Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:
In its formative years, Toonami and Adult Swim served as a destination for fans of anime to watch series they otherwise would never have the chance to see, but also as a platform where little-seen or underperforming titles could find a receptive audience. Some of the biggest success stories of the time period included (of course) Cowboy Bebop, Outlaw Star, The Big O, FLCL, and especially Trigun.
Though it was based on a recently canceled manga and put in a death slot on Japanese TV in the spring of 1998, Madhouse’s adaptation of Yasuhiro Nightow’s Trigun was one of the defining anime series of the early 2000s for U.S. anime fans. It was impossible for anyone with even a remote interest in Japanese cartoons not to have come across series protagonist Vash the Stampede on fan art sites or conventions. Trigun popularity with American anime fans was so prevalent that it led to a feature film being produced in 2010, Badlands Rumble. After the release of the film, though, the Trigun franchise has been left dormant, with no new series or films released during what has become a boom period for anime— not only in the U.S but around the world—thanks to streaming. That is, until this weekend.
Almost 25 years since its debut on TV Tokyo, the $60 billion double dollar man returns to seasonal anime with Trigun Stampede, a CG-animated series produced by Studio Orange (Land of the Lustrous, Beastars). To mark the return of this iconic franchise, we figured now would be the perfect time to revisit the anime series that didn’t get its due in 1998, and has seemingly been forgotten by the western audience that once embraced it.
Set on the planet Gunsmoke, a desert world that resembles both Tatooine and Tombstone, Trigun focuses on the adventures of Vash, the planet’s most wanted man, and insurance agents Meryl Styfe and Milly Thompson. The young women have been tasked by their employer with tracking down the man known as “The Humanoid Typhoon” in order to keep him under surveillance, and if possible, to keep him from destroying any more cities. Expecting a ruthless, blood-thristy psychopath, the agents learn that the infamous gunslinger is actually a bumbling buffoon who is less Jesse James and more Mahatma Gandhi. Though he could easily kill any adversary with just the raising of his right arm—as his marksmanship skills make Robin Hood look more like Mr. Magoo—Vash is strictly against killing, and frequently puts himself in the line of fire to keep both allies and enemies from killing each other.
The insurance girls follow and document Vash’s adventures, discovering that his reputation for being an agent of chaos and destruction is a little misconstrued: It isn’t Vash who causes most of the destruction seen in Trigun, but rather, those around him. Together the trio encounter bounty hunters, armed robots, conmen, and the preacher Nicholas D. Wolfwood, who carries a large silver cross that can shoot bullets and rockets. They do so all while Vash traverses through Gunsmoke in search of one man, the person responsible for almost all of the pain, guilt, and anguish in his life: his twin-brother, Knives Millions.
Trigun is at its best when it focuses less on comedic hijinks, and more on the internal struggle Vash endures by wanting to lead a pacifist life in an incredibly violent and chaotic world. He is an optimist who sees the best in humanity and feels that everyone, regardless of their past actions, deserves a second chance to live a decent life. That morality is greatly tested with the introduction of The Gung-Ho Guns, a collection of mercenaries whose sole purpose is to make Vash suffer by killing as many human beings as possible. The Guns push Vash to both his physical and philosophical limits, leaving him wallowing in sorrow at all the lives he didn’t save, and contemplating whether his ideology is the best course of action. Their introduction (along with Vash’s backstory) represents a turning point in the series, where it goes from light-hearted one off, steampunk adventures to a more serious, mature, and harder sci-fi story.
While the main storyline makes Trigun a worthwhile experience to see or revisit, what hurts the series, and why it may not appeal to fans who have grown up seeing the likes of Attack on Titan and Demon Slayer, are the visuals, which are by far the series’ weakest aspect. Lacking even by 1998 standards, numerous episodes suffer from characters being off-model or backgrounds with starkly uninspired designs; the action scenes, especially when it comes to Vash’s encounters with the Guns and his final showdown with Knives, are better drawn, but the overall quality is a surprise considering that this was a Madhouse production; a company with a reputation for delivering anime series with impressive visual flair and was seen (from what I remember) in their other spring 1998 series, Cardcaptor Sakura.
Even at its most shoddy, there is one absolute when re-watching Trigun, and that is Vash the Stampede still looks really cool. With his spiky blond hair, long red trench coat the color of red geranium flowers—a symbol of his love for Rem, the human woman who instilled in him the belief that every life is precious, and his determination to fulfill her final wish—and the butler glasses, which feature rippled frames and yellow mirrored glass that shines as bright as the dual suns that rise above Gunsmoke. Though some elements of Trigun have not aged well, Vash’s design still strikes with the same intensity as a freshly shot bullet.
While hampered by lackluster comedy, outdated and at times poorly drawn visuals, Trigun holds up surprisingly well. Its strong, mature story, smooth mixing of different genres, and its main character being the kind of hero not found in your typical Western (space or otherwise) truly sets it apart from many of the more popular series released during its time. It’s a series that should have been given its due in 1998 in Japan, but at the least deserves its due now in the West, where it is being given new life after almost 20 years.
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Christopher L. Inoa is a freelance writer living in the Bronx, NYC. His work has appeared on Polygon, Observer, Hyperallergic, and more. He killed all his social media accounts last year, with the exception of Letterboxd so you can follow him there
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