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A blond anime boy with round tinted glasses looks solemnly at the viewer. Image: Orange/Crunchyroll

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Trigun Stampede had to completely transform Trigun to be faithful to Trigun

Orange’s 3D CG anime revives a classic space Western anime in an exciting new way

If you had told me before last year a new Trigun anime was coming out in 2023, I wouldn’t have believed you. That’s the impression I sensed from most longtime Trigun fans I talked to in the wake of the announcement that Orange, the anime studio behind such lauded 3D CG animation like 2017’s Land of the Lustrous and 2019’s Beastars, would be creating a new anime based on Yasuhiro Nightow’s space Western action manga: a complicated mix of unvarnished enthusiasm, incredulous curiosity, and guarded expectation. And it’s got the fan base split.

When Trigun Stampede was first revealed at Anime Expo 2022, reactions were... mixed, to say the least. While the prospect of the first new Trigun anime in over 13 years was greeted with near-unanimous goodwill, the responses to the production of the anime itself have been starkly divided. Many American fans of the original 1998 Trigun anime have criticized Trigun Stampede since its debut in January, with particular disapproval for the redesign of characters like series protagonist Vash the Stampede, the apparent absence of particular fan-favorite characters, the orchestral-heavy score as opposed to the 1998 series’ rock-oriented soundtrack, and the quality of the series’ CG animation. There was also initial confusion among the fan base as to how exactly Trigun Stampede fits into the chronology and canon of either Nightow’s original manga or the 1998 anime adaptation, if at all.

To answer that latter question: Trigun Stampede is a reboot, retelling its own take on stories, character beats, and events seen in the original manga and the 1998 anime. It is also set during an earlier period respective to its take on the history of the Trigun universe than any previous iteration of the series to date. With all that said: I am here to make the good-faith case for why Trigun Stampede deserves your time, unpack the complicated history of the series, and explain how Orange’s new anime is true to the spirit of the franchise while iterating on the core ideas and themes of its universe in ways the creators of the 1998 anime never had the opportunity to. Trigun Stampede does this through the same much approach the original Trigun anime did: by taking the source material and transforming it into a story that is distinctly its own.

[Ed. note: Spoilers for the Trigun manga, the 1998 Trigun anime, and Trigun Stampede ahead.]

The history of Trigun

A blond-haired anime man with a futuristic prosthetic arm, wearing round orange glasses and a red coat aiming down the sights of a large revolver. Image: Orange/Crunchyroll

First, some absolutely necessary background. In February 1995, Yasuhiro Nightow published the first “one-shot” (i.e., stand-alone issue) of Trigun, titled “Trigun Pilot,” in the Japanese manga publication Monthly Shōnen Captain. A post-apocalyptic sci-fi Western, the comic centered on Vash the Stampede, a mysterious gunslinger traversing a barren planet whose ebullient personality and pacifist philosophy were contrasted with his otherwise infamous reputation as a “localized disaster.” The reception was positive, and Trigun began serialization in Monthly Shōnen Captain that following April, with a total of 20 issues published before the magazine was shuttered in January 1997. Shortly after, Nightow was approached by Japanese publisher Shōnen Gahōsha, who was interested in working with him on a new manga series. However, Nightow couldn’t — or wouldn’t — let go of Trigun.

“When [Shōnen Gahōsha’s Young King Ours] invited me to do some work for them, they were hoping for a new piece, but I was troubled by leaving Trigun unfinished,” Nightow said in a reader-submitted Q&A interview in September 2000. “I told them I wouldn’t feel like I had done my work unless I finished it, plus I was attached to it, and I asked them if they’d let me finish it.” Around this same time, an anime adaptation of Trigun, produced by studio Madhouse and directed by Satoshi Nishimura, had just entered production, with Nightow attached as a creative consultant. Thanks in part to the production of Madhouse’s adaptation, the Trigun manga (retitled as Trigun Maximum) resumed publication on Oct. 30, 1997 — less than half a year before the 1998 Trigun anime premiered on Japanese television.

Not only was the 1998 anime adaptation of Trigun produced at a time when the original manga remained unfinished, but the very existence of that anime itself afforded Nightow the opportunity to finish the story of the manga as he had originally intended. The former fact is widely known and acknowledged among the Trigun fan base; the latter, however, is less so.

Trigun’s American influence and the relationship between anime and adaptation

Five years after the anime concluded in Japan, the English dub of Trigun premiered on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block in 2003 and aired in reruns on the block up until 2009. As was the case with similar American-media-influenced anime like Cowboy Bebop, Outlaw Star, and The Big O, Trigun left a deep lasting impression on a generation of American anime fans who came of age around the turn of the century. Audiences responded not only to Vash’s buffoonish demeanor, striking character design, and supernaturally proficient marksmanship, but also to his arc as a man haunted by the pain of his complicated past and the burden of his responsibility in safeguarding the survival of the human race.

The page of the 1995 “Trigun Pilot” stand-alone issue, depicting a spiky haired anime man in an elaborate cowboy duster (Vash the Stampede) standing in front of a man with his legs stretched, his right hand on his hip, and the fingers of his left hand crossed, surrounded by word bubbles with text reading, “Love and Peace!” Image: Yasuhiro Nightow/Dark Horse Comics

The 1998 Trigun anime wasn’t just popular, it was a bona fide phenomenon among American anime fans, particularly cosplayers who fastidiously recreated Vash’s distinctive double-breasted coat, announcing themselves as (deep breath) “Valentinez Alkalinella Xifax Sicidabohertz Gombigobilla Blue Stradivari Talentrent Pierre Andri Charton-Haymoss Ivanovici Baldeus George Doitzel Kaiser III” and shouting “Love and peace!” in their best impression of Johnny Yong Bosch at anime conventions. Nightow said it himself, in a 2009 interview during the promotional lead-up to the 2010 stand-alone film Trigun: Badlands Rumble, “I’m very blessed to have American fans. The Trigun movie that’s coming out is [possible] because of requests from American fans. Without these fans, I wouldn’t have this opportunity.”

Nightow’s original manga and studio Madhouse’s adaptation exist in a symbiotic, interdependent relationship. The former gave birth to the latter, and the latter played a major role in the former’s revival and continued existence. Because Madhouse’s adaptation was produced while Nightow’s manga was still incomplete, director Satoshi Nishimura, screenwriter Yōsuke Kuroda, and the rest of the anime’s production staff had to work off what existed of the manga at the time and go in their own direction, resulting in a 26-episode series that is approximately 60% “filler,” containing characters, events, and revelations that diverge from the now accepted “canon” of the source material.

This is as common in anime of that time (for example, 2003’s Fullmetal Alchemist and 2001’s Hellsing) as it is today. Animators and producers often have to make necessary cuts and amendments in order to compress a serialized ongoing story into the space of a broadcast television season, especially when the likelihood of a second season is left uncertain. The problem for Trigun Stampede is the 1998 anime has all but eclipsed Nightow’s original manga in the minds of a majority of American Trigun fans, many of whom have seldom read either Trigun or Trigun Maximum. More American Trigun fans know the series from the anime than they do from Nightow’s original manga. This is further exacerbated by the fact that physical print English editions of both the Trigun and Trigun Maximum manga volumes, published by Dark Horse Comics, have been out of print for years (though are still available for digital purchase via Dark Horse Comics’ website and mobile app).

Several iconic elements of the 1998 anime, particularly Tsuneo Imahori’s rock-’n’-roll-inspired score, are in no way attributable or inherent to Nightow’s original manga. These elements are instead owed almost entirely to Nishimura and co. being afforded the freedom to take what they loved about Trigun and expand upon it in their own way. This allowed them to tell their own story while hewing to the core thematic and narrative touch points that made Nightow’s original vision, a story that while not considered “canon” nonetheless resonates with fans to this day.

Where Trigun Stampede fits in, and what the skeptics are missing

A close-up shot of an anime man (Vash the Stampede) wearing a red coat and round orange glasses. Image: Orange/Crunchyroll

All of this is important to understanding the significance of Trigun Stampede, the first Trigun anime in 13 years, and the virulent response to it by some fans of the 1998 anime. From the unveiling of the first footage of this new series in June of last year, Trigun Stampede has been the target of severe criticism by fans of the 1998 anime. You don’t have to look far to find them, as one need only take a glance below my colleague Ana Diaz’s piece on the redesign of Vash the Stampede to find comments describing Orange’s adaptation as “wretched,” “wildly downgraded,” “objectively cheap and bad looking,” “like you put Trigun in an AI art generator or something,” “strange,” “mediocre,” “plastic and superficial,” and lacking the “grit and personality of the original show.” These criticisms are telling, not of the quality or merit of Trigun Stampede itself, but of the incalculably large precedent the 1998 anime has set for any anime adaptation of Trigun to follow. It’s likely the burden of these entrenched expectations are partially to blame for why it’s taken so long for there to be another Trigun anime: Any subsequent adaptation is destined to fall short of the idea of Trigun that fans of the 1998 anime have built up in their own minds over the past two decades. The most damning thing about Trigun Stampede to many longtime Trigun anime fans appears to have less to do with the fact of what it does differently, and more to do with the fact that it is different at all.

Critics of Trigun Stampede have scoffed at comments made by Katsuhiro Takei, one of the anime’s producers, during a staff panel at Anime NYC 2022. During the panel, Takei cited the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an inspiration while working on Trigun Stampede for the way it reworks its respective source material while honoring its roots. Some fans read this as a betrayal, an example of how Trigun has been homogenized by this proximity to the cultural juggernaut that is Disney and Marvel’s ever-expanding superhero franchise. What these criticisms tacitly gloss over however is not only the fact that this comparison was encouraged by Trigun’s creator, Nightow, who reportedly even went so far as to encourage Trigun Stampede’s staff to watch every MCU film, but also the fact that Nightow himself has always been an avid admirer of American comics and popular culture. He’s enthusiastically cited American comic artists like Geof Darrow, Mike Mignola, and Todd McFarlane in the past as influences on his own art and the aesthetic of Trigun’s universe. That influence is still apparent in Trigun Stampede, though in different ways. While Vash’s redesigned coat no longer resembles the torn, flowing cape of Todd McFarlane’s original character Spawn, the redesign of Vash’s omnicidal brother Nai (referred to in the series by his nom de guerre “Millions Knives”) in Trigun Stampede bears a striking resemblance to McFarlane’s aforementioned antihero, telepathically wielding barbed knife-like tentacles akin to Spawn’s own iconic chains.

A page from Hellboy issue #23, “The Island,” collected in the second Hellboy Omnibus, showing Hellboy drinking while in conversation with a strange entity resembling an iron maiden. Image: Mike Mignola/Dark Horse Comics
A full-page panel from the final issue of Trigun Maximum issue #6, “Sin,” showing the back of an anime character in a dark suit speaking to a shadowy figure encased in a coffin-like apparatus. Image: Yasuhiro Nightow/Dark Horse Comics
An anime woman holds tightly to another anime woman’s arm as she is pulled away by a swarming mass of knife-like tentacles. Image: Orange/Crunchyroll

There is a tangible intentionality and sound diegetic reasoning evident in nearly every character redesign and world-building choice as seen in Trigun Stampede thus far. This much is clear from the anime’s first episode, “Noman’s Land,” which opens on a sweeping shot of a fleet of bizarre starships descending on a barren desert planet. This is in stark contrast to 1998’s Trigun, which elided nearly any hint that Vash’s story took place on a planet other than Earth until well past halfway through its run. Trigun Stampede is not only acknowledging this fact upfront, but by doing so it sets the stage for a story told on a scale far grander than any glimpsed in the 1998 anime, one which would likely hinge on plot revelations that have yet to be seen in any iteration of Trigun so far apart from Trigun Maximum. The shoulder patch and name tag on Vash’s coat with the words “Project Seeds” offers a veiled explanation as to how — and where exactly — Vash found said coat and why he wears it, while the fact that Vash’s bounty at the beginning of this series, as seen in the first episode, is only 6 million double-dollars and not 60 billion double-dollars foreshadows that certain major (see: spoiler-heavy) events previously seen in both Nightow’s manga and the 1998 anime have not yet come to pass.

The fact that Meryl Stryfe, who is not a member of the Bernardelli Insurance Society but rather a junior reporter for the Bernardelli Press, meets Vash at an earlier point in her life than in any other iteration of Trigun is evidence that Trigun Stampede’s creators are trying to further centralize a major element that was already present in the 1998 anime — the implication of a future romantic relationship between the two. Given that every iteration of Trigun up to now has featured a time skip forward, it’s plausible that the reason why Milly Thompson, a fan-favorite character known for her indefatigably sunny disposition and penchant for wielding an oversized stun gun, hasn’t yet appeared in Trigun Stampede is simply because Meryl hasn’t met her yet.

A dark-haired anime woman (Meryl Stryfe) wearing a blue cap and a white collared shirt and jacket with gold rectangular earings staring forward. Image: Orange/Crunchyroll
A blonde-haired anime man wearing round orange sunglasses and a red coat with a shoulder patch with the words “Project Seeds” on it holds an injured women in his arms. Image: Orange/Crunchyroll

All of this, however, is either completely ignored or deliberately misread by some of the loudest and most inconsolable of Trigun Stampede’s detractors, who are in effect lambasting this new series for doing what essentially the 1998 anime did itself, albeit out of necessity: transforming Trigun and reinterpreting it on its own terms. To the chagrin of many of its critics, Trigun Stampede is not trying to be the Trigun equivalent of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, a beat-for-beat adaptation created in the wake of a previous adaptation that diverged from its source material for lack of material to adapt. Nor is Orange’s new series trying to be the 1998 anime; nothing can and nothing will, and Trigun Stampede’s creators know that.

“Trigun will always be Trigun, no matter how much you rework on it,” Yasuhiro Nightow said during the Trigun Stampede staff panel at Anime Expo 2022. “Perhaps it’s because the staff understands and protects what’s at the core of this work. I’m proud of this tenacious work, if I do say so myself.” For some viewers, even given these details and explanations, you were never going to like Trigun Stampede, because no matter how good or bad its respective elements might be, it can never be that anime you first imprinted on during that formative time in your life as an anime fan. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be that anime for someone else.

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