Sunday, January 15, 2012

Of Ethics and Anime

I recently read a review of Trigun by a Christian lady who wrote that the protagonist, Vash the Stampede, reminded her of Jesus Christ. I understand this. Trigun is an anime series and might be dismissed by people who think it's "just a cartoon." There's no denying that Vash is a goofy guy, obsessed with donuts and prone to acting like a lovesick teenager whenever he sees a pretty girl. The first few episodes are silly beyond belief-or are they?

The series is only 26 episodes, and as it progresses, it quickly becomes evident that the way Vash acts is just that-an act. He has an almost unbearably tragic past and it has left him with a firm determination never to kill and an overwhelming desire to protect the innocent. His idiotic grin is conciously used to hide behind-a fact that characters comment on from time to time. His true self is much more serious.

Trigun poses the tough questions. Vash wants more than anything to save people. He wants everyone to live together in peace and happiness. He suffers for his convictions, his body terribly scarred, his soul oppressed with grief and pain as he is forced to come to the realization that it is not always possible to protect an innocent person without taking the life of a guilty person. His anguish when he is forced to kill one villain to save two helpless women is overwhelming.

It begs the question-how far does one take pacifism? Is it even possible to be a pacifist in this imperfect world? How does one reconcile a belief in the sacredness of life with the pure evil that some people spread through their lives, and how does one stop an evil person without killing them? Is mercy to the guilty injustice to the innocent? These are the questions Vash wrestles with and there are no easy answers, nor does Trigun provide a happy ending. In fact, the finale is rather troubling, with Vash once again attempting what seems an impossible task-the redemption of his brother, a merciless killer, yet a man he loves and is not willing to give up on.

Trigun is not a show for children, although Vash is one of the most visually striking characters in anime and there's a lot of exciting action. There's also a lot of death, including the death of children, one of whom is shot when he is about to kill Vash. It's an intellectually demanding show that takes the viewer, not to some grey area between good and evil, but right up to the razor's edge in the middle of the grey area, where morals and values cease to be words and become worth dying for and one step over the line becomes a burden that can never be lifted.

There is a heavy Christian influence in Trigun. Aside from Vash's mantra "Thou shalt not kill" there is the priest, Wolfwood, who not only kills but bitterly quarrels with Vash over the necessity of killing. He's seen Vash's scars, mental and physical, and he doesn't believe in the ideals that Vash tries to live up to. Yet in the end, he comes around to Vash's point of view. In fact, there are a number of people, good and bad and indifferent, whose lives are turned around by Vash. His willingness to suffer so that others may be spared has an extraordinary effect on those he comes into contact with. However, Trigun doesn't pull any punches. Vash's desire to keep his own hands clean sometimes leads to terrible consequences. He's not all-powerful and sometimes his pacifism costs more lives than it saves. Yet somehow he never loses faith that he can find the answer to the impossible questions his pacifism raises. When he is finally forced to kill, he is sure that he could have found an alternative that would have allowed everyone to live. And he agonizes more over the death of one murderous criminal than that criminal did over the deaths of hundreds of innocent people.

In the end, Vash seems to find some balance in his life, an awareness that it is not always possible to save everyone. At the same time, he does not lose his faith in the belief that everyone is worthy of being saved, nor does he lose his hope that if he tries hard enough, he can find the answers to the tough questions. Trigun rewards rewatching, the early silliness having an almost unbearable poignancy as the viewer remembers all the pain and sorrow Vash is hiding with his buffoon act. It's impossible to view this show in a thoughtful manner without pondering the problems Vash is facing, and trying to find some answers for oneself. And the lady who found Vash reminding her of Jesus Christ? I understand. While Vash isn't Christ, he is an example of how a person can find redemption in following the ideals of Jesus. Perhaps "Thou shalt not kill" is an impossible standard, especially in life and death situations, and perhaps it is foolish to believe that everyone can be saved. It's still good to watch something like Trigun, a story that advances the thought that impossible standards are worth trying to live up to.


Unknown said...

It's interesting to view Vash's ethical transformation throughout the series. He starts out a deontologist, following Rem's beliefs to the letter, before he changes into a consequentialist, and begins thinking for himself. Towards the end.

Almantas Ĺ ukelis said...

I would like to add that Trigun follows a more greek oriented duality which is not the typical western life vs. death but rather love vs. death (Eros and Thanatos).

I remember liking Trigun very much when I watched it and your post reminded how I loved the show and Vash. :) Looking back, though, the theme of Eros vs. Thanatos is portrayed in the show very one-dimensionally. For example, there was a scene where Vash wanted to save a butterfly from a spider. When the other boy, the antagonist, showed that he wanted to let the butterfly be eaten, all the other characters showed obscene disgust and shock! That alone was completely preposterous and ignores the deep questions concerning the natural order, the fate of the spider (who is definitely not an evil being), the right to intervene, moral complexity of liberalism or of the free market, and how shallowly was this question averted from humanity. Here is a contemporary example: the Taliban helps famished and poor farmers in Pakistan to rebel against unjust landlords and this is how they spread their (ideological) influence. Now we, the United Nations, are trying to protect Pakistani people from the Taliban. But who are we actually protecting? Our pacifism, if we may call it that, shackles us to inaction. We cannot just simply remove cruel landlords to gain favour with the people, who are most vulnerable to Pakistani influence. But are we not commiting a crime in inaction? Would inaction not cause worse results? But would you meddle in another country's, another people's business?