Trigun Stampede, a new adaptation of Yasuhiro Nightow’s manga by anime studio Orange, is one of the prettiest shows I’ve seen in a bit. The animation is fluid, the character designs are great, the shiny bits of tech have an authentic and visually interesting contrast with the gritty, sand-covered rest of the hardscrabble, organic world. The voice acting is stellar.
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about what gets pejoratively called “filler.” To anime fans, tThat word used to mean “‘the nice folks adapting a manga for animation ran out of plot and have to come up with some stuff that won’t break canon or really change much of anything until the next few chapters come out”,’ but the definition has crept up to “Every episode and scene that doesn’t directly advance the plot.” These episodes sometimes get derided as pointless, or boring, or wheel-spinning, but a lot of richness is lost when you don’t take at least some time to let a story and its characters breathe. Trigun Stampede is a prime example, and I’m going to use it to make my point.
Stampede falls victim to its own ambition, trying to burn through almost seventeen manga volumes’ worth of plot in its first ten half-hour episodes and then rushing toward its own unique two-episode conclusion. Orange made massive changes as they adapted their source to make the pieces fit, but the breakneck pacing means a lot of depth and heart disappeared in the transition.
Let me explain. Wait, there’s too much, let me sum up. Massive spoilers for the original Trigun/Trigun Maximum manga, the original 1998 Trigun anime, and Trigun Stampede follow.
We’ll start with the basics: every iteration of Trigun is set on the desert planet Gunsmoke, where a spaceship transporting a human colony crashed more than a century earlier. The survivors eke out a hardscrabble existence, desperate for water and wholly dependent on mysterious, living fuel sources called Plants. The plot focuses on Vash the Stampede, a sweet, good-natured guy whose lighthearted approach to life hides a past full of darkness and pain. Like Waymond in Everything Everywhere All At Once and his commitment to kindness, this is a deliberate strategy. In a violent world full of monsters, Vash acts goofy, insists on smiling, and refuses to kill. (Nightow’s Christianity is a clear influence in Trigun and its themes of pacifism, forgiveness and redemption.)
The original Trigun anime has been criticized for taking too long to get to the action; its 26-episode run begins with several episodes that noodle around establishing the setting and characters but don’t really progress anything or develop the characters beyond their initial appearances. Stampede overcorrects. By the end of the first episode, we’ve learned a good chunk of Vash’s emotionally scarring backstory, seen his artificial hand (something deliberately disguised in Vash’s original character design, but that this Vash treats like no big deal) and found out that his reputation as a violent criminal is mostly due to the actions of his not-quite-evil twin brother Knives.
The Vash of the manga and original anime — let’s call him Vash 1.0 — isn’t nearly so open. He wears his smile as a shield and a mask, covers his scars, and doesn’t talk to anyone about Knives for a very long time. As he starts letting his guard down, his new friends and the audience learn more about him. Vash’s secrecy gives the viewer a set of intriguing mysteries to uncover, but it also gives us the opportunity to get to know the cast better as those layers are peeled back. Because Vash 2.0 is an open book, we don’t see him learning to trust the people around him. We don’t see anyone have to adjust their expectations as they learn more about Vash and his past. Hell, we don’t even have many opportunities to see the absurd and sometimes comedic lengths he will go to to avoid violence and killing; Vash 2.0 still works hard to stop anyone from getting hurt, but normally bullets are flying before he’s been able to make much of an effort. There’s no impact when Vash’s facade cracks, because it never had the chance to become familiar.
Vash isn’t the only one whose characterization is affected by the breakneck storytelling; everyone’s is. When we meet Vash’s foil, Nicholas D. Wolfwood 1.0, his motorcycle has broken down, leaving him half-dead in the desert. Vash and his traveling companions take him in. He’s almost completely broke, but he ends up splitting his last coins (or food in the 1998 anime) with a pair of hungry children. His genuine affection for children is one of the first things we learn about him, and it softens both Vash and the viewer toward him.
Stampede’s heroes meet Wolfwood 2.0 in a similarly dire state, and he shows his soft side by reaching out to a traumatized child whose parents have recently been killed. It’s very sweet.
There’s only one problem: By the end of the episode, we’ve already learned that the child Wolfwood 2.0 meets is no child at all, but inhuman villain Zazie the Beast, and their encounter is just a deception to earn Vash’s trust. Wolfwood 1.0 isn’t all he seems to be, but when the viewer finds out, they’ve already learned something authentic and appealing about him. There’s an anchor and a reason to care.
Wolfwood 2.0 (who inexplicably is called “Nicholas” not “Wolfwood,” by his traveling companions in this version) first appears in Stampede episode 4, and we only learn that his affection for children is real in episode 7 — and even then it’s mostly told, not shown. We never quite get to see him slowly soften toward Vash, because nothing’s allowed to be slow.
Vash and Wolfwood 1.0 spend a lot of time squabbling about tactics and ethics; they’re both scarred by their pasts and determined to protect the innocent, but Wolfwood is sharper, angrier, and entirely too comfortable with violence, while Vash is committed — to the point of absurdity, at times — to his core ethics of love and peace. Both of their childhoods ended violently and abruptly, but Vash is more than a century old — he’s a survivor of that original crash — and Wolfwood is young (shockingly young in the manga), taken from the orphanage he called home and delivered into the hands of men who tried to twist him mentally and physically to their own ends. Wolfwood 2.0 has a similar backstory, but it’s half-buried in the avalanche of plot. There’s no time for us to know Wolfwood well enough for his history to come as a shock.
For someone like me, these changes feel particularly jarring because the show hasn’t given me an opportunity to get to know these new iterations. There’s no baseline for these 2.0 characters except the previous versions. That leaves us nothing to do but constantly compare our previous knowledge of the characters with what we see onscreen, and the changes range from subtle to jarring. Roberto, a character introduced in Stampede, stands out for good reason. Not only is he clearly introduced in the opening episode, he’s also an extremely familiar stock character: the gruff cynic with a heart of gold. (In fact, he generally takes the emotional place in the narrative that Meryl or Wolfwood 1.0 would, before the show decided to speedrun Wolfwood’s backstory and change Meryl’s significantly.) But even he never gets to be more than that. There’s just no time.
The thing I miss most, I think, is the feeling that the characters get each other. The core four in Trigun 1.0 — Vash, Wolfwood, Meryl, and Milly (a character missing in Stampede who will apparently be introduced if there’s a second season) share a fundamental partnership and understanding. Wolfwood 1.0 gets pushed to the breaking point by Vash’s pacifism, but he also knows Vash well enough to get him out of hiding and back into the everyday violence of Gunsmoke when the time comes. When they fight together, it feels like well-practiced routine, even as they squabble. Meryl and Milly have been colleagues long enough to tease each other about long letters home, and their relatively harmonious partnership provides a contrast to the Vash-Wolfwood dynamic. These are the kinds of details and narrative choices that make a world seem real.
I’ve been watching a lot of Murder, She Wrote lately, and its procedural nature means that very few episodes have much character work. Sure, Jessica’s sad sack nephew eventually finds love, Sheriff Tupper leaves town and Sheriff Metzger moves in, but for the most part, the show is happy to just spend time around Jessica Fletcher, her circle of friends and extended family, and the little, murder-happy town she lives in.
Unsurprisingly, this works just fine, and the viewer gets to know some of Cabot Cove’s semi-regulars as the years and seasons pass. Of course, every episode is also constructed around a murder plot, so maybe that’s enough for the filler-hating masses. But the murders aren’t what make me chuckle when Ideal Molloy says with a wink that she’s highlighted all the saucy parts in a roman á clef about Cabot Cove. Oh, she knows none of them are about her, but the far-off cousins she’s giving the book to as gifts don’t. “That should give them something to think about in Altoona.” It’s funny because I’ve learned who Ideal is from all the time I’ve spent with her at the local beauty salon, and I’m now in on the joke. That familiarity isn’t something you can get from rushing from plot point to plot point. You can create a world in a hurry, but it won’t be very rich.
Side note #1: I had no idea how early Sheriff Tupper leaves in the run of Murder, She Wrote. Memory! It’s wild!
Side note #2: While looking for that “‘What kind of preacher are you?!” quip (you’re welcome) I saw at least one Evangelical-looking religious YouTuber had a video out about Stampede. If anyone wants to wade into that dangerous-looking water, let me know what you find.