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Martial Messiah – Part 1

April 26, 2010

I’d love to be a pacifist. Not so much for the moral and philosophical benefits, but due to the fact that pacifism implies a certain degree of inaction.

But that’s just the cynic in me going off on a tangent about pacifism being a way of not reacting to things, leading to a natural logical progression that results in it equaling the ideal slacker lifestyle. Unfortunately, stuff just doesn’t go down like that.

Anyone that’s watched enough anime series is all too familiar with the pacifist hero. He’s the sort of character that does everything in his power to resolve a potentially violent conflict by non-violent means. He usually has the capacity to take down every vile villain within sword’s reach, but he’d rather convince said bastards that their way of thinking is wrong and convert him into the good guy fold. They’re Jesus figures, if Jesus had a six-shooter hanging from his side.

The problem is that said Martial Messiahs are rarely pulled off very well in anime. The best example of such failed figure is Vash the Stampede.

Vash is a killing machine. His only real skill in life is murder. He’s socially impaired, since he’s far too eccentric and troubled to get along with people for extended periods of time. When taken out of his combative element, he’s shown to be awkward and lost in the world.

The catch is that he doesn’t want to be a killing machine. Despite his physical prowess, he does everything in his power to not use his lone skill. His only desire in life is to deny the very thing that defines him, and he pursues these feelings at all costs. As a child, he was presented with saving an insect from a spider. The only way to save the bug was to kill the spider. There was literally no other way to save the bug from being eaten by the spider. Despite being presented with a situation where someone had to die and he had the power to save the individual he felt was “innocent,” he refused to accept reality.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this view of the world. I might not agree with that view, but it can make for an interesting story. Presenting Vash as a reluctant hero who’s only means to save the world is the very actions he abhors is a fascinating situation. The problem with Vash, and the problem with Trigun, is that Vash’s world view wins out in the end.

Vash never wavers in his philosophy. Again, this is a good thing. He stays devoted. The problem is that characters who don’t adhere to his ideology are punished for their so-called sins. Wolfwood, Vash’s friend and moral foil, dies towards the end of the series, and his death is presented in such a way that essentially makes him realize that he died because of his way of life. As he kneels before a church altar dying of his wounds, he reflects upon his life and basically comes to the conclusion that it was his violent lifestyle that resulted in his demise. Had he not been so willing to take lives, perhaps he would have lived a better life, and perhaps he would still be alive to see his unborn child.

Throughout the series, Wolfwood is presented as a counterpoint to Vash’s idealism. This was pretty awesome, since Trigun played both sides and, for the most part, allowed us to form our own opinion on who was right. Sometimes Vash was right and sometimes Wolfwood was right. They both had legitimate arguments for their actions. Then the series goes and makes the decision for the audience by having one of them essentially “win.” Not only does Wolfwood get punished with death, Vash’s pacifism wins out over his brother Knives, and he’s able to defeat his brother’s plans while strictly adhering to his no-kill principles.

There’s no ambiguity. There’s no Superman/Batman duality, where there’s no attempt at resolution beyond the audience picking sides. In the end, Trigun preaches a party line and “proves” its superiority to the dissenting opinion.

I don’t like that take of this archetype. I have no beef with seeing an idealistic hero. I don’t like it when their world view is presented in a moralizing manner.

Then there’s the pacifist heroes that work, but that’s a completely different post that’ll saunter along later.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. April 26, 2010 8:21 PM

    Well said. I’ve always had issues with Vash’s popularity because his upstanding ways are just too fragile and when you have someone to oppose him who approaches things with a brutally practical Vash’s ideology falls apart.

    I don’t have issues with idealism because its goals tend to me pretty noble. Most of the time anyway. I just wish that it reflects the outcome when such extreme ideals butt heads with reality.

  2. Taka permalink
    April 26, 2010 11:35 PM

    I hardly remember Trigun but I went back and watched Wolfwood’s death scene to double check. I’m not sure if I want to condemn Vash for a situation that was completely out of his hands. Rather place blame more on the creators and Trigun as a whole for trying to include a message. Anyway I’m interested in what part 2 will bring.

  3. April 27, 2010 4:57 AM

    You’re missing a BIG piece here: Legato.

    The entire purpose of Legato in Trigun is to show that Vash’s ideology doesn’t work. He was forced into killing Legato because there was just no other way of doing so. In that, they proved that Vash’s idealogy doesn’t work. The real celebration of the anime is that Vash was able to not abandon his idealogy afterwards when he didn’t kill Knives.

  4. Aile permalink
    April 27, 2010 7:29 AM

    “I’d love to be a pacifist. Not so much for the moral and philosophical benefits, but due to the fact that pacifism implies a certain degree of inaction. But that’s just the cynic in me going off on a tangent about pacifism being a way of not reacting to things, leading to a natural logical progression that results in it equaling the ideal slacker lifestyle. Unfortunately, stuff just doesn’t go down like that. ”

    Inaction ? Not reacting ? Slacker lifestyle ? Uh, maybe I took that wrong but you might want to read up a bit about the history of various nonviolent resistance movements ( ) and re-think that statement. I know it’s easy to get that impression when your only contact with ‘pacifism’ are the rants of your local pussy hippies who’ll probably never see any action anyway (btw, same with the armchair-generals whose opinionated fat ass is also never put to the test), but I was lucky enough to travel and meet some of the people who stared down the barrel of a gun or got tortured for their beliefs, all the while never becoming violent themselves; it is hard work and it’s nothing less than courageous.

    Also, the position of “pacifism” is open for many variations, and not so clear-cut as to mean “no violence, ever” . For example, there are types of pacifists who just don’t trust the -state- with the power to make war, but are perfectly willing and able to beat you up -personally- if the situation requires. There are arguments and various opinions about why for example -all coercive action- (not just violence) may be wrong, and others may set the limits differently (like destroying stuff, being able to restrain antagonists, or just setting the limit before killing).

    Oh and pacifists have also various answers to the “but in nature there’s necessarily killing” -thing (a naturalistic fallacy if it’s used to support any position about what -humans- should do), that Vash’s “kill the spider to save the bug” condundrum isn’t any problem at all. Never watched Trigun, but if there aren’t any actual arguments for pacifism besides “well, the guy with the opposing view died at the end”, I may be as dissappointed as you, even if ‘my team won’.

    Concerning “Messiah”-figures, for future consideration I’d make a distinction between the types of “Messiah” and the mere “Martyr”:
    A character may suffer because of external or selfimposed causes, a character may even also have great power or other importance; but what really makes a “Messiah” is a dynamic of leadership and followers. He doesn’t even have to be an actual leader, it can also be an implied position (for example his words/actions/aura/whatever may inspire others etc.). Messiah figures are transformative – friends and foes, the world, anything that comes in contact with the messiah is changed in one way or another. Messiah figures are expansive – they have a belief and want to share it, proliferate it. A messiah needs followers to be actually recognized as such; because as the saying goes, ultimately the only difference between a religion and a mental illness is just the number of adherents.

  5. Landon permalink
    April 27, 2010 8:00 AM

    Yeah, that first paragraph or so was just me joking around and laughing at the stereotypical stoner “yeah man love and peace” bit. May not have come off s clearly as intended though.

  6. Landon permalink
    April 27, 2010 8:49 AM

    And I did skip over Legato. Unintentionally. Had that been the finale, I think my opinion would be a lot more positive. It’s a case of going too far after a great stopping point. But having Vash’ ideals win and having everyone who disagrees basically die was. Big turnoff.

  7. April 27, 2010 2:47 PM

    Maybe my timeline in Trigun is a bit messed up, but I’m pretty sure Wolfwood died before Legato did. Basically, Vash killing Legato was the point where it was proved that nobodies ideology worked.

    I have other problems with Trigun but strangely this one thing you think they did utterly wrong I think they got perfectly right. The final fight with Knives felt more like a celebration of Vash’s resolve rather than prove his pacifism is the right thing

  8. Landon permalink
    April 27, 2010 3:11 PM

    Nah, you’re right. I’m just thinking of the last few episodes as a whole. A lot I like and a lot that rubs me the wrong way.


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