Cool Things: Trigun

Okay, I’ve hinted a few times that I like some elements of Japanese culture. Not just the classic stuff like Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai or calligraphy, the pop culture that has produced things like Astroboy or Dragonball. The question I so often get when people find this out is… why?

It’s hard to just sit down and say, “Well, you see it’s this and this and this that make it all so interesting.” Have you ever tried to explain your favorite band to someone who’s never heard their music? If so, you understand what I mean. Even if you have a well reasoned, even handed argument for why you like them it doesn’t mean much unless the person you’re talking to has heard their music. (If they haven’t you’re probably ready to subject them to a few dozen bars of off key singing that will fail to make you any friends. Unless, of course, you’re one of those people and you can actually sing.) The fact is, it needs to be experienced, as often as not.

Anime and manga, the elements of Japanese culture that I get the most, are the same way. I can’t really pour the experience straight into your brains but I can recommend some places for you to start. Thus and so I proclaim July 2014 to be Japanophile month here at Nate Chen Publications and I’m going to use these here Wednesday segments to talk about some of the things that drew me to the twin mediums of manga and anime.

A quick aside on terms. Rather than write out everything here, I’ve made a separate post where several words that are used in this month’s posts will be defined. And from here on out I’m going to link to it every time I use one of these terms with the exception of anime and manga. Just so you know. Shonen will like to the Japanese Terms Cheat Sheet every time it’s a hyperlink. If you remember what a given term means you don’t need to click on it every time. Or just keep it open in another tab while you’re reading this.

So. Pretty much the first anime I ever watched in its entirety was Trigun and it still has this special little place in my heart even though, looking back on it, it only accomplished so much narratively or artistically.

Trigun is a good place for the anime novice to start for a number of reasons. For starters, it’s one of the three anime Space Westerns created in the 1980s and 1990s. If you’ve seen Firefly you have a good idea of the aesthetics of these space westerns, although the exact balance of elements varied between the three.

Trigun had the most western and the least space. As a result it’s chalk full of imagery that will be familiar to Western audiences in general and us Americans in particular. Gun slingers, taverns and great sprawling deserts are all a part of the scenery in Trigun.

At the same time they’re on another planet (which I don’t believe we ever learn the name of.)

Basically, the people there were part of a colonization project gone awry that crashed on planet hundreds of years ago. The details are fuzzy at start but are explored in more detail as the series goes on, point is the disaster set humanity back but more due to a lack of resources and infrastructure than a loss of information. And the planet is a desert so it’s not like it’s a hospitable environment, either.

There’s still some high technology running around, cyborg arms, futuristic power plants and even the rotting, semifunctional hulks of old colony ships. But at the same time most people exist in a world where what’s generally available wouldn’t be out of place in the 1890s and wound up looking like they belong in the old west.

There were twelve colony ships that crashed and each one had a city built around its ruins. These twelve cities, named after the months of the year, were the centers for human culture, learning and progress – at least until a lone man completely annihilated one of them over night using methods no one quite understands. Since this is a space western the man who is blamed for the incident had a price put on his head. Like all great outlaws he’s best known by the name they put on his wanted poster and that name is Vash the Stampede.

If you think that sounds dumb you don’t know much about the kinds of names people used out on the range.

Although it is an odd choice of a name since there’s no herd animals to stampede anywhere on the planet, at least so far as we see, so it’s not like people are going to have vivid images in their minds of what a stampede looks like…

Anyway, Trigun revolves around Vash and what people do about him. It’s got a very distinct story structure with beginning, middle and end, themes of learning to correctly evaluate people and a story of truly epic sibling rivalry plus some really weird names, slapstick comedy galore and gunfights to put The Matrix to shame. It’s fast, frenetic and fun, at least most of the time. That said, to really get what drew me in about the series you only have to watch the first five episodes.

(ASIDE – Trigun, like many anime series of its day and even some now a days, aired 26 episodes. Since one of those episodes was a mid-season recap it essentially had 25 episodes of plot development. The first 20% of the series is, in my opinion, the best part from a storytelling perspective. Not to say the rest isn’t good stuff, but it’s what really grabbed me.)

We start off by meeting Meryl Strife and Milly Thomson, insurance adjustors from the Bernardelli Insurance Company. They’re looking for Vash not for the bounty on his head, or even to try and claim damages from him, but because his tendency to leave chaos in his wake ever since he wiped a city off the map is costing the company money. Meryl and Milly are supposed to try and keep other people away from him, thus hopefully preventing further incidents that will cost the company even more money.

These two women are following rumors of Vash and are stymied when they encounter not one, not two but three men who match the description. They eventually write off all three as not Vash and continue their quest – but we, the audience, see enough of one of them to draw three conclusions:

  1. He’s really Vash the Stampede, just keeping a low profile.
  2. He’s very laid back for a coldblooded killer and, in fact, seems intent on avoiding conflict, passing off his considerable abilities as bumbling.
  3. He loves donuts.

Over the first five episodes Meryl and Milly watch Vash wrap up one incident after another – mixed-up bounty hunters, greedy land owners, bank robbers and a hostage situation – all without getting anyone killed. Each time the stakes get a little higher and it gets harder to hide the fact that under that sunny disposition and carefree attitude there’s steel and courage and possibly even something a little darker.

Episode 5, “Hard Puncher” is where it all comes together. Vash wanders into a town that has a failing power plant. Without power to keep things running the town will loose access to water and machinery to keep the desert at bay and it will quickly die. Getting an engineer to fix the plant is incredibly expensive – but Vash has the highest bounty in history and it’s more than enough to set things right.

Except Vash will not turn himself in quietly. He is, in fact, willing to fight the whole town.

And he does.

It’s not the first time Vash has done this. Obviously it didn’t work before but this town has a secret weapon. After all their efforts to catch him themselves they fall back on the old maxim that to catch a thief… And so they turn the biggest criminals they have on hand, a steam powered cyborg and his mad scientist “father” known collectively as the Nebraskas, loose on Vash.

This proceeds to backfire within fifteen seconds. (Surprise!)

The Nebraskas show no concern for the wellbeing of the townfolk and smash the place up even worse trying to catch Vash. In turn Vash busts his butt trying to keep the townspeople who are trying to throw him in jail safe. Finally the Nebraskas grab the villain ball and try to kill some townfolk just to prove they’re bigger than Vash (which is literally, if not figuratively true.)

In the end Vash beats the Nebraskas and saves the townfolk – even though they were determined to throw him in jail just hours before. Our lacksidasical, donut eating protagonist may be more of a hero than we thought, ruined cities or no.

Now this may not sound like anything special. But what impressed me at first and still impresses me now is how we learn about Vash. He never flat out says he’s Vash the Stampede, to keep a low profile, sure, but even when situations have already gone south he doesn’t trot out his reputation to try and scare off enemies. In fact, he doesn’t ever try for any kind of recognition – well, other than maybe some attention from the ladies.

We learn about Vash by what he does, not what he says or even what other people say about him (except for how it contrasts with the character we see.) It’s very strong writing like you don’t see much in any venue. Yes, the series doesn’t entirely live up to its early promise but it always does an excellent job with its character building and that’s why it still has a special place in my heart.

If your interested in checking out Trigun Funimation, the company that owns the license to distribute Trigun in America, has made the series available on Youtube. If you enjoy animation or character building it’s worth looking at.

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Anime/Manga Month Cheat Sheet

(Scroll down for new terms from the 7/16/2014 post!)

These are some commonly used terms when discussing anime and manga. Note that not all of these are Japanese words, for Japanese, just like English, is a language all too happy to straight up steal words from other languages and give them new meanings. Let confusion abound.

Anime – This is one of those stolen words. It comes from French and it means animation. Oddly enough it’s used in a straightforward fashion – it refers to any kind of animated story, much like we’d use the term “cartoons” except that it never refers to pictures that don’t move only ones that do.

Dono (see also Honorifics) – Not used much in modern times, this was the term you would use when referring to the person who was your direct superior in the feudal structure. If it is used in modern times it is often done in a joking fashion.

Honorifics – American culture is, by world standards, fairly informal. But by Japanese standards we’re downright hicks. The Japanese language uses a set of honorifics to define relationships and I’ve included a few of the more important ones here. These titles would usually be used after a person’s name almost like a suffix. Thus if I was your writing teach I would be Chen-sensei. These honorifics serve to set some social ground rules between people and generally say a lot about the structure of a group, plus they’re considered polite. Most Americans will get this. What they might not realize is that not using any honorific at all is considered either A) a sign the speaker knows the person he’s addressing very intimately or B) the speaker intends to be very rude. Something to keep in mind should you ever visit Japan.

Manga – This is a very broad term in Japan that refers to pretty much anything that’s been drawn. But for our purposes it covers the things American audiences would refer to as comic books, comic strips and graphic novels. The two are very similar but manga tends to be more image focused where American comics are very dialog heavy. The differences are very stark if you take, say, a page from DCs New 52 and place it next to a page from Shounen Jump…

San (see also Honorifics) – This is the catch-all, general purpose, polite honorific you use if you and the person you’re talking to are equals or your relationship is as-of-yet ill defined. The rough equivalent of Mr. or Mrs. in English.

Sama (see also Honorifics) – This term refers to someone more important than you. Your boss, the mayor, the Prime Minister, it can be pretty broad and how important the other person has to be before the speaker uses it varies, assuming it gets used at all.

Shoujo – This word basically means “young girl” and means a girl between the ages of 12 and 16, dealing with the new complexities of interpersonal relationships that define that age. It’s also a genre of entertainment. Shojo entertainment tends to focus on… well, romance. But also the societal pressures girls face in what Americans would view as highly regimented school systems play a major role. Gossip, appearance, grades and the like are very, very common themes.

Shounen – This word basically means “young boy” and refers to a man on the cusp of adulthood, somewhere between 12 and 16 years old. Anime and manga called “shounen” are just what you’d think – aimed at boys in that demographic.However shounen also tends to be the best selling and most popular genre in Japan, so this may be a bit of a misnomer. Shounen Jump, the most popular shounen publication in Japan, has the motto “hard work, friendship, victory” and that may be the best summation of the genre there is.

As the month goes on I will come back and add to this page as needed. Of course, I don’t expect you to read this straight through, although some of you might be doing just that right now, but rather look up the correct entry whenever you encounter something you don’t understand in the course of one of this month’s posts. So be aware that the contents of this post will be changing over time.

7/16/2014 Update

Bakumatsu – A roughly three year time period from 1866 to 1868 when the Japanese Shogunate was overthrown and the Emperor restored to actual leadership of Japan. While it’s sometimes compared to the American Civil War the only real similarity is the time period and that a formerly unified nation divided into factions that fought with each other before being forced back together in a sometimes uneasy peace. In truth it might be closer to the American Revolution, as it overthrew one kind of government and instituted another… but in all truth comparing the history of one nation to another is kind of futile. The Bakumatsu was a civil war that changed the government of Japan and ushered in the Meiji era. It is one of the most often romanticized periods of Japanese history. ‘Nuff said.

Ishin Shishi – The faction of the Bakumatsu set on overthrowing the Shogun and restoring the Imperial form of government. The ultimate victors of that conflict and, oddly enough, often cast as villains in stories set during that era.

Katana – This is the Japanese equivalent of the long sword. The blade has a slight curve to it, so that the force of impact is focused in a smaller area than it would be with a straight blade, and it is forged and tempered in such a way as to withstand incredible impacts without breaking. The weapon is sharp on only one side. The Japanese consider them works of art and those forged by Japanese smiths in the isles of Japan are actually national treasures that cannot be exported legally. There’s a lot of other technical stuff but basically all you need to know is they’re pretty and deadly.

Meiji Restoration – A period of Japanese history stretching from the late 1860s to the early 1910s. The samurai and other deposed ruling classes were still around and both causing and solving problems but, on the whole, the imperial government, along with growing militancy and modernization that would characterize the nation until the end of the Second World War, were the driving forces of the times. While the Bakumatsu wasn’t really anything like the American Civil War there are a lot of similarities between Meiji and the American West, particularly in how they are romanticized.

Rurouni – A samurai with no master and no place to call home. Samurai were the backbone of the Shogun’s feudal system and, with that system overthrown, all samurai were essentially homeless. To carry the analogy between Meiji and the Old West one step further, rurouni would be the Virginians of the era, part of a dying breed who still held just enough power in the minds of the people to have an impact one last time.

Sakabato – Roughly “a reversed blade” a sakabato is a katana with the cutting edge and the blunt edge reversed so that striking with it in the normal fashion hurts like the dickens but won’t kill you (much). In theory, this allows a trained swordfighter to enjoy the balance and heft of his normal weapon without running the risk of randomly chopping someone’s head off. He can just leave them crippled for life or something.

Shinsengumi – Literally “newly chosen group” these people were the elite of the Shogun’s defenders, a special police force pulled up to defend Kyoto (then the capitol of the nation) against Ishin Shishi activities. Historically they were about as nice as you’d expect hardline police to be during wartime but they were exceptionally good fighters and popular culture has romanticized them a lot. In fact, if there’s an elite fighting group in a Japanese work of fiction there’s a 50/50 chance both it’s structure and leadership are modeled on the Shinsengumi.