should look for in gun-themed anime. I usually think there’s not enough stylish gunslinging in any gun-themed media, and usually anime is the same way. There’s a little of it in this show, but not as much as I’d like. Vash is a stylish guy: he should do stylish, flashy stuff with his gun. Well, I’m happy where it appears, but I wish there was of it.
This artwork seems to fit this anime particularly well. Anime generally does a good job with this kind of thing—i.e., can you easily think of an anime where the art style doesn’t fit the show?—but this show does a particularly good job somehow. While the artwork is typical for the era in some ways, one could still look at Trigun artwork and say “That’s Trigun.” It’s in a strange place between unique and typical, and, artistically speaking, that feels like an interesting place for artwork to be. Anyway, I like it personally, even if it’s not as exciting to me as others from this time. I still admire the work of this time, and find it difficult to demerit any example of it.
The story has a pretty typical framework for this kind of tale: the viewer is brought into the tale just as the main character’s troubled past returns to impact his present, forcing him to face that past and the decisions he made then. He must see if he’s grown from that time, and can make the tough decisions he needs to make to avoid a repeat of the tragedy of that former time.
This story does both good and bad things with this typical framework. On the good side, building up Vash as committed to an ethic of nonviolence makes for a lot of predictable tension. It’s perfect for this kind of story. But this is also part of the bad side of things here. Vash has to choose between his ethic and his friends. And in a story that’s set up as mostly adventure-comedy in the beginning, this causes a big shift in tone as the show progresses. It’s like KonoSuba becomes Akame ga Kill! You can imagine how that feels wrong.
I don’t want to get too deep into Vash’s ethic and how that plays into the show. For one thing, I haven’t thought that deeply about it, though I recognize that it is something that could be thought on thoroughly. Others have done a lot of that work already also, and if you look through the literature written about this show you’ll see vast commentaries on that. I will simply say that while it makes sense to use this aspect as the basis for the main storyline, this brings about the inevitable “breaking of character” that I mentioned above. Ultimately, Vash can choose between the decision he made in the past that brought about death, following his ethic and letting the chips fall, or he can betray his ethic and kill for the greater good, as it were. It’s a nice storyline, but does pose some problems.
Here’s my problem with this: if you’re going to write a story about pacifism, don’t make your character become pugilistic. Are Vash’s only two solutions to Knives’s depravity to either sacrifice his friends or kill Knives? It certainly comes down to that eventually. Knives won’t give him any other choice. Vash chooses to violate his ethic and kill Knives.
There’s a couple of ways to view this. One, the author intended to show that pacifism isn’t viable in every circumstance (or some such similar view), a sad commentary on the world we live in. Or the author could have been trying to extoll the virtues of pacifism. If it’s the former, then the story’s progression makes sense, as do Vash’s ultimate actions. But if it’s the latter, then I begin to think accusatory thoughts: accusations of the author losing control of his story.
It’s pretty obvious that Knives’s goal is to put Vash’s ethic on the line. Knives is a cold-blooded killer, but his evil is more about tempting Vash to become a murderer than his own murderous nature. To that end, Knives continues to place Vash in situations where he has to choose between his ethic and violence. A clever plot device. The problem is that if the author intended to extoll pacifism…it doesn’t come out looking very good. Doesn’t Knives win at this rate? Vash has to kill him to save his friends. His ethic is contingent, flimsy, impractical, worthless.
Again, if the author was trying to make this point, then he succeeded. That falls in the category I mentioned above, where lots of people have contributed to the literature about this show. But what if the author really is trying to praise a pacifist ethic? He definitely failed at that rate.
The biggest reason is obviously that Vash had to sacrifice that ethic. And this makes me feel like the author might have lost control of his story. I can tell you, as a viewer, I wasn’t sitting there hoping this could work out without someone getting plugged. I wanted Vash to pull the trigger. Perhaps one could say this was part of the author’s cleverness, insisting on his character maintaining his pacifist ethic amidst a sensation in the viewing audience that was totally the opposite. Perhaps, but it still doesn’t speak well of pacifism. The viewer is left wondering how things would’ve been different if Vash hadn’t insisted on such a flimsy ethic in the first place—and how many more people would’ve still been alive.
It’s complicated, but if all this isn’t the intended effect, then at least it leaves me wondering if the author let his story take on a life of its own and get out of control. I never like it when that happens. That never speaks well of the author to me.
But truthfully, that is not clearly the case to me. Because the opposite is possible: that the author really meant to make a sad commentary on the state of the universe we find ourselves in, where, even if you’re the greatest gunman in the galaxy, you can’t use your strength to bring peace in any way but through force. This story would be quite clever if that is the case, and I would praise it rather than be confounded by it.
But this feeling is overshadowed in the midst of being frustrated by Vash and his ethic. It’s not easy for viewers to bemoan the state of the world when they really just wants to kill the guy trying to hurt Vash’s friends, and they’re stressing watching Vash struggle to make that decision. You can ponder it afterward, but the power is lost at that point. The only emotion we feel during the show is disappointment in this regard. Too many people die, and then Vash does what he could have done a long time ago anyway.
So the story ends up feeling a little unsatisfying any way you look at it. The redeeming factor is that everything works out. No one else has to die, and Vash seems like he’s dealing with the aftermath maturely, having returned to his normal self in the end. So it ends nicely at least?
I have no problems with stories that change tenor as they progress. I rather admire stories, and their authors, that start comedic and morph into drama, or any other such thing. But they do run the risk of feeling like they’re directionless, or that the author lost control of the story, etc. Often it’s pretty obvious when that isn’t the case, but the opposite isn’t true. A story that’s lost its way can also seem like it could be intentionally that way. But it leaves the viewer confused, causing noise and distraction in our minds. That will always negatively impact a story. And as nice as this story is in many ways, Trigun suffers from this a lot, and it has its effect.
Rough sidetrack again before I wrap this up: genre? Space sci-fi Western? I don’t get it either, but I know it works. It particularly works well in anime, where you have Cowboy Bebop looming immovably over this territory. I needn’t mention how poorly that series translated to live action. This odd genre doesn’t really work well outside of anime. The genre itself is kind of laughable if you stop and think about it, but for whatever reason anime is able to make it work. Anime. We love it.
Let’s do that thing we do here every now and then: let’s pull the plug on the stuffy academic machine. This show is pretty entertaining if you turn off that switch in your head. The action is decent, the side stories that give rise to this action are entertaining, the characters are fun, the artwork is distinct in a peculiar way, and the story works amidst all this. Don’t turn that switch back on!
Because if you do, this show becomes a little less satisfying. And that shouldn’t be the case. It has too many good aspects for all that frilly stuff to get in the way of our sheer enjoyment of this anime. But I tell you, it’s hard not to pull that switch. And I think even that’s a good thing. Any show that prompts the viewer’s mind to think deeply and intricately about what’s happening in the show is already doing something right. You can watch Nichijou and just let it wash over you without a second thought—indeed, you can’t really think at all during that show—whereas with a show like Serial Experiments Lain you can’t avoid trying to delve into the intricacies of the realm between the lines. Both extremes on that spectrum have great merits. Trigun makes us consider why Vash does what he does, and what he could have done differently, and how that reflects on our world. It’s philosophical in some ways. How many anime can make that claim?
So perhaps, in the end, its ability to prompt the viewer to think really is a big success for this show, regardless of where those thoughts lead us. Because causing the viewer to think deeply about your work is a sure way to get your audience to remember your work. Trigun is easy to remember. I’m writing this review probably six months after I finished it, and it took me a few months to watch the whole thing as I took a long break from it in the middle (once it began to become more serious—it lost my attention a little during that time interestingly). Nevertheless, here I am writing about it and remembering details from it like it was yesterday. Memory is one of biggest parts of what it means to be human, therefore any work of art that is memorable is immediately more human and therefore more beautiful. Anime’s humanity is perhaps the biggest part of its beauty. Trigun certainly contributes to that part of the world of anime.
So maybe don’t pull that trigger. Think, pause, and then only if you have no other choice—only then turn off the TV and stop binging your favorite anime!