Twelve Days of Anime #11: Vash vs. Legato, and Trigun’s Peculiar Approach to Pacifism

I’m finally writing this post, after I’ve promised it over and over. I’m finally writing this post, on one of the most emotionally-devastating parts of one of my favorite anime, at 5 am on Christmas morning because I can’t sleep. Season’s Greetings!

Once again, full-series spoilers for the Trigun anime ahead.

If you’ve talked to me about it at all, you probably know that Trigun is one of my favorite appraisals of pacifism as a philosophy in fiction, and especially in anime. On my Tumblr, I’ve posted before about how I think other series (namely Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood) get pacifism wrong in comparison to Trigun by making it too easy for their heroes, always giving them a convenient out when they have to struggle to uphold their philosophies. Vash the Stampede gets no such outs. He repeatedly makes sacrifices for his “no-killing” credo, and it’s up to the audience to decide whether he’s making the right decisions or not. Other, sympathetic characters also repeatedly challenge him on this philosophy (namely Wolfwood), and make Vash wonder if it’s actually as sound as he thinks. This comes to a head in Vash’s final confrontation with Legato Bluesummers.

When I first watched through this anime, it was confusing to me how this scene fit in with Trigun’s pacifist themes. Vash really has no choice but to kill Legato here. Legato stacks the deck against him, by making it so Meryl and Milly will almost certainly die horrifically if Vash doesn’t obliterate him. I couldn’t understand why a series devoted to pacifism would put its hero in a situation where it couldn’t possibly work. And yet, Vash’s confrontation with and killing of Legato actually furthers Trigun’s more nuanced approach to the idea, an approach that makes it more salient than other shows’ takes on it.

Vash the Stampede has lived nearly 150 years without killing anyone, and it utterly destroys him when he does in this scene. It was a promise he made to Rem when she was alive, and so he feels like he’s failed her and that her spirit has finally left him for good. Yet, in the remaining episodes, Meryl’s appraisal of Vash’s values and the importance of letting people live to give them a chance at redemption—and that killing them passes judgment on their lives that no one deserved to—recommits Vash to his beliefs. It makes him realize he hasn’t failed, just because once he was backed into a corner. After this, he can go on to confront Knives without killing him, giving his brother a chance to rebuild his life. We’re left not knowing whether Knives actually does this, but true to its Christian values to the end, Trigun asks us to have faith in him. Even someone as awful as Knives has been up to this point, deserves that chance.

Vash does spend a lot of bullets wounding people, though.

Vash does spend a lot of bullets wounding people, though.

The take-away here is that Trigun approaches pacifism as a project, rather than a strict set of rules one must always adhere to or they fail. It recognizes—unlike other series like Fullmetal Alchemist—that there will be times we can’t commit to our values, that we’ll have no choice but to do something else, even something contrary to them. Yet, that doesn’t mean they’re no longer worth it. We should still try, if we can still explain why they are worth it. And Trigun certainly explains why pacifism is a worthy value system.

It gives people like Legato too much power if we let them back us into a corner and make us doubt ourselves. (And Legato certainly intended to break Vash with his dying breaths—a mind-gaming devil to the end.)

Look at this smarmy shithead.

Look at this smarmy shithead.

I specifically contrasted this with Fullmetal Alchemist, so let me explain this. In the manga and the Brotherhood anime, Edward Elric is frequently verbally challenged on his “no killing” policy, including by sympathetic characters. Yet, it’s always in practical rather than moral terms, unlike how Vash is challenged in Trigun. What’s more, Ed never actually has to make a tough choice between killing someone and saving others. Even when it appears that he will need to do so, a third option always presents himself, allowing him to keep his moral purity intact. In the first anime, Ed does actually have to make the difficult choice to kill a few times—and it results in him examining the faults of and eventually discarding his previous value system. He finds it gradually easier to kill bad people.

I’ve seen fans commend Brotherhood for its commitment to “killing is bad,” but I always thought that the convenient third options undermined it. Like a lot of Brotherhood’s thematic stuff, it’s shallow shonen morality that doesn’t hold much resonance in the complicated real world, where if you live in the violent kind of life Ed does, you will inevitably have to choose between your ideals and the best end result. I think Trigun is stronger for putting Vash in the impossible position that Legato does—and still finding a way to uphold his values after that.

Still, poor Vash. :(

Still, poor Vash. 😦

A strong philosophy such as pacifism is a life-long project. We’ll inevitably make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean we’ve strayed off the path. As long as we recommit ourselves, that commitment is still there and it still matters. We are all worthy and capable of redemption.

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Twelve Days of Anime #2: How Nicholas D. Wolfwood Made Me Cry

This is the first of what will likely be two or three posts about Trigun in this series. It was one of the first anime series I completed this year, and it says something that it’s still rattling around in my mind 11 months later. So if you’re a Trigun fanatic, rev up your engines—and you know there’s only one way to do that:

(Also, this is going to include a butt-ton of spoilers for the anime series, so if you haven’t seen it and you want to keep your Trigun virginity intact, you might want to skip this post.)

This blogging series is supposed to be about moments–in anime, in anime fandom—even if I kinda violated the rule with the previous post being more about a gradual realization. Anyway, as soon as I read the description, I knew that I’d be talking about the death scene for my favorite Trigun character, Nicholas D. Wolfwood. It had such an impact on me when I first saw the show that I originally planned to start this blog off with a series on character deaths in my favorite TV series, and why they worked or didn’t work. I can admit now it was just an excuse to talk about this dork:

trigun_nick0042

Along with the ending of Madoka Magica, Wolfwood’s death is the only time that anime has actually made me break down in tears. And that’s from no lack of engaging with tear-jerking anime: I made it through all of Wolf’s Rain, Penguindrum, Fullmetal Alchemist, the ending of Cowboy Bebop…all without any waterworks. What is it about Wolfwood that did it for me?

I think it’s that he didn’t want to die. And moreover, he didn’t need to die.

trigun wolfwood smoking

The smoking probably would’ve eventually killed him anyway

Oh, I’m sure people will argue with me on this, but I firmly believe this. And I’m someone who can easily admit when characters I love need to die. I think Hughes’s death in FMA is a brilliant turning point and tonal shift, and can’t see how it could have been executed any other way. I think Spike Spiegel died at the end of Cowboy Bebop and it absolutely had to happen to close off his character arc and make the point Keiko Nobumoto wanted to make. And for a non-anime example: I think Don Draper needs to kick it at the end of Mad Men for similar reasons.

Wolfwood didn’t need to die. You can say he needed to be shuffled offstage to make way for Vash’s final confrontations with Legato and Knives, but I’m sure Trigun could work him in somehow or find a way to explain his absence. Heck, it does essentially work him in, since Wolfwood’s voice in Vash’s head is what pushes him along, and his giant cross-shaped gun, the Punisher, is how Vash finally triumphs over Knives. (A phrasing I think Vash would disagree with, but whatever.) What’s more, Wolfwood knows the unnecessary nature of his death, and expresses this.

The beauty of that scene is not just its exquisite direction, and use of music (I still can’t listen to “Rakuen,” Wolfwood’s theme that was used so extensively in this scene, without getting a bit blubbery). The way Wolfwood exits the world is just so human. He tries at first for serenity, to accept the inevitability of his approaching death, and muses on how he hopes to be reincarnated in a paradise where he can “live happily, with him (Vash) and the girls.” (Finally, the Milly/Wolfwood and Vash/Wolfwood shippers are united in emotional torment!) But when he takes time to really think about that dream, and how his actions in life made it impossible, he suddenly realizes he doesn’t want to die. He wants to live and make things better! His “sins are so heavy,” but that’s because he’s full of regrets, regrets he could easily make right—if only he had a little more time. “I did not want to die this way!” he screams. And then he dies.

It’s so easy to write characters who go into death with an accepting smile on their faces, but I have to imagine that everyone is at least a little like Wolfwood when they’re about to meet their maker. Even if you’ve lived a long, full life, there have to be some things you wish you could’ve done when you’re stuck there, alone with your thoughts, knowing you’re reaching the end. And Wolfwood didn’t live that kind of life: his was short (remember, he’s only chronologically 17 in the manga, and the anime hints at this a few times, too), and filled with violence and misery. It feels brief to the audience, too, since as much screentime as Wolfwood’s had by this point, we only really got to know him and his backstory in this episode.

A lot of my favorite anime are those that establish characters and ideas in really small chunks. For example, in FMA, we learn everything we need to know about Sloth in the three minutes right before Edward kills her, and it’s one of the series’ most masterful moments. Madoka told us everything we needed to know about Homura and her many lives in the space of a single half-hour. FMA had a big cast, and Madoka had a short runtime, so it was necessary for them to push to pull this off. But Trigun didn’t need to do this; it only had a few major characters, some of whom still didn’t get any real backstory in the anime (like Legato) in spite of the series’ ample time to do so across its 26 episodes. It could’ve taken its time with Wolfwood, but it didn’t.

I think it works, because it just compounds the regrets the audience feels and represents the brief tragedy of his life. We barely knew him before he left us. He barely knew himself, only just then revealing to Vash his conflicted loyalties (“Knives is in Dmitri”) and firmly deciding to fully commit himself to his friends’ ideals. In that sense, if I were going to compare Wolfwood’s death to that of any other character in an anime I love, I would compare it to Lust’s in FMA. They were only just beginning their journeys of self-discovery when we lost them, and their deaths are full of regrets about that. But it isn’t that we’re cheated; that incomplete journey, that sentence fragment is the point. It adds to the emotional punch and realism of these stories, since this happens far too often to real people, too.

trigun wolfwood confessional

How can you not love that face? How can you not cry over it?

Trigun is ultimately not Wolfwood’s story, but the story of Vash the Stampede and Millions Knives, two godlike beings struggling to make sense of their relationships to humanity. Vash is a Christ figure, showing how such a “man” would be burdened and tried by the world if he’d lived longer than Jesus’s 33 years. Wolfwood is the key to his bond with humanity, as Trigun’s most deliciously flawed, frustrated, human character. His death is the perfect coda to that.