So I’ve finally moved in about one thousand five hundred miles away from where I used to live and have a full-time job with slightly odd hours so it’s been a bit harder to make updates. On top of that, I had a bit of writer’s block while writing this and ended up solving it by starting up a second blog for my own passion project of creative writing at StoryTimeWithMythos. However, I will say that now that I’m moved in and finally have some free time, I’m dedicated to updating for you guys with more interesting articles and the like. The next few articles will be more about specific subjects rather than saluting an anime from my youth as I enjoy those a lot better and feel they’re much stronger discussions.
Even today, one hundred years after the remnants of the pioneers finally explored the frontier and civilization started booming, we’re in love with the idea of The West. The Western genre has covered a historical hundred-year gap from the end of the frontier to today with films and shows that explore the ideas from that time in America. It was that wonderful part of history where those who made a mad dash for land carried a gun, lived by their own hands, and occupied lawless towns near inhospitable and harsh wastelands. It’s not just America that’s been fascinated by this idea either. Many countries around the world have loved to make their own ideas from this setting. In fact, the reason the famous subgenre of Spaghetti Westerns is called as such is because they were Italian films. Nowadays, you don’t see many westerns being made. Cinema fell in love with the later genres of the 20th century that took hold after the boom of space odysseys in the late 60s through the 70s that changed science fiction from pop serials to the big hit movies of the later decades. However, that doesn’t mean the genre has died out. Recent films like The Good The Bad, and the Weird put their own unique twist on the genre and Clint Eastwood even stepped back into his old shoes to do an oscar-winning and absolutely beautiful revisionist version of the Western in Unforgiven. One of my favorite ideas that has evolved from the Western genre, though, is to take the plot, style, and characters of the Western and apply them to a new frontier to explore. Particularly, in the case of Trigun, I’m referring to the Space Western.
It’s weird to think of space as a place that a Western could be done, but many shows have revitalized the western genre by taking the simple idea of applying the style and feel of the frontier to our ideas behind colonizing space. Great examples of this obviously include Firefly here in America, but Japan has also added their own with Outlaw Star. Even Cowboy Bebop, though not a true Space Western, borrows a lot from the genre. However, as much as I love Outlaw Star (and secretly think so does Joss Whedon since both FireFly and Star have incredibly similar beginning episodes and ideas), I think my favorite anime with this type of setting absolutely has to be Trigun.
Trigun takes place on a world that is completely covered by desert due to its proximity to the solar system’s double suns. People survive by drawing water from deep wells in the ground and through barely working terraforming plants that no one remembers how they function but a select few know how to repair. This world is very similar to the American Old West with everyone dotting the landscape in small towns with no major government in most except a sheriff and sometimes a mayor to run things. Technology is scarce, but does exist within power plants, electrical systems, cars, and rarely even more advanced things like downed spaceships, floating cities, and advanced weapons. However, most knowledge about technology has been lost and people rely on basic methods through necessity.
Our main character of this story is the man called “Vash the Stampede” also known as the “Humanoid Typhoon”, a name given to him after his mysterious destruction of an entire city of over a million people. Because of this act, there’s a bounty of sixty billion double dollars on his head. (All metrics are “double” so dollars are “double dollars”, miles are “iles” or “double iles”, etc.) However, though the city was destroyed, not a single person was killed. This becomes a major point in his life as he is constantly hounded by bounty hunters after the massive price on his head. Vash himself does not remember the event as the trauma of it was too great and has been locked away in his mind. However, because of his past, he tries to make up for it by helping those in need and never killing anyone.
In a sense, he is very similar to the character of Ruroni Kenshin from the manga/anime of the same name as he carries a weapon (although in the case of Trigun, it’s a significantly large and customizable hand cannon) he rarely tries to use and will use amazing feats and skills to solve problems and fights without ever killing anyone. In essence, many times he is the lone gunmen who never uses his gun. While this comparison may seem strange, as Ruroni Kenshin is based in the setting of samurai and ancient Japanese times, Westerns have had a long history with samurai films. Many directors borrowed from Akira Kurosawa’s works like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, which were re-made into The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars respectfully. As such, many themes between samurai and western films overlap. This can be seen easily with the stereotype of the wandering gunman/samurai coming into towns and assisting with the town’s problems or just shaking things up. These genres also share the classic final showdowns between combatants in epic and well-known fights. These specific tropes are doubly expressed in anime westerns, typically due to the anime industry’s love of tropes, and so are very prevalent in Trigun, particularly in its first few episodes.
The series begins with episodes that follow Vash in a different town with a different adventure, constantly being followed by two Bernardelli Insurance Society employees, Meryl Stryfe and Milly Thompson as they attempt the impossible task of finding “The Humanoid Typhoon” and minimizing the damage he causes from situations he becomes involved in. Meryl and Milly effectively act as our eyes and ears for a good part of the show as we follow them around stumbling into Vash’s adventures. We discover through them that while Vash is a dangerous man to be around, he’s more of an eccentric and weirdly unlucky character than a killer, and the destruction caused around him is mostly due to the bounty hunters after him. While the first few episodes are segmented into their own adventures with only a slight overarching progression, later episodes flow into each other in a consistent plot that follows an evolving tale about the history and nature of this world and its central figure, Vash.
What makes this show unique is not only the world and its setting, but also the style of the show. The music is beautifully composed by Tsuneo Imahori, who also worked on bits of the soundtrack for Cowboy Bebop, with pervasive and emotional blues pieces, excellent and lively rock pieces, strange and dark electronic tracks, as well as interesting combinations of what seems to be Breakcore drums with classical composition. The music does an amazing job of fitting each scene and depicting the exact emotional feel for each moment.
Along with the music, the hand drawn art of the show brings its own style. It includes a lot of detail to the backgrounds in order to show a gritty and dirty setting. These particular details are evident in the use of technology within the series, giving a sense of how much time has past for the old tech of the world as well as to show how even the newer built tech suffers from the inhospitable conditions of a planet-wide desert. However, the characters themselves are drawn lively and sometimes even very intentionally goofy-looking in order to show the same thing Vash sees: A harsh world but with good people.
This idea of a love for people and a love for life rings true throughout the series. Particularly, this device is used in several times in the first few episodes to show the idea of the people themselves standing up for what’s good, rather than a lone gunmen solving all of their problems. In these episodes, Vash is only the catalyst to force people to act, as they may have been held back by fear, regret, or apathy brought on by their very bleak world. A resounding idea of humanitarianism and a love for the human soul perpetuates within each episode, with an exploration of this idea as well as an argument on the subject in the later parts of the series. The idea of peace is thrown around many times in the show as well, especially by Vash whose slogan of “Love and Peace!” has been forever engraved into my head because of a chant early in the series that may have gone on for far too long, both at the annoyance of Meryl in the show and myself.
While Vash may be a humanitarian by nature, the story does a very good job of showcasing some of the hard decisions in attempting to value all life and what that may mean for different people. A metaphor presents itself in the show of the butterfly and the spider. If you save the butterfly, the spider will starve and die. However, to allow the spider to eat means the death of the butterfly. This metaphor is shown in the darker scenes of the show where Vash must decide whether it is the correct choice to kill one to save all or to allow all to die for the sake of saving one good soul. The main antagonist of the show, Knives, believes in Darwin’s ideas of survival of the fittest rather than a love for the weak and therefore, directly puts Vash in situations where killing seems to be the only option. As the story evolves, Vash’s ideals are pitted against increasingly worse individuals sent out by Knives. By aimlessly maiming and killing others, he hopes to spark reactions from Vash to destroy the ideal that he holds most dear, the value of life. Through these scenes and the resulting conclusions, whether a solution was found or Vash had to make a very hard decision, the audience starts to see how difficult life on this world is and how hard it is to keep morals in a lawless land.
Vash’s upstanding morals can make this series almost seem to be a Western version of Superman with idealistic values and impossible challenges that confront the hero. However, just like every Superman needs their Batman, a contrast to these humanitarian ideals is presented in the traveling priest by the name of Nicholas D. Wolfwood. Wolfwood presents himself as a common priest, teaching and attempting to raise money for an orphanage. Though he seems to be a just and upstanding individual at first, the peculiarity of the character starts to become obvious with a giant cross he carries on his back wrapped in cloth. When questioned, he initially only states it’s the sins he has to carry, but that phrase is later revealed to be a little deeper than the obvious Biblical allusion. In order to survive and raise money for the orphans he takes care of, Wolfwood turned to gun-for-hire work, using the massive weapon on his back which is a machine gun/rocket launcher that also contains a small arsenal of handguns for quick access. His belief is to do what is necessary to help those in need, killing unjust men if it’s needed to support the weak and those who can’t help themselves.
Though Wolfwood is also considered a hero character, Vash and Wolfwood find themselves more often than not, against each other because of their difference in ideas. Wolfwood believes killing to be necessary at times to serve a higher purpose. Vash values all life and attempts to pacify the people he comes across. The comparison to Batman and Superman may be apt to see the difference in ideals, though Batman never attempted to kill to keep justice. (At least in the general canon. DC has way too many alternate universes.) However, another great comparison would be of the classic Western hero to the typical Spaghetti Western hero.
Vash represents many of the typical ideas of a classical western hero: A do-gooder who comes to protect the town, standing up for what’s right and valuing life. These characters were typically sheriffs and marshals who had the law on their side and were a friend to the people. On the other hand, Wolfwood fits more of the Spaghetti Western hero: A lone gunman that comes into town and serves justice his way by protecting the weak, but is unafraid of killing or taking work from bad guys so that the hero can support themselves and their cause. While both of these characters don’t always follow these tropes to a T, pitting these two roles against each other shows interesting ideas behind the devices of Westerns and how the genre has changed over the years along with the morals of the audience who watched them. Both characters represent the ideals of those types of Westerns, but forcing them into the same narrative causes interesting twists and dialogue on the genre, bringing an entirely new perspective on Westerns in its own right.
While later episodes start to rely more on the sci-fi elements of a space western (which can get so freaking cool) like floating cities and the origins of how humanity ended up on this planet, the characters themselves continue to exist with those same ideas from the Western genre. Their solutions to problems stay true to their own ideals, though they are challenged at every corner by the lawlessness and evils of this harsh, barren world. There are painful struggles and losses, as well as many a gunfight, but the just stand tall at the end of the shootout, while the wrong are brought to justice or vengeance for what they’ve done.
While the show is definitely a product of the 90s in both its art style and sometimes weird jokes, it holds up well today. So much so that the movie released just a few years ago in 2011 didn’t have to do much except update the colors and flesh out the animation frames to stay relevant and awesome. Trigun is a wonderful and fun adventure in a creative world that is one part a callback to the westerns of old, and another part a look to the future by bringing its own style and ideas to the long-running tradition of westerns.
Research and Inspiration for this Discussion:
- My notes and research on westerns from my university “Film & Fiction” class
- My own DVD box set!
- And of course, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trigun