On a resources-scarce desert planet that's basically another SF Western, there's a famous gunslinger called Vash the Stampede, the Human Typhoon. He destroys towns. There's a $60 billion price on his head. The Bernardelli insurance company sends two agents after him, Meryl Stryfe and Milly Thompson, but the best candidate they find is a comedy goofball with ridiculous luck who wouldn't hurt a fly. Unfortunately when you carry a gun and answer to the name Vash, trouble tends to follow you around.
There's some great stuff in Trigun, but also some annoying flaws. Theoretically they're the kind of pedantic nitpicks that barely warrant a throwaway mention at the tail end of a review, but unfortunately with this show they happen to be fundamental. That's a shame, because there's a lot to love in Trigun.
It has some great characters. Vash (yes, of course it's him) is a gunman of inhuman skill who could wipe out his enemies in seconds, but he doesn't want to. He's sworn never to kill and the show follows the consequences of this oath to the bitter end. Oh, and he's also practically a split personality. Under normal circumstances he's a hooting cretin, but in extremis a more serious Vash emerges.
Later in the series he meets the Reverend Nicholas D. Wolfwood, a man of similar rough nobility but a very different philosophy. The show's villain is a terrifying psychopath with powers even greater than Vash's. This is all good, but still better are the show's women. Meryl Stryfe is a long-suffering firebrand who finds the world incomprehensible, while her assistant Milly Thompson is so sweet-natured and naive that she looks like a moron although in reality she's as sharp as knives. They're wonderful. You'll want to sweep Milly away and hug her. However I also loved lesser characters like Lina in episode 18 or the pivotal but dead figure of Rem. Leaving aside its gunmen, this show has a real knack for sympathetic female characters.
Everything I'd read about Trigun made me think I'd love it. Strong characters, a kick-arse villain and a surprisingly thoughtful development of its chosen theme... these are all undeniable. Unfortunately (sigh)...
Firstly, the show's too enamoured of its gunslingers. Vash and Wolfwood are unstoppable. No matter how many tough choices Vash makes once he's stopped clowning around, at the end of the day only one other being on the planet can even slow him down. For me it killed the tension. Knowing from the start of each episode that his opponents couldn't win, why did I keep watching? Answer: for Milly and Meryl.
That's not even the half of it. As if superhuman skill with guns wasn't enough, every time Vash got into trouble the script randomly gave him another Get Out Of Jail Free card. Complete mastery of every kind of combat, silly bullet-dodging and when it comes to lost technology, outright magic powers. He goofed around like a twat, but the script never called him on it. And the worst of it was that when he wanted he could act like an adult! He just couldn't normally be bothered.
Episode 17 justified all that. Episode 17 was what I'd desperately needed when watching episodes 1-16. (That's also the point where the anime's creators ran out of original manga to adapt, Yasuhiro Nightow having only reached volume two when the show started. Apparently from there the anime broke away from the manga and followed a different storyline.) There we learned so much backstory and motivation related to Rem, Knives, Vash's childhood and more that I suspect I'd enjoy the show far more on a rewatch. Even something as trivial as Vash's real age somehow gives weight to his goofiness. However even knowing all that, his script immunity is still so ridiculous that many episodes lack urgency because his opposition blatantly isn't up to the job.
Oh, and as for that bullet-dodging... one at a time I'll accept. However when hundreds of bullets all fail to hit their mark, my disbelief crashes to the ground. It's not even just Vash. Wolfwood does it too in episode 18, strolling casually with Vash through air that's about 50% lead. Trigun's problem is that it's influenced by samurai drama, but cool swordsman scenes don't translate directly into cool gunslinger scenes. Maybe Trigun should have had swords instead, except that then it would have been even more obviously a poor man's Rurouni Kenshin. The similarities are striking. Vash and Kenshin are both superhuman innocents who've sworn never to kill, except that Vash is a loud-mouthed dork while Kenshin is a quiet simpleton. Vash's backstory is more interesting, but Kenshin's dark side is scarier. In terms of exploring their heroes' "thou shalt not kill" philosophy, they're probably about on a par.
I should acknowledge Nicholas Wolfwood. He's an interesting character, but like Vash he suffers from being an action hero. In fact he's as brave as anyone, but it doesn't look that way when he's being Mr Unstoppable Gunman.
I have a criticism of the English translation, although perhaps it's more of a criticism of the English language. Rem's last words to Vash are cut off by a closing door, which thanks to Japanese sentence structure means that we don't hear the verb. The English translators provide one, which was probably unavoidable but still damages a central ambiguity. That's one of the most important lines in the show and Vash quotes it later in different circumstances.
Overall a show of two halves, with the second half's strengths being precisely what I needed to forgive the first half's faults. Episode 17 pulled me back into the story. I even enjoyed the conclusion, which I think had to be that way. The expected macho nonsense of a body count ending would have been justifiable, but the heart of Trigun is really about Vash and his personal journey. Arguably the show's real climax isn't the gunfight, but Vash's final words to Rem's memory with his red coat lying behind him on the ground. Hindsight even strengthened the earlier episodes... but dammit, it took me two months to plough through this show, and that's with the last third coming in a rush.
I love a lot about this show: Vash's tragic past, the exploration of his non-violent philosophy, the female characters (Milly, Meryl, Rem, etc.) and a few genuinely powerful episodes. It's a Western. I love Westerns. However I like the bulk of its episodes more in hindsight than I did while watching 'em.