“It’s just, well, ain’t it better if we all live?”
Sitting Duck’s rating: Thirty billion out of a sixty billion double dollar bounty.
Sitting Duck’s review: While not the flawless masterpiece that some purport it as, Cowboy Bebop is rightly seen as an anime classic, with visuals that hold up a lot better than most of its contemporaries. But despite what the title suggests and the arguments claiming otherwise, it’s not really to my estimation a Western.
Let me clarify. For me, the core element of a Western is the hardscrabble life on the frontier, with law and order being spread out thin (where it exists at all) and a man having to get by on his wits and might. Cowboy Bebop is simply too urban in its setting to fit this concept and shares more common ground with Noir. While the Western and Noir may feature many of the same tropes and archetypes, those draw from a general storytelling well and in my opinion the two genres are ultimately distinct.
But curiously enough, another anime came out in the same year as Cowboy Bebop which embodied the spirit of the traditional Western. That show was Trigun, which can be described as if you took the basic premise of Bravestarr but set it on Arrakis, featured a protagonist who is a cross between Bret Maverick and the original concept of the Lone Ranger, and gave some creative control to Chuck Jones.
It follows the exploits of pacifist gunslinger Vash the Stampede as he wanders the desert planet Gunsmoke. While Vash would prefer a peaceful life, he attracts trouble the way a magnet attracts iron. These incidents invariably result in considerable destruction, though no one ever gets killed. Much to his chagrin, distorted recountings paint Vash as the instigator, thus saddling him with the moniker of The Humanoid Typhoon. Constantly on his trail are insurance investigators Meryl Stryfe and Milly Thompson, who seek to minimize the damage left in his wake. Rounding out the recurring cast is gunslinging itinerant preacher Nicholas Wolfwood.
Thematically, Trigun rejects the nihilism popularly associated with spaghetti Westerns, the protagonists of which are only marginally less sociopathic than their foes. Now the show wasn’t afraid of taking a dark turn, especially in the latter episodes. However, it was ultimately committed to the idea that there’s nothing wrong with Westerns being fun. And while some of the episodes could employ flimsy plot logic (“Truth of Mistake” and “Escape from Pain” were especially bad in this regard), the combination of grotesque villains, outrageous guns, over the top action, and wacky shenanigans more often than not proved a winning formula.
And as is often the case for a popular TV anime, a theatrical movie followed. But in the case of Trigun, it would take twelve years before one saw the light of day. So, the question is was it worth the wait?
Our story opens with the outlaw Gasback and his gang in the process of robbing a bank. The caper goes smoothly until the loot has been secured, when the rest of the gang pulls a double-cross. You see, Gasback is the sort of outlaw who robs for the sake of robbing. The rest of the gang (particularly primary instigator Caine) aren’t so enamored with this lifestyle and simply want to pull one last score before settling down to enjoy the good life. Gasback does not appreciate this alternate viewpoint and the situation quickly turns ugly. It’s only thanks to the feigned bumbling of Vash the Stampede that no one ends up dead or even too seriously injured. In the confusion, Caine and his compadres grab the haul and get the hell out of Dodge. However, Gasback is the sort of person who believes that revenge is a dish best served at absolute zero. So for now, he makes his escape and bides his time.
Fast forward to twenty years later, and Gasback is prepared to unleash his fury. Already having destroyed the livelihoods of the lesser finks, his attention is now fixed on Caine, who has set himself up as the mayor of Macau City. Word of Gasback’s approach has spread, and every bounty hunter from Promontory to May City converges on the site. Mingling with these mercenary scum is Vash the Stampede, whose own interest is not so malicious. Out of all the bounty hunters, the one that attracts his attention is a bitter young woman named Amelia, whose pursuit of Gasback is more personal than scoring the five billion double dollar reward. Meanwhile, Meryl Stryfe and Milly Thompson have been reassigned from their usual Vash-stalking duties. As Caine has several big-ticket policies that their employer would rather not pay out, they’re expected to run risk prevention when the inevitable mayhem commences.
One of the first things that sticks out is the visuals. Back when the TV series aired in 1998, animation was still being hand-drawn on physical cels, with CG effects added in post. By the time the movie went into production, the anime industry had pretty much switched over to digital. While the traditional method of a series of still images shown in rapid sequence is still employed, the use of digital coloring and the like give it a different look. I’m sure there’s some technical gobbledygook jargon to describe it. But whatever that may be, the effect is startling and can take a bit of getting used to for someone brought up on the TV series. Though the fact that the production isn’t riddled with the brazen animation shortcuts that plagued the original anime is a definite plus.
Another point of interest is the staggering number of hideous characters that appear in the movie. And not only because it defies the usual expectations in anime for visually appealing character designs. Generally, ugly characters require more detail work than attractive characters, which in turn means they take longer to draw. When you consider the number of images needed in a feature length production, that adds up to quite a few man-hours of labor. Seen in that light, you can’t help but admire the commitment needed to pull it off. Even if your eyes might not appreciate it.
Guess I should get around to the actual story. Much as it pains me to say it, on this front the movie is a big letdown. A lot of this is thanks to Amelia. Characters who have a chip on their shoulder are something I find unappealing, and this goes double if said character is a protagonist. You’d need a truly amazing backstory and a deft character arc to win me over. Sadly, what we get on this front is a predictable, cliche-riddled mess. And since Amelia is prominently featured throughout the narrative, it proves to be a slog.
Another disappointing aspect is how Meryl and Milly get sidelined during the big action sequences. Now granted they’re not offensive juggernauts in the same league as Vash and Wolfwood. Still, they’re capable of holding their own and it would have been nice if they could have participated at some point.
Worst of all is the how it fumbles one of the major themes. As well as his unwillingness to kill under any circumstances, one of the principles Vash adheres to is the Christian tenet of being willing to show compassion and mercy to enemies as well as friends. As Trigun creator Yasuhiro Nightow is a Catholic, this is almost certainly deliberate. And at first, there’s a point made on how Vash preventing Gasback from being killed during the opening scene was shortsighted of him, seeing as how the latter would go on to leave death and misery in his wake for the next twenty years. But shortly thereafter, this matter kind of gets forgotten and is never resolved in a satisfactory fashion.
But Trigun’s strengths have always been the action and the shenanigans, and at least here the film delivers. Mind you, said action often possesses an outrageousness that might not appeal to everyone. In scenes like the booby-trapped bank vault in the opening, it can border on Looney Tunes. But if that sort of thing doesn’t turn you off, you’re in for a wild ride.
Then there’s the voice acting. Trigun was the first anime I encountered where I preferred the English dub over the Japanese. This is more remarkable when you consider how it was produced at a time when English dubs of anime were still pretty hit and miss. But with such a long stretch between the TV series and the movie, there was the risk of key voice actors no longer being available. Complicating matters was how Geneon (the company that originally licensed distribution of Trigun in the States and used L.A.-based voice actors) went belly-up in 2007. The rights were then picked up by the Texas-based Funimation, which has their own cadre of locally sourced voice actors.
Thankfully, they were able to secure the services of Johnny Yong Bosch to reprise his role as Vash the Stampede. His performance in the television series was a significant factor in selling me on the dub, and he continues to please here. Luci Christian and Trina Nishimura prove to be excellent choices for Meryl Stryfe and Milly Thompson respectively. Though recognizable as themselves, their voices match those of the original actresses well enough that it avoids being jarring. That’s more than I can say for Brad Hawkins as Nicholas Wolfwood. Part of the problem is how he fails to affect the drawl applied by the voice actor in the TV series. As a result, his performance feels off. As for the movie original characters, John Swasey with his excellent villain voice proves a smart casting choice as Gasback, while Colleen Clinkenbeard as Amelia does the best she can with the thin material she has to work with.
In conclusion, after such a long wait, the resulting mediocrity is frustrating. Had another rewrite been applied, the extra year or so it may have taken could have made the extra length of the production cycle worth it.
- The exact position in the chronology of the series is less than certain. It must have taken place some time after “Murder Machine” (the episode that introduces Wolfwood) but before “Diablo” (when the Gung Ho Guns arc begins)
- AFAIK it’s never been explained why the power plants that the settlements on Gunsmoke cluster around look like giant light bulbs
- Worst psychosomatic condition ever
- The spiteful bill accepter
- The bullet swiping is pure Looney Tunes
- Chekhov’s Jerky