Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Ticket to the Future is Always Open – Trigun

In the final part of my three-part Cowboy/Space Opera anime examination, I’m taking a look at the series “Trigun”. Back when this show first came out (and had regular rotation on Cartoon Network’s “Toonami” block), it was a popular series. Remembering the animation cons I attended back in the day always bring back memories of several folks dressed as characters from the series: especially Vash the Stampede.

Now Vash makes a pretty big impression on anyone who’s ever seen an episode of Trigun. He’s a tall man, with spiky blonde hair, a bright red long coat, yellow sunglasses and a really huge revolver. He’s a striking figure when you first see him in the opening credits, standing in the desert with the blazing suns overhead. The opening credits go out of their way to show you just how cool Vash really is (especially with the hard edged electric guitar wailing away in the background).

But if you spend any amount of time with the man, you begin to notice things. First off, he’s a complete and total goofball. In the series, Vash never looks serious for very long. Give him a few minutes and he’ll warp his face into some stupid or grotesque way, courtesy of the Japanese technique of super-deformation. His voice actor has to be able to deliver deadly serious threats one second and completely lame jokes, or insane screaming the next.

In the first five episodes, it’s very difficult to get a grasp on the character of Vash the Stampede. You find out early on that he is responsible for destroying a town and killing everyone in it. He’s got a huge reward on his head for the destruction he’s caused. People fear him or are hunting him down for the cash reward. He’s supposed to be an expert marksman, and one that would rather kill you than look at you. He’s a complete and total Wild West bad ass.

When you finally meet him, he’s a coward. He runs away from just about every fight he get’s involved in. He doesn’t draw his gun for about three episodes and never fires it till episode five. He hits on anything thing remotely female. He makes horrible puns and jokes. His mantra is “Love and Peace” flashing the “V” for victory hand signal. In short - he’s a total freak.

I know a few people who dislike the show because of these early episodes, but they are essential to the character of Vash the Stampede. Looking back on the show it’s very clear that the entire story is motivated and revolves around Vash. He is the backbone of the tale and if the audience doesn’t like him or doesn’t connect with him, then they usually end up disliking the series.

There is a very interesting element introduced in the first episode. Vash the Stampede will not kill someone and will allow anyone around him to be killed. He will go out of his way, including putting himself in very real danger to make sure no one is killed. This includes his enemies. This makes Vash an interesting paradox. After all his is responsible for decimating an entire town, down to the last child.

As the series continues more and more strands are revealed. When someone does end up dead around him (be they friend or foe), Vash takes it very hard, often blaming himself for being unable to help or save the person. He rarely shoots anyone with his gun. Instead he will shoot near them to startle them, or shoot an object nearby to create a diversion. He can take a huge amount of punishment, more than a normal character in the series can take. You begin to suspect that Vash may not be entirely human and further evidence presents secrets to his past.

The first half of the series is constructed to create a very balanced picture of Vash the Stampede and the world he inhabits. Most of the adventures in this half seem like one off stories. You could probably watch them in any order and not be too lost. Some introduce key supporting characters like Nicholas Wolfwood or Millie and Meryl (the Insurance Girls), but mostly we learn about our protagonist. Then around the halfway point, we meet a man who claims to be part of a deadly group of assassins called The Gung-ho Guns.

Once these folks appear things take a turn for the dark. The world Vash inhabits is a brutal place of deserts, blazing suns, little water and advanced technology without the knowledge of how to use it. The people he encounters are struggling to survive on the hostile planet and death is very real. Many times the people seem too eager to mete out death and punishment and Vash does his best to curb these instincts; but they are ingrained in the world and the story. Once the second half kicks in, these elements continue to increase.

The result not only allows us to know and understand Vash better, but to see him sorely tested. With each passing episode Vash fights against the things that would keep the world from being peaceful. It seems to be losing battle.

The finale is a brutal and cold piece of work. Vash faces the antithesis of everything he believes, and it is forcing his hand to do what he can not do – willingly take a life.

For my vote, “Trigun” is the best of the these three series. Vash is one of the most memorable and interesting characters I’ve run into in an anime series. His character is fully fleshed out and the series builds with each episode. At the end, his character is tested, his beliefs are challenged and he begins to question his values. This conflict brings the drama home, and we understand that the battle within Vash is a battle we may all share.

Have you seen “Trigun”? What did you think of the series? What is one of your favorite book, movie or television examples where a character drives the action and conflict of a story. Why did this work so well?

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