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