0104 A.D., 7th month, 21st day, 13th hour, 6th minute. It is 11 hours after the whole city of July has been razed to the ground. Among the ruins and the settling dust stands the one responsible: a figure dressed in rags, alone under the twin suns.

This is the opening of the manga Trigun, detailing in only five pages the catastrophic event that sets the plot into motion. Its dramatic tone represents a glimpse of the nature of this manga, started by Yasuhiro Nightow in 1995. Inspired both by spaghetti westerns and sci-fi movies, he created a harsh world plagued by technological regression. The manga deals with themes of pacifism, morality and inner conflict in the setting of a futuristic Space Western. (Spoiler alert)
Featured on Monthly Shōnen Captain until April 1997, when the magazine closed, the manga resumed its publication a few months later under the name Trigun Maximum until its conclusion in 2007. It was also adapted into an anime series by studio Madhouse.

trigun manga
Image Courtesy of J-POP © 2009

A hunter of love and peace: an unlikely protagonist

Vash the Stampede, known as “Humanoid Typhoon” after July’s destruction, is the most wanted man on the planet of No Man’s Land. Despite such fame, he never resorts to violence, opting instead to help those in need. Due to a bounty of 60 billion double dollars on his head, he lives a life on the run. Moreover, he is also chased by the insurance employees tasked to minimize the damage he causes. Unable to escape his mysterious past, the guilt for the destruction he barely remembers haunts him.

From the start, the character of Vash subverts all expectations with his lighthearted and altruistic attitude. A staunch pacifist, he is capable of compassion even in an apocalyptic, western-like world without law. The contrast between the myth surrounding him and the man himself is so stark that it becomes hard to believe. However, his gunslinger fame is no illusion. And when innocent lives are in danger he lives up to the legend to protect them. Using only non-lethal force, he shares a principle in common with DC superheroes like Batman.

While he is never the one to instigate conflict, destruction inevitably follows him, despite his genuine wish for peace. Yet, such a fate does not hinder his undying optimism. Even when met with hostility, Vash never ceases to believe that love can be found on No Man’s Land. A view that many, including the disillusioned priest and travel companion Nicholas D. Wolfwood, deem naive. But that acquires new meaning when seen through the eyes of a man who has known mostly pain and violence.

When comedy leaves way for tragedy

As the story develops, a noticeable shift takes place. While the comical tone matches the positive outlook and goofy attitude of the protagonist, there is a lingering tragedy. How could someone so kind-hearted destroy an entire town? It becomes apparent that Vash has two faces, matching the narration’s opposite tones.

Only as his past emerges the reader begins to grasp the full extent of his character. He is not human, but actually part of the Project SEEDS to find a new planet after life on Earth became unsustainable. His twin brother Knife and he are sentient Plants, inter-dimensional beings used as energy sources. Raised by a woman named Rem, her teachings as well as her sacrifice shaped Vash’s world vision. Contrary to his brother, he deems humanity as worthy of saving, and is determined to fight for it.

trigun manga
Image Courtesy of J-POP © 2009

He is a lonely being who, due to both his reputation and unnaturally long life, has suffered many losses. Facing betrayal by some of those he considered friends and witnessing the death of others took its toll on him. Nor does the author shy away from depicting the depression and inner turmoil in the face of such pain. Haunted by a traumatic childhood and the accidental annihilation of July, he is unable to escape the cycle of guilt. An exploration of themes of inner turmoil and an attempt to survive in extreme situations, also present in Neon Genesis Evangelion first and Gantz later.

The paradox of idealistic pacifism in the manga Trigun

The moral dilemma represented by idealistic pacifism is the core element of the manga Trigun. Respect for human life is the protagonist’s main feature, but it also represents his doom. Peace is not obtainable without confronting and accepting one’s mistakes. Since he is unable to go against his moral code, the price to pay includes not only his own suffering but also the lives of innocents. A theme of compromise between idealism and reality that emerges as well in the manga sensation Attack on Titan.

It is human to always hope for the best, but reality does not work like that. One cannot save everyone. The moment Vash faces this truth is when he is forced to kill Legato, Knife’s devotee, to save his dear ones. This causes a psychological crisis for the protagonist, whose hero-complex led him to spill blood at last. Showing that even the best ideals could not survive the harsh reality of life.

But it also brings a new understanding. Recognizing that some bounds of morality bounds must be overcome in order to keep on pursuing peace is essential to Vash’ growth. Not unlike titles as Troppo Facile Amarti in Vacanza or Full Metal Alchemist, Trigun confronts the fragility of human nature, as well as its strength. It teaches that while pure ideals might not exist in the real world, striving for a just goal is never wrong.