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Trigun, the Manga -- No Punch-Pulling Here

Rem is a Nazi, and this pretty much sums up Trigun. That's right: I am going to make a Holocaust analogy, with many caveats (and spoilers) under the cut...


(Spoilers follow...)

Caveats
1. Trigun is not an allegory for the Holocaust, and as an analogy, its applicability is limited.

2. I absolutely do not mean to trivialize the Holocaust by likening it to a comic whose byline is "Deep space planet future gun action!!" On the contrary, I'm doing this reading because it expresses, like no other comparison I can think of, what makes Trigun so deeply disturbing and relevant to real life.

The Premise
Trigun is fundamentally the story of two brothers who develop very different strategies for coping with the intensely traumatic childhood realization that they belong to a species of non-persons with no rights. Like all children, Vash and Knives are born unaware of social injustice, and their adoptive mother, Rem, cultivates this innocence as she raises them on a spaceship where they are the only three people not in cryogenic suspension.

Laudable as her actions are, they end up maximizing the shock of the boys' inadvertent discovery that their older sister, Tessla, had been experimented on as a lab specimen until she died.

It is difficult not to liken Tessla's demise to Nazi experiments on Jews. While the Trigun scenario lacks the racial hatred, scapegoating, and genocidal aims of the Nazi movement, the scientific detachment that classifies a lab "subject" as outside the sphere of human compassion is the mindset of the Nazi researcher. The use of scientific "rationalism" and an a priori belief in the racial (or species) inferiority of the "subject" to justify systematic torture and murder is--on a very small scale--Holocaust-level dementedness.

Vash and Knives had always known they were Plants, genetically engineered beings designed to provide energy for humans. They had even speculated on whether or not humans would be accepting of "independent" Plants, unexpectedly born of less humanoid, normative Plants. But suddenly, these boys are forced to entirely reclassify themselves. They are not just different; they are targets for unspeakable, coldblooded torture.

It is as if they awoke to the realization that they were Jews in Nazi Germany: that their freedom, their bodily integrity, their lives were under imminent threat. As if this weren't bad enough, they are also somewhat in the position of Jewish kids realizing they've been adopted by a Nazi. Because Rem is a human: one of them.

Rem is a Nazi
When I say she's a Nazi, I do not mean she's Hitler. It's more unsettling than that. Rem is a good person, a loving mother, a conscientious and kind individual. She is the kind of Nazi you or I might be if we chanced to live in a social setting of institutionalized evil, where diverse social structures contributed to our participation in it, and our resistance to it must be paid for in social censure, legal action, or even death.

Rem did not experiment on Tessla. She was opposed to it. She even protested it through the usual--and inadequate--established channels for logging "ethical concerns." But as meaningful action, this doesn't amount to much. It didn't save Tessla; there's no sign it even lessened her suffering. So why didn't Rem chain herself to Tessla's bed? Why didn't she hold her close when they came for her and say, "Over my dead body"? What would she have even risked from such acts? In the society she lived in, probably not death--perhaps legal action, at the worst perhaps imprisonment once they reached their destination planet, but even this seems unlikely; they would need all hands to help terraform their new world. The fact is Rem is a collaborator by omission.

So why didn't she do more? Why don't I do more?

Why don't I make absolutely certain that no product I use was developed by torturing animals to death? Why don't I emigrate from a country that spends trillions of dollars each year on war efforts that mostly perpetuate hatred and kill civilians? Why don't I march on Washington to protest it? Why don't I give up my car? It's just contributing to climate change.

There is no real moral justification for any of this, but it is a human reality that most of us do not function well under these kinds of pressures. We get scared; we get confused; we feel helpless. We are social animals, and we go along with the herd. Which of us is not implicated in some kind of unnecessary practice that has contributed to suffering? If we are rich enough, in this world, to have an internet connection, there is probably blood on our hands. I know there is blood on mine. In this way, Rem is a Nazi, and so am I.

Two Moral Approaches
Vash and Knives define two moral approaches to these problems. Knives's approach is based on identification with Tessla (the victim) and centers on protecting the victims and punishing or eliminating the guilty. Vash's approach is based on identification with Rem (the guilty) and centers on compassion for all people in all their physical, mental, and moral weaknesses.

These differences are well illustrated in the scenario that leads to Vash and Knives's initial separation. Vash is kidnapped by a group of humans who preyed on wayfarers. In Knives's mind, the situation is simple: these people kidnapped his brother, so Knives kills them and saves his brother. In Vash's mind, the situation is far more morally muddy:

1. He was kidnapped by villagers who preyed on wayfarers, but why did they prey on them?

2. Because this village is cut off from any economic support, being made up of outcasts, who are treated like lepers because they suffer from radiation poisoning. Why do they suffer from radiation poisoning?

3. Because they sacrificed themselves to stop a nuclear meltdown and thus saved many thousands of lives. But why was there a nuclear meltdown?

4. Because these people had caused it by irresponsible handling of Plants...

And so on. Vash does not justify the villagers' actions, but he is adamant that there are reasons for them, and the reasons matter--the fact that there are reasons matters. People are complex: their virtues, their crimes, their guilt, their motivations--all complex, all outside any person's right to cast ultimate judgment.

Vash is Like Jesus
Vash is not an allegory for Jesus; he is not the second coming, and he has some foibles and failings that Jesus traditionally doesn't. But he is a saintly figure in a Christ-like vein, repeatedly speaking for compassion ("love and peace"), loving his enemies, and willing to endanger or humiliate himself to help others. There are too many examples of this to enumerate, but here are a couple:

When Hoppered the Gauntlet, sworn to kill Vash for (inadvertently) killing the woman Hoppered loved in the city of July, is cursing him with his dying breath, Vash holds his hand.

The day after Livio becomes the chief killer of Wolfwood, a man Vash deeply loves, Vash makes him breakfast and befriends him. They remain friends to the end of the series.

This love comes from the model of Rem, not only as an exemplar of moral strength but as an exemplar of moral weakness.

Trigun is a story in which the hero is a Christ-like figure who sympathizes with Nazis. Not with their actions or their ideology, mind, but with them as people.

In fact, this stance is very Christ-like indeed. Jesus always loved sinners, which means all of us:

Qui Mariam absolvisti
Et latronem exaudisti
Mihi quoque spem dedisti.


("You who pardoned Mary [Magdalene] and heard [the plea] of the thief have also given me hope.") Jesus was, after all, a man who begged forgiveness for the people who tortured him to death.

In Sum
Reading Trigun feels something like being beaten black and blue with your own moral culpability. It is exhausting, and I wonder if Nightow exhausted himself in writing it, given that this next major work, Gungrave, skirts complex moral contemplation to focus on interpersonal relationships: a much more comforting work. At the same time, Trigun is not a bleak story at all. It has, more or less, a happy ending, and meets us at every turn with touching reminders of the power of compassion to remediate many of the world's evils.

It's not a perfect story. There are too many fight scenes and not enough development of several characters' stories. Meryl and Millie are better in the anime. The plot is convoluted. The ending's a bit weak dramatically, especially with regard to sorting out the relationship of Vash and Knives. (On this level, Gungrave surpasses it.)

Still in all, it's one of the most powerful stories I've read, and I would recommend it to anyone steeled to look into the depths of human weakness and the heights of human love.

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