50 Favorite TV Shows: #7 Trigun
Originally Aired On: TV Tokyo
Ungh. I’m having this problem too much recently that I realize that something I’ve thought was my favorite forever isn’t really my favorite anymore when I look deep into my heart and am honest with myself. I would have said to you at any point in the past several years that Trigun was my favorite anime series of all time that it’s the one I like to point to when people ask me about what makes anime so powerful and special. But we’ll get to what stole the spot in my heart later on, because I still think Trigun is an amazing work. Once upon a time, I was discussing Adult Swim with one of my best friends and Trigun came up. I wasn’t as high on it at that point and the fact that it was still in its first run on the program didn’t help things, but I remember so vividly what my friend said about it: “Vash is just a big pussy. He should just shoot those guys and be done with it.” And I agreed at that point, because I was in high school and that sort of thing is any easy answer to a problem I didn’t understand. I think about themes that I really enjoy in art, things that make perfect sense to me and in the broadest category, humanity is the greatest theme I can think of. Humans are such weird creatures, because we’re capable of such great love and such great evil and we continually do these things over and over again. But we have these ideals and these hopes that are in a way, perfect, this perfect idea of what it means to be human. It’s not quite martyrdom, though that’s a symptom of it, where we give in to an idea so fully, so strongly believe in the goodness of it that we are ready for such incredible sacrifice and tests of stamina that we give up part of ourselves to sow others why this conviction is so incredible. This is what made A Man for All Seasons so incredible to me, that someone could so thoroughly believe in their own morality that they’d give their own life for it and this is what amazes me about Trigun. The protagonist, Vash the Stampede, is like this, where once I thought he was a coward instead I’ve come to view him as one of the great characters who has such a defined sense of justice that he’s willing to destroy himself to protect human life. Throughout the show, we see him go out of his way to ward off evil, fighting to save lives at every turn, but never giving in to the easy route of killing those who threaten it, instead, working to save their lives that they might atone for what they’ve done. He rigorously trains himself each day to be the greatest gun fighter possible, not to kill but to save, something antithetical to the idea of the gun which is meant only to end existence. And yet… it’s not until the episode “Vash the Stampede” that we see what this life has cost him, that his body is coated in scars and that he is missing his left arm because his quest to save human lives is not a perfect one, that he can never truly do enough for it without giving away part of himself. It’s so brutally painful to look at how willingly all these things we’ve seen him do up to this point have cost him and how much he’s paid. And then the show just fucking slams it to us, adding two defining elements which I have to SPOILER TAG THE HELL OUT OF, because they’re so important but so plot central. The first is the revelation that Vash is not human, but rather a plant engineered to look like a human and how that affects his quest. His promise to his beloved Rem to never kill is tested by the abject hate that his difference casts on the world, that people hate him because he is naturally more powerful. Yet he just returns this with love and peace, finding ways to carve small bits of happiness out of his quest and find those who believe that human goodness is not confined to the bodily form. And then there’s his villain and no, I don’t mean Knives. I’m talking about Legato Blue Summers, the telekinetic monster who wants Vash to suffer at the hands of his humanity the way he has. And he tests it in the cruelest way possible: by having Vash break his oath and kill him in order to save the lives of Meryl and Millie from the men he’s controlling. It’s a well-written idea, that to hurt Vash whose life is defined by his code is to make him break it and you can feel the physical ache of the action as he undertakes it, that Legato has won and that Vash is broken. It wouldn’t be a heroic journey if he didn’t climb back up, but it’s the truest test of character the theme could have imagined for itself.
I’m almost emotionally exhausted having talked about that, because that sort of thing is so important to me. But there’s so much going on with the anime that it’s hard to stop. If Vash as protagonist is the idea of complication between morality and living, then the rest of the cast follows suit and makes the stories more engaging because of it. I think this is the best idea of the show, how it paces itself to kind of draw you into thinking it’s this simple dumb sci-fi western and then it just hits you straight in the guts and becomes more involved in thematic concerns and symbolism. It’s almost a truism that an anime will throw away the first couple of episodes to establish the setting and characters before launching into an overarching story. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this, as Trigun is a very engaging show when it’s at its peak fun, as the kind of ridiculous actions we later learn to be the cost Vash pays for his morality come off as goofy attempts to show off his prowess and do good. This results in the show having this wonderful timing between comedy and action, always moving forward into the idea that they will escalate. But the tonal shift is never so abrupt that when the drama hits we don’t understand, instead the comedy and action meld into it, the stakes naturally escalating to give the rise necessary to invoke conflicting emotions. By the time the Gung-Ho Guns appear, it becomes clear how different they are from the other villains we’ve met up to this point, how much more dangerous and dogmatic they are compared to the thieves and scarred people that Vash has dealt with before. And I think this just plays back into what makes Vash such an interesting protagonist, that the fact that even though his life is at stake and he’s approaching cataclysm, he never loses the idea of humanity. He never stops trying to understand people or stop seeing the humor and things, instead kind of using them as guides as to what he wants to save. His arc of humanity is the constant unites the tones of the show and allows the rather overt religious symbolism to flourish, to enrich the environment and give the idea of something higher than the self that keeps us all together. It’s a show of gradual climb, but such a rewarding one because nothing ever falls on it’s face and stop working. It just always knows what it is.
And already I’m going back and forth whether this is my favorite anime or not, that it’s more powerful in the themes it invokes while the other is more personal. I don’t doubt my decision and know this is an important work that everyone should see if they can, and that regardless of its medium, its staggering in what it presents.
Key Episode and Favorite Character: I have to talk about these together for a very simple reason, that they’re invariably tied together. My favorite character is Nicolas D. Wolfwood and my favorite episode is “Paradise,” and anyone who has seen the series knows why. Wolfwood is a minister, traveling the world in hopes of raising money for his orphanage, having been raised as an orphan himself. He meets Vash early in the series and while they differ in personality, they come to get along and work together. We eventually learn that Wolfwood has been raised to be a member of the Gung-Ho Guns, a gang hired by Knives to torture Vash and that this taints our view of their relationship, since Wolfwood is now a cold killer. But even this isn’t quite enough to hate him, that we’ve seen his warmth and kindness become bigger as he learns to inhabit those Christian ideals he espouses. His relationship with Millie is especially important, as he comes to love and understand her and through her, shed the pain for humanity he’s felt over the years. And then “Sin” hits and all of Wolfwood’s sins catch up with him. The episode is a powerful one, intercutting Wolfwood’s past in flashback with his present attempts to fight off the Gung-Ho Guns attacking and coming to terms with what he thought was the simplicity of Vash’s peaceful philosophy. But this comes at a price, that that moment of truth and beauty he sees that makes him give up the evils of his life comes with a bullet to a gut. Taking shelter in a church, we hear his dying words, his railing against the fate that has left him so to know peace now and have to die before ever enjoying it. It’s one of those moments that’s hard to explain, that simple truth of being alive that we never get the moments of love and compassion as long as need it, that we rail against fate and God for damning us to live in sin and pain and yet, we’re capable of being better, more wonderful humans no matter how bad we may have lived. Wolfwood’s journey and end are probably the most stand up, stunning moments I can think of in an anime and in art in general because they’re presented so simply and directly that you can tell you’re looking something powerful and beautiful right in the eye.