Postcards from Tradocia

Gunpowder Tea



I just finished watching the anime series Trigun (about twelve years late on that one), and since anime is SERIOUS BUSINESS, it inspired me to pontificate on the morality of killing – specifically, the morality of killing in defense of self or others.

The show is primarily about Vash the Stampede (blond dude at left), who travels around a desert planet, getting into various misadventures.

Vash practices an especially weird brand of pacifism, one where violence and even injuries are acceptable, so long as no one is actually killed. This sort of thing is obviously in the realm of pure fantasy, only made possible because of Vash’s superhuman capabilities (and a tremendously accurate revolver in .45 Long Colt). However, his behavior enables me to make a larger point about the notion of pacifism and nonviolence in general.

Towards the end of the series, Vash is confronted by a character named Legato. Legato has captured two of Vash’s friends and threatens to kill them – unless Vash is willing to shoot Legato in the head. Thankfully, Vash makes the right decision (sparing the show from utter failure) and puts a .45LC slug through Legato’s skull, but he’s tortured by his decision.Vash agonizes about killing Legato even though it was the only option to save Meryl and Milly (and himself). He complains that he’s no longer any different than his evil brother Knives because they both have killed people. This obscures the key moral difference between murder and self-defense: murder is immoral and self-defense is the opposite; indeed, there is no more moral act. Self defense is a fundamental human right, a basic biological imperative, and a crucial underpinning of both civilian and military law. While killing of any kind is regrettable, killing in defense of self or others is the only morally correct response to unprovoked lethal force.

Vash’s agonizing decision to shoot Legato and his subsequent self-flagellation makes no sense and turns an otherwise likable character into a morally repugnant fool. What alternative did he have? In his twisted logic, it would have been better for two innocents – and himself – to die, just so that he could maintain his absurd moral high ground. If he wanted to martyr himself, fine – but allowing two innocent companions to be killed for his principles? Unacceptable. Amazingly, Meryl never calls Vash to task about this, even as he whines to her about the horror of killing Legato. The scene would have had much more dramatic heft if she had done so, but maybe that’s too much to ask from my anime.

Ironically, the struggles of a supporting character, Nicholas D. Wolfwood, are much more interesting and his final episode is as close to real drama as I’ve seen in anime. Unfortunately, he ultimately tries to embrace Vash’s absurdity and dies alone as a result.


  1. jumi

    Dude. You’ve put way too much thought into this particular cartoon.

    That being said… from what I remember of Trigun, and I admit, it has been a while, Vash is essentially a child. He has an adult’s body, and was created to be a killer, but has somehow managed to live his life thus far in total innocence (ignorance?). He lacks any ability to really understand the moral implications of his actions, he was just taught that killing is bad.

    Where you see a character becoming unlikable, I see the real tragedy of the series — Vash is a creature who wants nothing more than to do good, but the world he is in forces him to do wrong. In fact, the world he is in wouldn’t even exist in its current form if he and Knives hadn’t been all Surprise!Armageddon! in the first place. Complexities like the morality of self defense (which, incidentally, I don’t think is quite as cut-and-dried as you see it) are simply beyond his ability to understand. In a lot of ways his character reminds me of Valentine Michael Smith from Stranger in a Strange Land… Too idealistic to survive in a world full of humans.

    Knives, as a foil for Vash is similarly child-like, but has never had anyone sit him down for the “with great power comes great responsibility” speech and give him a hero complex. For Knives, might makes right, and he just happens to have all the might. His character is given some depth though, as it’s obvious that the connection that he feels to Vash is something that transcends his base instincts that even he cannot control.

    Anyways… Wolfwood totally deserved his own series.

    Also… love and peace!

  2. Delobius

    Of course I put too much thought into this particular cartoon. But it’s a hot-button issue for me!

    You’re right about Vash being too simplistic and idealistic – despite his age (130+ years among humans!), his nonhuman nature makes it impossible for him (or Knives) to understand human morality. And I agree that that is the point of the show – but that doesn’t mean that I have to agree with that point.

    Vash is an inferior vehicle for making the point, too, because he a) possesses superhuman powers which means he’s rarely in any real danger, making his stance virtually consequence-free and b) he has reached his pacifist conclusion with little hardship, having the same beliefs almost from birth.

    Wolfwood has a much more compelling tale, because he has human faults. Hell, Himura Kenshin (another famous anime pacifist) has a better story – he killed a shitload of people before deciding his course and has to constantly fight to keep from becoming a killer again, unlike Vash who is basically a donut-eating Jesus figure.

    Like I said, anime = SERIOUS BUSINESS.

  3. Ricyn

    Ok, so I’m a few months late, comment-wise, but I just happened upon this post while searching for a decent Wolfwood pic.

    Anyways, Vash agonizing over the whole thing with Legato was more than just being upset over becoming like Knives.. Regardless of whether it was in self defense or not, Vash saw it as having let Rem down, because she didn’t believe that anyone had the right to take someone else’s life. Add to that the fact that Vash has powers that more than border on god-like, and it becomes even more clear why he is the way he is.

    Wolfwood, on the other hand, was trying to redeem himself by acting in the same manner as Vash. Unfortunately, it resulted in his death. Still, I think that in his last moments he gained some measure of peace. *shrugs* Maybe that’s just the idealist in me, though.

    Either way, very well written and thought out post concerning what is probably my favorite anime to date, next to Ninja Scroll. :)

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