There’s a handful of shows that many people, myself included, can attribute to helping popularize anime in the US as something beyond a medium for entertaining children. Anime like Cowboy Bebop, Akira and even Evangelion have left lasting influences that continue to be referenced or brought back to this day. The same thing could be said for 1998’s anime adaptation of Yasuhiro Nightow‘s manga Trigun, although I always feel it’s to a lesser extent compared to those aforementioned examples. With a new installment announced by Studio Orange, a new wave of excitement has erupted in the community but before that, it’s very rare you’d hear someone bring up the tales of the wandering needle noggin. Is that due to the quality of the show itself? Are there tangible ideas and values in this decades-old show that still allow it to stand the test of time? Let’s take a look and naturally, spoilers ahead.
While the shows weren’t directly competing with each other (despite coming out almost at the exact same time) there are some strong parallels to be made between Trigun and Cowboy Bebop. Both have a tremendous sense of style but while Bebop somehow effortlessly combines the advanced promises of a technologically superior future with a sense of bleak emptiness, Trigun gives us a world that is advanced in the background, but empty in the foreground. While there are technological advancements, they’re more scattered about a desolate wasteland on a planet that is mostly sand and desert. It’s ironic that Cowboy Bebop has “cowboy” in its title despite Trigun arguably having more wild west-inspired imagery.
The aesthetic of the towns, the clothing that a lot of the wealthy and poor people wear, are all indicative of that classic, historically western style that we really don’t see in the media these days. While the barren wastelands probably gave the artists an excuse to not worry too much about drawing in backgrounds, when there are backgrounds to show, it can lead to striking designs that exude this presence and style that still feels iconic to this day. You’d think that so much open space would call for a more atmospheric and quiet soundtrack, but instead composer Tsuneo Imahori gives something far more aggressive and gritty. Sharp guitar riffs and loud, consistent drums give the impression that you’re on the run, avoiding a constant barrage of bullets at your back. For a moment it just sounds like noise but when you listen carefully, there’s a real rhythm to it. There’s a rhyme and reason to the madness.
But boy, it’s a good thing the anime adapted this quick draw style where actions happen in the blink of an eye because as far as actual animation quality and fluidity goes, Trigun is far from winning any awards compared to what we see today. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that sometimes the off-model character designs and rather stilted animation holds back the style at certain points, even if they can compliment the comedy. I don’t think people watch or remember Trigun for its amazing animation unless we’re talking about the Badlands Rumble movie, which I’m choosing to treat as a separate thing for now. However, much like our main character, looks can be deceiving.
If you think about it, our iconic character Vash The Stampede is not even introduced as a main character, and for a good chunk of the series isn’t even our point-of-view character. He’s someone that comes and goes like the wind but still has an effect on the surroundings. Despite being called a “Humanoid Typhoon,” his actions are deceptive and subtle. He’s gone through a good chunk of his life downplaying his abilities by presenting the façade of a goofy dumbass that always gets in over his head. But he’s far more methodical and despite getting into trouble time and time again, he somehow manages to face most situations with a smile. Is that smile a sign of optimism or is it just part of the façade for both the audience as well as himself?
The show very heavily teases rather nihilistic themes about the meaning of morality or what the point of trying to be a good person even is when the world rarely gives you enough to survive, and people are out for each other’s throats. In this world, people go through so much just to live an extra day. The show displays a variety of hopeless situations that people need to deal with and while some are definitely handled better then others, that sense of despair is no less consistent. Who has time to think about living a “morally correct” life where you do the right thing constantly when the world almost seems to punish you for doing that? Obviously, as people begin to understand Vash’s actions and attempts to save as many people as possible, even under the most stressfully impossible situations, they can’t help but get frustrated.
Meryl Stryfe is the person who always complains about Vash yet can never leave him alone. Milly Thompson is the innocent giant who always tries to do the right thing and hasn’t yet been poisoned to the cruelties of the world, unlike Vash. And Nicholas D. Wolfwood is the cynic who wants to be proven wrong. There will always be times where we are cynical, annoyed, or frustrated with people like Vash the same way that these characters and so many others get. Even if you didn’t live in a death-filled wasteland, there’ll be times where people like Vash will try to find the best outcome of terrible situations with that very intention being enough to make us confused, uncertain, and even a little bit scared. But I also don’t think we’ll ever be able to stop looking in their direction. We’ll always be tantalized by the hope that maybe there’s another way, even if that solution comes with its own costs.
The show makes it very clear that the path Vash chooses is one that has caused him great suffering. Granted he isn’t human and possesses abilities that make it easier to survive compared to most. If he was human, he would’ve died of his injuries or during one of his confrontations a long time ago. However, just because he’s surviving, doesn’t mean that he’s happy. Vash constantly worries about the preservation of life while it also feels like he’s being punished…just for living. If anything, Vash’s very existence is kind of a contradiction to his own principles.
Sometimes it feels like he’s not even allowed to die either out of sheer luck or ironically as a direct result of the people he saves and inspires. The gunsmith who chose to stop drinking and fix Vash’s gun, the little kid who burned himself to stop a giant ship from killing hundreds, the people that have fed and nursed him back to health when he had nowhere left to go. On the one hand, these moments are seen with a sense of joy and hopefulness but when you look at the big picture, these acts of kindness also lead to more opportunities for pain down the road. This is why I would go so far as to say that Vash isn’t a Gary Stu because the show makes it very clear that he might not be right, or at the very least, he’s always going to have the deck stacked against him even when things go well and there’s very little he can actually do about it. I admit that I don’t think one person can undo all the pain and hardships that are caused in the world. Sometimes there are even points where I think Vash isn’t making the best choice for the situation but at least he’s trying to find another way. What happens when you go to the opposite extreme though and constantly assure yourself that there isn’t?
Vash’s brother Knives is revealed to be the overarching villain of the story, yet we see very little of him. He may only have a handful of lines compared to the rest of the cast but his presence is felt alongside this general tone of hopelessness, and maybe that’s the point. Knives is very much a person who thinks that morality is pointless. All that matters is being right. When confronted with a tough situation, instead of trying to save everybody, you should try to just save as many people as you can, or just save yourself, because doing anything more than that puts yourself at risk. There’s this nice scene where Knives and Vash are kids and a butterfly gets stuck in a spiderweb. Vash tries to help the butterfly out of the web while Knives just goes over and kills the spider. He makes the point that if you saved the butterfly, the spider would eventually die of starvation as it feeds on other bugs. Sometimes even when you make the morally right choice to save a life, someone ends up suffering. So what’s the point of even thinking about the suffering of others? At first glance, you can see what Knives is getting at but the problem is that he takes this to the extreme where if nothing truly matters or if survival is all that’s important, then there’s no point in living with those who continue to make irrational choices, or in this case, humans. It’s almost like if Jesus from the Bible realized he was better than everybody else after seeing people commit sin over and over again.
It’s no illusion that Trigun is ingrained with religious symbolism. I’m not just talking about the overt stuff like priests carrying around giant cross-shaped guns and Vash previewing every episode as if he’s reading verses from the Bible talking about sin, temptation, and morality. Even a good chunk of the soundtrack has music and songs that sound like something you would hear right out of a chapel. Vash could very well be seen as a Jesus-allegory, as somebody who doesn’t give into the temptation of committing sin, spends most of his days wandering a vast desert, and preaching to those who are walking the wrong path or about to make a choice that they can never walk back on. I’m not an overtly religious person myself anymore so I can only really make parallels with a lot of the basic stuff that is associated with mainstream Christian imagery but even on that level, the show still manages to hit in an emotionally relatable way. While these ideas are being presented through the guise of religious imagery and parallels, it humbles those ideals with a heavy dose of realism and seems to find a unique balance between the importance of hope and the dangers of it.
Vash seems to think that so long as he never crosses that line of taking a life, then he’ll always be the good kid that he was raised to be. Unfortunately, life just isn’t that simple. If anything, I would argue that there are just as many examples where crossing that line probably would’ve helped more people than if he decided to do what he always did. Is that rigid devotion to doing the right thing a sign of virtue, or is it a character flaw? I like the fact that the show doesn’t really come down hard on either one of those interpretations.
One of the most impactful moments of this comes in the form of the death of his friend Wolfwood, a priest who spends about half the show trying to figure Vash out. Wolfwood is very much someone who skates that gray area of morality because while he is a good person who tries to instill good morals in others and even goes the extra mile of taking care of orphaned kids so that they don’t have to have the hard life he did growing up, he is still a hitman and has probably killed way more people than the show even highlights. It’s almost as if he’s perfectly in the middle of a spectrum with Vash and Knives on either end, tainted with that rationality that Knives thinks is essential for survival yet still wanting to believe that Vash’s way of doing things is right. The irony is that in the end, when he chooses to spare somebody that he is fighting, that action causes him to die, lamenting about how unfair everything is while wondering if he still did the right thing. That right there I think it’s a perfect encapsulation of how conflicted the show still made me feel to this day. It makes you wonder if, when your time is up, will anyone else respond when you ask “did I do the right thing?”
Wolfwood asked that question on his deathbed but I feel like Vash asks himself that question every single day. He thinks back to the mother figure who taught him what it means to do the right thing but the show doesn’t glorify her as some kind of saint. Sometimes Vash will think back to her with fondness but other times his tone makes it sound like he’s worried about disappointing her. Maybe sometimes the guilt of doing the right thing is too much to bear. Does that mean we should stop trying to be a good person? Which side of the pendulum between optimism and rationality should we go? The answer is mostly left up to us to make that choice, but at least we’re alive to make it. I know that sounds like a very convenient thing to say and I do think the show could be a bit more thoughtful about those who are alive that also don’t have the ability to make that choice. Yes, there’s always the chance that things will get better as long as you’re alive but there’s also the potential for things to get worse. Far from perfect in its execution but I also think that’s kind of the point at the end of the day.
Trigun is a show that’s riddled with holes and patchwork to the point where, at times it can feel like it’s barely keeping it together under the weight of its own message. But in the face of cynicism and in a world that progressively grows more and more bleak with each passing day, it still tells us that there’s at least room to be hopeful. It’s not impossible…it’s just really REALLY hard. In a lot of ways the show is just like Vash himself. We might not always understand it or agree with it, but deep down I think we all want to because if there’s at least one person or one thing that tells us there’s another way out, maybe we will be inspired to look for it. And if enough people look, maybe the answer to make everything better will finally be found. Even if we’re wrong and there’s really no other way out of that bleak barren wasteland, we will never know for sure unless we keep walking. Honestly, I think that message matters now more than ever before. It might not be too long before we find ourselves in our own deserted planet and sometimes I wonder, when that time comes, if there will be someone like Vash out there doing his best like the rest of us.