The desert. Symbol for a wasteland of our lives.
Two men. A priest with a gun. And a gunslinger who hates gunfight.
An argument broke out in the sand.
Thou Shalt Not Kill, remember? What kind of church man are you?”, yelled a
blonde haired man to a priest.
The irony is that a man with blonde hair is the most feared outlaw on the planet.
There is a double $60 billion price on his head, and wherever he goes whispers of fear surround him.
When he walks by, people point to him, always carefully, always behind his back, always whispering very quietly to one another; This is Vash the Stampede!
He is known for destroying entire towns and killing thousands on a whim.
His name is what parents use to scare their children into obedience, and yet there he is, sweating under a desert sun, nervously trying to convince a priest in black not to kill anyone.
Two of them are preparing for yet another gunfight, and a blonde man is reluctant, words of a girl he used to know are ringing in his head “No one has the right to take the life of another…”
Words that followed him for years, that have became his life motto altough his destiny was always followed by blood and gunsmoke, with always the same result, mountains of death and debris.
Blonde man is Vash the Stampede, the main protagonist and the titular character of Trigun, an anime and manga series created by Yasuhiro Nightow, and what makes this series awesome is the irony that symbolizes the discrepancy between the utopian ideals Vash tries to uphold and harsh reality surrounding him.
The series can be percieved as a criticism of utopian moral ideals by religious systems like Christianity (the references and allusions are immense), but also as a criticism of entire human idea of justice.
“Thou Shalt Not Kill” is not only carved in collective consciousness as one of the 10 Commandments that God revealed to Moses, but this premise is embedded in all of humankind systems of thought that were trying to build a just society.
Immanuel Kant, a prominent philosopher who struggled with question of morality could not find a better concept in ethics other than “Act as you would want all other people to act towards all other people”, which is a waterdown version of second greatest commandment of Jesus “Love your neighbor as yourself”.
And altough, from Jesus till Kant and modern philosophers, same concept repeats itself throughout history of human morality, a man living in the real world cannot help but wonder are those only empty words.
Trigun series underlines this discrepancy, Vash the Stampede tries to live his life according to the same principle of morality, but he keeps getting into and out of trouble and ends up unintentionally hurting people, which lefts him scared and torn. Christian symbolism in Trigun, as it turns out, is intentional, due to the creator, Yasuhiro Nightow, having converted to Catholicism and created the manga soon after. This symbolism carries on into the anime.
The parallels between Vash the Stampede and Jesus Christ are blatant, Vash has fallen onto to planet from another world, altough in human shape, he is not real human, he is a godlike creature with supernatural abilities, he wanders in the desert trying to spread his message of love and peace, and like Christ, Vash suffered by choosing the life of a pacifist.
Besides intentional simbolism, Yasuhiro Nightow created a series that transcends his original idea, and can be disected from many different angles. The motto that Vash lives by is in fact an ultimate moral imperative of all theorists. If everyone would live by this motto of not hurting anybody, humanity would be saved, a just society, heaven if you will, could have been possible on Earth, but it is clear that this will remain just a thought experiment, and that a human utopia won’t happen.
If it were were to happen, it would have happened already. Theoretical path to creating utopia on Earth has been set, not only by Jesus, but also by most prominent theorists of morality, and there is nothing new to add there, but reality shows us how these moral rules are, in fact, difficult, if not impossible to follow in practice, and this is the what Vash the Stampede will have to discover in Trigun.
Altough forgiveness and compassion are the main mantras in Christianity, they are also one of the greatest obstacles to becoming a committed Christian, which is why we have a vast majority of “fake” Christians who don’t practice what Jesus preaches, leading Mahatma Gandhi to say “I’d be a Christian if it were not for the Christians.’”.
The reason for that is that forementioned ideals are unachievable in practice, and Trigun underlines one man’s struggle with trying to upheld them.
It can be interpreted as a criticism pointed to all those zealots that would claim that “turn the other cheek” is not as hard as would one thinks, and altough they would claim that there, in fact, exist that kind of meek men in the world today, a realist understands that, even if such men do exist, they are at best “the exception to the rule”, because even if realist accepts the argument that most people are good at heart, reality shows him that, most of them will, when their ideals are put on a test, will choose to trample them.
This is what a pacifist gunman from Trigun understands as he says; “People who sin say that they had to… had to survive. People who sin say that it’s too late to stop now. The shadow called Sin dogs them steadily from behind, silently, without a word. Remorse and Agony are repeated, only to end up at Despair.”, but he continues his fight despite living in a world that is created to be the darkened replica of our own reality, where most have rejected formentioned ideal of meeknes, realising that meekness wouldn’t help them survive, much less succeed in the world.
The same as we are bombarded with everyday news about all kinds of crime causing some to feel like the only things reported are terrible, depressing events, Vash is also, on his journey from town to town on a barren wasteland, confronted with constant destruction and chaos, leading him to say; “To not lie. To love one another. To not kill. Those are very simple things, but these times won’t allow for them”.
Trigun series borrows one motif from Dostoyevski, how, in the real world, a man that tries to live completely moral life ideal would be percieved as a fool. This is an idea described by Dostoyevski in his novel “The Idiot”, which is frequently characterized as a flawed masterpiece, a grand experiment that doesn’t quite come off. Critics are often drawn by it, yet defeated by its perplexing central character, the “truly good man” Prince Myshkin, who is a social misfit because of his goodness, and this idea repeats again in Trigun with Vash.
Vash the Stampede is also percieved as a idiot when he displays a kindhearted demeanor and goes out of his way not to hurt anyone. In these moments he is even drawn goofy, thus underlining the old idea of Dostoyevski how a ultimate goodnes in real world can be only percieved as idiocy. This fictitious gunslinger’s assertion that the world is full of love and peace lies in stark contrast to the desolate state of every town he ventures.
Vash tries to bring christian idea of morality in a world that, like our own, acts on a premise described by british philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) who said; “Outside human desires there is no moral standard.”, and the impossibility of his quest is best seen when he reffers to a place he seeks with utopian world Paradise.
“We are searching for a place where we can live our lives in peaceful days. No wars, no stealing; a place that isn’t run by fear; a place where people can live, and actually trust other human beings. A sacred place where people can live as people. Yes there, that place is called Paradise”.
Strong words most can relate, however, a man trying to find such a place, or make trying top reshape the world to match his ideals must be portrayed goofy and childish, and this is a cross Vash has to bear. The fact Vash possesses this very unorthodox view of the world, in comparison to the rest of the citizens in the lawless land that they live in, is what makes him a laughable character – a gunfighter who hates killing. Nearly Immortal, yet vulnerable. Power to destroy all life on a planet, but upset at the death of a bug… The irony meter is bound to explode.
Besides formentioned goofiness, Nightow was also able to capture something were any of us can relate to Vash – the difference between how we perceive ourselves, and how others see us? In case of Vash the Stampede this difference is blown out of proportion. Altough in heart a devoted pacifist, he has a reputation that doesnt match, and the same as the opinions of others can control how we live our lives, in case of Vash his reputation controls his life, and everywhere he goes he finds himself dodging a barrage of bullets.
This puts his belief to the test, as he repeatedly makes sacrifices for his “no-killing” credo, and he is left scared both both physically and psychically. Besides scars of bullets on his body, he has to struggle to uphold his philosophy, while his few companions repeatedly challenge him on this (namely priest Wolfwood), and make him wonder if it’s actually as sound as he thinks.
As series progresses, we witnessed his fall, and this is perhaps the strongest part of the Trigun series.
Vash was finally put in a situation where he has no choice but to kill. The ideal is defeated, we see Vash crying in the desert realising “I actually killed a man with my own hand… I’m no different… I did a terrible thing… Now I’m a sinner too… “.
It utterly destroys Vash when he is forced to kill in this scene, and altough, after this breakdown, Vash mustered the strength and recommits to his beliefs of extreme pacifism, this scene is full of symbolism.
Intentionally or not, Nightow here offers a final confirmation that Vash’s ideals were impossible to follow. Not even Vash, a godlike creature could not live his life without committing sin – an ultimate sin – murder, and if Vash was not able to upheld his ideals into practice, what chances are left for ordinary people to live by such an utopian credo.
This scene shows us how people are determined by the actions around them, and reopens old question how free are we, is there actually a such thing as free will.
Great Russian novelists Tolstoy argued in his masterpiece “War and Peace”; “Man is free as an individual, but completely determined inside the larger actions of history”, and same as characters of Tolstoy often felt as their hands are being forced, and that society makes them to do things they would not do if they could act freely, Vash is also by outside factors forced to break his credo, sending us important message that we are all slaves of our circumstances, and not sole creators of our destiny.
This is a final nail in the coffin of an idea of possibility of practicing extreme pacifism that Vash stands up for, the same pacifism Jesus and moral teachers preached for centuries. One man cannot make the difference, he is destined to be corrupted in a corrupt world, and Vash ends up in tears when forced to betray his ideals.
His earlier optimism is overshadowed, in this moment the words by his spiritual mentor Rem Saverem sounds hollow. She claimed that future is full of possibilities. “If you keep your vision clear you will see the future”. This scene gives right to archvillain Knives Millions and the twin brother of Vash. Knives argued that a man can only choose betwen two evils. “If you let the fly live, the spider is going to die. You can’t save both without one suffering.”
Future his spiritual mentor Rem propagated is blurred now, Vash’s first kill is a Nietzschean “God is dead” moment, as Vash is forced to realise that, no matter how much you tried, you cannot live your life whitout hurting others.
This reafirms the question that was always there, the question would the world be a better place if Vash wasn’t in it, after all, tough unintentionally, he is the cause of unimaginable destruction all over the planet.
As Trigun shattered the ideal, the series continues, Vash will seek redemption once again, thus underlining that Trigun approaches pacifism as a life long project, rather than a strict set of rules one must always adhere to or they fail.
It recognizes 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, but Yasuhiro Nightow continues to try to convince us why pacifism is a worthy value system, that if you fail upholding your ideals, that doesn’t mean they’re no longer worth it, and that you should continue to try harder.
In the remaining episodes, Vash recommits to his beliefs, he goes on to confront Knives without killing him, giving his brother a chance to rebuild his life, sending a message that no one deserves to be killed, and of importance of letting people live to give them a chance at redemption.
But this is where Trigun differs from Dostoyevski, as the great Russian writer painted a grim picture of the world, unlike Vash his main protagonist Prince Myshkin is unable to bring his goodness to bear on society without disastrous results. Prince Myshkin ends his foray into society with a retreat into idiocy, offering no hope of resurrection, as creator of Trigun desperately clings on to the utopian idea.
Yasuhiro Nightow pinpoints the determination can help us to do what’s right, as he puts the words in Vash’s mouth: “It is a virtue to devote one’s self to something, firmly believing in one’s own ideals.”
When asked of all the characters that he have created, which one does he feel ‘closest to’, he responded that Vash is the one he associates himself with the most; saying “I think that there he represents my determinedness and some of my more childish side.”
From this we can conclude that he projected in Vash the same ideals he found in Christianity, the ideals any normal man could stand by in theory, however the question remains to which degree is his vision realistic.
On the other hand, Dostoyevsky also a Christian, but the kind most can relate, though a devout Christian, he was never a good one, answering the same question as Yasuhiro Nightow, gives us a totally different conclusion, one that corresponds with the world today, while Trigun resolution presents us a beacon of hope, this is, in fact, prayer in a anime form, a prayer for utopistic world that is never going to come.
To give credit to Nightow, even after the resolution the Trigun world has not became a Paradise Vash hoped for, people on the desert planet keep on living as they did, and this can be interpreted as Yasuhiro Nightow telling us that, if we devout ourselves to Vash’s (Christ)ideals Vash we must always try, altough final result will never come. It is a classical “The journey is more important than the destination” argument.