The old west is dead. The frontiers we still have as humanity are arguably the deep sea and space, the final frontier. The western, with heroes riding their horses into the setting sun, rarely graces our screen. Instead the western genre has become a place of flawed characters, who defend our way of living by venturing to the edge of the abyss. Killing others who’ve fallen into it. It is in this context that we find three distinct anime. Three space westerns released in the same year: 1998. At a time when the change of the millennium was ever coming closer, we got three distinct storyworlds where the bad guys needed to be stopped: Trigun, Outlaw Star and Cowboy Bebop.
I do not know if the writers of these shows all were inspired by the same sources like spaghetti westerns and sci fi movies, or that it was just a big coincidence they dropped in the same year. But the fact is that we have three entertaining space westerns who somehow ended up in multiple top 10 lists of 1998.1
While Cowboy Bebop still is one of the heralds of the animation medium, Trigun and Outlaw Star fly a little bit under the radar. I’ve been playing with the idea to bring these three shows into a similar spotlight. And it also provides an insight in why people prefer one over the other. So in the coming months I will dive into one anime per blog to see what the stickiness factor of each of these shows is. Note that there will be some spoilers.
Trigun and the power of facade
We see a deserted landscape. A post-apocalyptic view of dust and sand where humanity lives in small towns similar to the old west. The lightbulbs towering over the wooden and limestone houses tell us that this is not the world as we know it. This is the frontier of Trigun, where the highest bounty known has been issued on the head of Vash the Stampede. The humanoid Typhoon, who leaves destruction wherever he goes. The man is a legend and most people fear him. When they hear that Vash is in their town they either run or try to collect the bounty placed on him. Men and woman who tried all failed because when they encounter the main character of the show he doesn’t look like a dangerous killer, but like a stumbling idiot.
Yes, the main character of the show is not a homicidal maniac. He is a pacifist. But that doesn’t mean he can not be dangerous. He just prefers to solve his problems in a different manner. This facade, this way of presenting himself to the world is not just to make him look inconspicuous to people who encounter him. It is also to protect them from those that intend to harm him. Because those people, bounty hunters and desperate townsfolk alike usually destroy small cities in the process of assaulting Vash. Leaving the Bernadelli Insurance Company with ever-increasing costs to repair it. So they do the most sensible thing: send two girls to find The Humanoid Typhoon and try to sway him with donuts to limit the damage.
At first glance Trigun seems like a comedy. Even the scenes depicted in the early part of the opening credits strengthen this image. But as the credits continue we see a more mature, serious and even threatening side of Vash. This is a great representation of the show as a whole. The series starts with a quite light-hearted and comedic tone which fades into the background later on. This starts at episode 12: Diablo, when the show becomes more serious and shows a darker side to Vash that we did not quite see before. The stakes are raised again for our main character in episode 17 where we learn of Vash’s tragic past and how the facade of the world around him is broken down as well. The first of Vash being a godlike alien being and the second that he is stuck on a planet with a remnant of humanity.
These are the two main instances where the show changes, or flips elements of the narrative to push the plot forward. The stakes rise for our main character. We learn a bit of his past and eventually get an view of the “end boss” of the show. But because Knives is a shadow in the background for most of the episodes, coupled with the lack of exposition this does quite hamper my enjoyment of the show.
Lack of worldbuilding
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed learning about the Vash as a character and watch him interact with the world. Which is especially important because we learn very little about the side characters. For example we know more of Wolfwood then we know of Milly, Meryl and perhaps even Knives. So it was a treat to learn about Vash’s past and how he sees the world around him.
But the mentioned lack of plot and world exposition is in my opinion detrimental to the show. For me Trigun is now a villain of the week show where the backstory is only important to (A) push the plot in a new direction and (B) to finish the series.
I personally do not mind being left with questions about the workings of a world or the future of a character when a series concludes. But for me Trigun the anime leaves a bit too many questions unanswered. Like it desperately wants to uphold some facade after the final episode. Even if that one was an info dump on steroids.2
Should you watch it?
Having said all this, should you watch it? Well, Trigun is for you if you like a space western story with comedic elements. Even when it changes into a more serious tone later on the comedy will pop up. It is an interesting story about a lone gunman whose appearance is deceiving. Vash is not only enjoyable but honestly quite adorable to watch. And despite its flaws, Trigun is a show where the ending is true to its nature, even if you don’t expect it. Love and Peace!
Next month in part 2: Outlaw Star
2 If you have questions after watching the show I recommend reading this fandom page. The manga section answers most questions I had.