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.
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.)
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.
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.