Reviewby Theron Martin,
DVD - The Complete Series
On the desert world Gunsmoke, which resembles a sci fi version of the American Wild West, Meryl Stryfe and Milly Thompson are agents for the Bernadelli Insurance Agency who have been charged with an unenviable task: track down Vash the Stampede, a notorious gunman who has been nicknamed the Humanoid Typhoon and has a $$60 billion bounty on his head, and attempt to engage in some form of loss control concerning him. After several miscues they eventually realize that the womanizing, cowardly, donut-loving goofball whom they keep crossing paths with is, in fact, the very person they are looking for, and that his is less a case of deliberately causing mayhem than mayhem just seeming to find him. They also soon discover that Vash's seeming cowardice is actually a passionate commitment to avoid taking a human life (or allowing a person to be killed) under even the most dangerous of circumstances, even if that means sacrificing any shred of dignity he may have to prevent such an occurrence. Fortunately Vash also has the gunmanship to pull it off, though a group called the Gung-Ho Guns seems committed to forcing him into situations which test his resolve and encounters he has with the traveling priest/gunman Nicholas D. Wolfwood cause him to contemplate his actions. Ultimately, for him to find the peace his gentle soul so desperately seeks, Vash must confront the one person more responsible for the world's woes than any other: Million Knives, the master of the Gung-Ho Guns and Vash's own misanthropic brother.
Only a handful of anime titles have proven more popular and enduring amongst the American fan base than they ever did in Japan, but this is one of them. A lengthy span of appearances on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming block starting in the spring of 2003 doubtless contributed to this, and having such an iconic character design for the central character certainly didn't hurt, but the reasons for its success run deeper than that. In many senses Trigun is one of the least Japanese anime series, with a setting and flavor heavily grounded in the stories and myths of the 19th century Wild West in North America and a focus on a lone, highly moral gunman which evokes memories of The Lone Ranger. It speaks much more to the strength of individual identity (long a point of emphasis in American media) than it does to one's role within a family or functioning community (a typical component of Japanese media), so it is not surprising at all that some of the values expressed in the series would strike closer to home for American viewers than for Japanese viewers.
But the series has more than that going for it. If boiled down to its essence, it is simply another tale about a hero who gets into some occasionally frivolous adventures amidst efforts to deal with the super-powered minions of the chief bad guy, who naturally has a strong past connection to the hero. The hero is, naturally, as intensely moral as his ultimate foe is amoral and has a woman who gradually falls for him despite initially not being able to tolerate him. However, the series never wallows in the clichés inherent to this format simply because the surprisingly high quality of its writing never allows that to happen. Nestled in amongst all of the tomfoolery, super-powered gunfights, and sci fi/Western trappings are serious and occasionally powerful little stories about revenge, justice, greed, guilt, courage, desperation, family connections, the value of human life, and mankind in the essence of both its greatest glories and worst iniquities. Both episode content and especially the Next Episode previews philosophize about the importance of maintaining a moral center and how sin and the sinner are often in the eye of the beholder. Even when the series resorts to its action scenes, they ripple with power and meaning and can carry an energy and impact well beyond what the series' limited animation is capable of portraying. The best example of this is the climactic confrontation between Vash and Knives, which certainly deserves to be considered among the all-time-great mano-a-mano battle scenes in anime, but the series has other sharp battles, too.
The likable core cast also contributes mightily to the series' success. For all of his skill and crazy antics, Vash is essentially the conscience of the world, an idealistic soul too gentle for the rough life he must lead and too caring in his commitment to life to get by without suffering a great deal of pain – the kind of character who can either instantly endear himself to viewers or quickly annoy them. Though he is a kindred spirit in some senses, the occasionally-appearing Wolfwood is Vash's foil in others, a man who eschews Vash's idealism for the harsh practicalities of living a violent life. Meryl fills a quasi-tsundere role as the young woman who starts to fall for Vash as she begins to see beyond his antics, while Milly, whose prodigious strength is a running joke, is Meryl's cheerily simple-minded but often surprisingly insightful subordinate. The only other recurring characters are Vash's mother-figure Rem and the villainous Gung-Ho Guns, the latter of which collectively offer a diversity of variations on the standard psychotic killer. Other characters come and go, some colorful, others strikingly hard-edged; a man who seeks revenge against a thug who raped and killed his daughter is perhaps the strongest example, although the way desperation can lead even normal citizens to take rash actions is a recurring theme.
While the writing shines, the visuals are a big disappointment. Granted, this series does date to 1998, but even by the standards of other major series from the same year this one will be found wanting; visually, it is not even close to being in the same league as Cowboy Bebop or even Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040. Vash's spiked blond hair, signature sunglasses, and long, red trench coat give him one of the most distinctive looks of any anime hero, and Wolfwood looks suitably cool with that massive, cross-shaped gun (these were two of the most frequently cosplayed characters at American anime conventions in the early-to-mid 2000s), but beyond them character designs hedge either towards the crude side or the ridiculous side. (Really, Legato? And let's not even get into the bandit with the dynamos on his shoulders.) Character rendering regularly looks more like rough drafts than refined final products, with the artists often struggling just to stay on model; this is most evident in scenes involving Rem but is readily noticeable in many other places, too. The background art does a respectable job of establishing the setting, but even in its best scenes (those involving spaceship designs) it is nothing exceptional. The series also suffers from animation that is very limited for as action-oriented as it is, though it does save its best effort for the climactic battle. Madhouse Studios has done plenty of impressive visual work since Trigun, but this is definitely not one of their masterpieces.
The musical score makes up for visual deficiencies, however – but given that the music director here, Yukako Inoue, is the same person who collaborated with Yoko Kanno on the wonderful scores for Cowboy Bebop, Escaflowne: The Movie, and Wolf's Rain, that should be no surprise. Rather than rely on a consistent cadre of core themes, Inoue mixes things up, picking out appropriate numbers which both evoke a Western feel and define the desired tone of the scene. Electronically-based discordant sounds serve well to generate a sense of danger when certain villains show, while simple guitar numbers provide more soothing sounds. Perhaps most importantly, the soundtrack also knows when to go silent and let the natural drama of a situation carry the full weight. The climactic battle is especially notable for this, but this can also be seen in other confrontation scenes, too. This expertly-handled light touch makes it all the easier to appreciate how many action-oriented series go overboard with their music. A great closer rounds out each episode (with different visuals for the final episode), but the opener is far more pedestrian.
The English dub, courtesy of Animaze, suits the production well. Johnny Yong Bosch normally gets cast as bold young heroes, so Vash represents a bit of a different style of performance for him, but he pulls off Vash's quick transitions between goofy and serious moods without a hitch and gets capable supporting work from Dorothy Melendrez as Meryl, Jeff Nimoy as Wolfwood, and especially Lia Sargent as Milly. The series packs some strong sentiment and emotional reactions by characters, and none of that is lost in the transition to English. The script also stays very tight, making only minimal changes in wording. It does, however, pack occasional harsh language.
Funimation's boxed set rerelease is apparently taken from the original Geneon/Pioneer releases rather than the later Limited Collector's Set releases, so fans looking for the openers as they originally played in the Japanese broadcast – i.e. with slight adjustments to the animation each time to reflect characters featured in that episode – will be disappointed. Instead, Episode 1's opener repeats throughout. Funimation partly makes up for that with some cool menu screen and art box aesthetics, though. The 26 episodes are spread across four disks in double-disk thinpacks, with clean opener and closer on the fourth disk as the sole Extras.
Trigun is one of those series on the cusp of being considered a classic. Though it uses many typical storytelling elements and does not impress artistically, its style, the quality of its writing, and its philosophical focus decidedly set it apart from other series of its ilk and it certainly has enduring name and character recognition in its favor. This anime rendition of Yasuhiro Nightow's original manga never does adequately explain what Vash and Knives actually are (yeah, I know what Knives said to Vash in the final episode, but what does that actually mean?) and the whole thing does conclude with an ending that certainly leaves a wealth of further possibilities open, but neither of those should hinder viewers from enjoying a title which is always action-packed, sometimes goofy, and occasionally deeply sincere.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : C+
Art : C+
Music : A-
+ Unexpectedly good writing, effective musical score, high entertainment value.
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