Spirituality in the Anime Blogosphere: Violence, Grace and Redemption in Trigun

In 2003, a wonderful essay about Nicholas Wolfwood was posted in the ToonZone forums.  Academic in nature, the essay discusses the Christian themes of sinful nature and grace as they are present in Trigun, particularly shown through Wolfwood.  The essay is excellent and gives a lot of insight about the series.  It also touches on the idea of why Christianity hasn’t stuck in Japan, mentioning Shunsaku Endo’s Silence, which also focuses on this theme.

Unfortunately, since that time, every other trace of the essay on the Internet has apparently disappeared.  You’ve probably experienced this as well as me – you’ve tried to return to something you read or saw once in the past only to find that it’s gone.  Poof.  And so, I’ve decided to repost the entire essay below.  If anyone knows the author or where the original source comes from, please let me know.

Nicholas D. Wolfwood
Violence, Grace and Redemption in Trigun.

Introduction

This article is an analysis of Nicholas D. Wolfwood from a Christian perspective. It will make most sense if you’ve seen the entire Trigun anime series. Also, it contains serious spoilers for the series. Consider yourself warned. Japanese animation (or anime, as it is called both in Japan and in the West) is an intriguing contemporary art form that, like Japanese culture itself, weaves Western influences and Eastern traditions together in oftentimes strange and unexpected ways. Through its juxtaposition of contrasting cultural elements, anime can provide careful viewers with illuminating insight into both Japanese and American culture. And when anime touches upon religious issues, it offers Christians trans-cultural perspective on their faith. One anime which deals explicitly with Western and Christian themes is Yasuhiro Nightow’s TV series, Trigun, whose 26 30-minute episodes aired April through October 1998 in Japan.1 Trigun is an action/comedy science fiction Western. The series emulates the typical American Western, featuring gunslingers, duels, shootouts, corrupt sheriffs, barroom brawls, and crumbling ghost towns, all set in a raw desert. But it is also science fiction, complete with mutant giants, starships, and robots gone berserk on an alien planet with two suns. The people of the planet are space colonists stranded by a disastrous accident that decimated their technology. The survivors have been barely managing a livelihood for the past hundred years in small settlements scattered throughout the dry, barren planet. The central theme of Trigun is the human condition of evil and sinfulness and the redeeming effect that grace and mercy have on this. Trigun’s primary characters are two super-powerful humanoids: twin brothers born as infants into the human world. They grow up observing human behavior and values, and, through abuse at the hands of their human caretakers, they both become acquainted with human depravity and wickedness. The first, Knives Millions (our villain), sees the human race as incorrigibly evil and concludes that it simply must be destroyed. The other, Vash the Stampede (our hero), develops a love for humanity and resolves to save mankind from itself and from Knives. So Vash lives his life among the humans, wandering as a gunman from settlement to settlement, fighting for justice and spreading his message of “love and peace”. Vash is committed to the principle that nobody—neither him nor Knives—has the right to kill another, a principle that Vash upholds at great personal cost. By the time the series starts, he has fought for justice among humans for over 100 years, and he bears countless scars inflicted upon him by enemies he has refused to kill. In episode 5 of the series, Vash meets and befriends a character named Nicholas D. Wolfwood. Our focus will be Wolfwood’s story in Trigun. By following how Wolfwood is changed by Vash’s witness of a life lived according to the principle of grace, we will see how Trigun both illuminates and corrects flawed perspectives of Christianity that are common in Japanese popular culture.

Wolfwood’s “Christianity”

Wolfwood is a Christian priest. Being no ordinary priest, he lives his life as a chain-smoking traveling gunman who runs an orphanage, rides a motorcycle and carries a heavy, life-sized cross everywhere he goes. His cross, however, conceals his weaponry. The horizontal arms slide open to reveal 16 Grader Single Hand 2043 .45 caliber auto-pistols. The long leg functions as a M2 .50 caliber machine gun with seemingly endless ammunition, and the top of the cross is a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher. To his credit, Wolfwood uses the cross to fight for justice. But he fights ruthlessly, killing every one of his enemies without hesitation. Wolfwood’s choice of the cross as the form for his weapon is one of the most striking features of Trigun as a series. The Christian viewer is struck instantly by incongruities between Wolfwood’s cross and the cross of Christ. Granted, both crosses are instruments of capital punishment. However, the point of the Christian symbolism of “carrying the cross” is to represent the sort of suffering and sacrifice that Christ endured on the cross. It seems perverse to use it, as Wolfwood does, as a device of strength, power, and intimidation. Wolfwood is not unaware of the contradiction here. When a passerby comments on how heavy the cross is, Wolfwood replies (sarcastically), “that, my friend, is because it’s full o’ mercy.” The series does not explain Wolfwood until near the end, in episode 23, when, through a series of flashbacks, we are given a view of Wolfwood’s childhood. Wolfwood’s story begins when he, a seven year old orphan, first picks up a gun and kills his abusive guardian. He then is adopted by a gunfighter named Chapel the Evergreen. Chapel forms Wolfwood into a gunfighter and inculcates within him a perverted theology—one of power and victory, of furthering one’s own cause through the conquest of one’s enemies. For Chapel, action is more important than contemplation. And the swift use of force is invariably the answer to life. “Life is like an incessant series of problems,” explains Chapel, “all difficult, with brutally limited choices, and a time limit. The worst thing is to make no decision while waiting for the ideal conclusion to present itself. Make the best choice in a split second.” To Chapel, the cross is not a symbol of suffering and sacrifice but rather of power and might. Chapel and Wolfwood both construct the crosses they carry according to this perspective—armed with their crosses, they are two of the most formidable fighters we encounter in the series. Chapel has no concept of loving your enemy or sacrificing yourself as an act of worship to God. “We are nothing like God,” says Chapel. “Not only are our powers limited, but we sometimes have to play the Devil.” Anime routinely identifies Christian symbols—particularly the cross—with power and violence. For instance, in the enormously popular series Neon Genesis Evangelion, the heroes fight against the attack of “Angels” which are attempting to prevent mankind from progressing to the next stage of evolution. A cross of light appears above each explosion during an Angel attack. Also, in the movie Spriggan, Noah’s Ark is shown to be advanced alien technology of immense power, capable of controlling the weather of the entire earth. The main character (named Arucard—almost “Dracula” spelled backwards) in the series Hellsing destroys vampires using a gun engraved with a cross and the name “Jesus Christ” in large cursive letters across the barrel. The Japanese see Christianity as a triumphant, Constantinian faith. For the Japanese, Christian symbols connote the sort of military power associated with the United States. This is reinforced by the movies and television shows that America exports to Japan, as well as the historical reality of Japan’s defeat in World War II, which, on some interpretation, represents the defeat of the god of the Japanese by the god of the Americans. Western Christians are also to blame, because we tend to stress the power and sovereignty of God and the victory which we inherit through Christ. Shusaku Endo, a Japanese Catholic writer, explains that this perception must change before Christianity can succeed in Japan. “The religious mentality of the Japanese is responsive to one who ‘suffers with us’ and who ‘allows for weakness'”, says Endo. Much of Endo’s project as a novelist has been to re-interpret Jesus in this light.2 The Japanese, however, continue to identify the Christian God with power, and this is reflected in the way their popular art uses Christian symbols.

Wolfwood and Vash

With a theology of power and victory, there is no room for weakness or indecision. Wolfwood grows up under tremendous pressure to develop his skills as a gunfighter, to live up to Chapel’s standards of greatness. He recognizes the evil inherent in his lifestyle, but he justifies his actions by pointing out that he fights for justice for the weak and powerless. “I didn’t want other kids to grow up like me,” he says. “So I started up an orphanage. It gave my life meaning. I was doing things for the good of others. It was my little bit of happiness.” Wolfwood, however, is overwhelmed by the corruption of the planet. He finds himself repeatedly resorting to murder in order to bring about justice. It is his encounter with Vash the Stampede that breaks Wolfwood free from his murderous lifestyle and distorted theology. Finding common ground in their shared devotion to justice, Wolfwood and Vash instantly develop a deep friendship characterized by mutual admiration and respect. They quickly recognize, however, a fundamental difference. Vash refuses to kill. At first, Wolfwood sees Vash’s principle as a “goody-goody” naivete, and Wolfwood tries to “save” Vash. In a series of duels with the Gung-Ho Guns (the villains working for Knives), Vash repeatedly spares his enemy. Wolfwood “cleans up” behind him, executing each defeated Gung-Ho Gun. This horrifies Vash. “Thou shalt not kill!” he exclaims. “What the hell kind of churchman are you?!” Tension builds between Wolfwood and Vash, and it reaches a climax when they are fighting Zazie the Beast, a Gung-Ho Gun who happens to be a child. During a battle between Zazie and Vash, Wolfwood protects Vash by killing Zazie. “Kids are kids, but he was a demon,” says Wolfwood. Vash, however, is furious. He is certain that there was a way to resolve the situation without killing anyone. Wolfwood cannot accept this. “I don’t understand him,” he says about Vash. “How can he say such things in this time and place? How can he say such things seriously?” A character close to Vash replies: “Because that’s what he’s always done. I know because I’ve watched him. Vash has lived his entire life like that.” The example of Vash’s life plants doubt within Wolfwood’s inner conscience. “Where did I go wrong?” he asks. “I’ve always chosen the right path, haven’t I?” Influenced heavily by Chapel’s ethics, Wolfwood has lived his life by striving for improvement, by living up to standards of excellence. But as excellent and heroic as his life has been, it has lacked mercy, forgiveness, and grace. Vash’s life witness forces Wolfwood to realize the shortcoming of his own lifestyle, and this revolutionizes Wolfwood’s moral perspective. This revolution is made explicit during a showdown between Wolfwood and Chapel. After a vicious battle, Wolfwood wins the upper hand against his former mentor. Under normal circumstances, he would kill his enemy. But this time, he asks himself, “What is the best choice? Tell me! Is this good enough? Is it?” The answer is clear. He decides to emulate Vash and show mercy to his enemy. Wolfwood lowers his weapon. “This is all I can do.” He spares Chapel’s life. “May you go with God’s protection.” Wolfwood turns and walks away. Chapel, however is uncooperative. As Wolfwood leaves, Chapel attacks him behind his back. Wolfwood reacts quickly enough to defend, but he is mortally wounded by Chapel’s final attack.3

Wolfwood’s Salvation

Realizing that he is dying, Wolfwood drags himself into a church. Up to this point, Wolfwood’s religious life has been devoid of any repentance or experience of God’s forgiveness. Indeed, he says, “In spite of my profession, I’ve never actually made a confession.” Instead of embracing the Christian concept of redemption through God’s grace and forgiveness, he’s tried to justify himself by first improving his skills under Chapel’s guidance, then fighting for justice. Now, Wolfwood is weak and near death, having lost the ability to do any good on his own. He could, at this point, curse his decision to spare Chapel’s life as foolishness—to argue that the fact that he currently faces death is proof that Vash is wrong. But instead, Wolfwood has gained a new perspective on life—a perspective that gives priority to grace. Even as he is dying, he reflects, “Somehow I feel happy—at peace with myself today. It really can be done. Once you stop to think about it, there are plenty of ways to save everyone. Why didn’t I see that before it was too late?” Wolfwood’s death is the most beautiful, touching scene in the entire series, masterfully combining powerful and sublime imagery and music with a wrenching monologue. Kneeling before the altar, his head bowed, his shoulder barely balancing the weight of the cross/weapon he has carried his entire life, Wolfwood recognizes the evil in his life and his powerlessness to redeem it. “I justified my actions by blaming it on the times, saying I did it to protect the children. I took many lives, thinking there was no other way. My sins are so heavy. Too heavy. Too heavy to ever atone for….” Wolfwood imagines life in heaven, where he will be reunited with Vash, where “life is easier, with nothing but peaceful days, with no stealing, no killing.” The animation cuts to flashbacks of Wolfwood’s past. “Was I…? Was I wrong? Was everything I did in my life a mistake?” Tears fall from his eyes. “Would I be wrong now to ask for forgiveness? I can’t stand it!” His hand drops to the floor, limp. His head falls, and his eyes close. The camera pulls back, showing the sanctuary brightly lit, with sunlight streaming through arching windows, casting a long shadow of Wolfwood’s cross on the floor that is superimposed with Wolfwood’s kneeling form. In the background, with a delicate and elegant classical guitar accompaniment, a gentle voice sings simply “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia”. Wolfwood’s story powerfully illustrates the tragedy of a life lived without grace, as well as the redemptive power of the example of a life of mercy. Wolfwood is led by Vash’s influence to the sort of brokenness required for genuine repentance. Yasuhiro Nightow, the creator of Trigun, has not made any public statements in the United States regarding his religious beliefs. We find within Trigun, though, a bridge for Japanese audiences who typically identify Christianity with power and violence. This bridge enables an understanding of the role of suffering and forgiveness in Christianity. Wolfwood provides this bridge, beginning the series as an adherent of a power-based “Christianity”, but over the course of the series, being moved (through the grace-based life witness of Vash) to a repudiation of such violence, finally resulting in repentance and redemption.

TWWK

Husband. Dad. Occasionally Korean. Enjoys Star Wars, ASOIAF, and Meg Ryan movies. Tweets before proofreading. Ghibli. Oregairuuuuu. Jesus is King.

10 thoughts on “Spirituality in the Anime Blogosphere: Violence, Grace and Redemption in Trigun

  1. Thanks for posting such a great essay! 😀 I was particularly struck by Endo’s observation that the Japanese equate Christianity with power and might, rather than the meekness and self-sacrifice Jesus preached.

    I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Trigun page The Fortunate Fall (http://www.alltrees.org/anime; scroll ’til you reach the link), but it’s also got some interesting theological insight on the series — and on our man Wolfwood, as well. 😀

    1. Endo’s a particularly keen Christian voice in Japan. “Silence” is a disturbing book, particularly because it speaks of the failure of Christianity in Japan. The narrator of the story is confronted by the difficulties of Christianity taking root, and is more than once told that it can’t make it in Japan.

      Wow, thanks for the link! I’ve never stumbled upon that page…I’m can’t wait to dig in!

  2. I came from Indonesia

    I agree with this article, they are “Japanese” are still many who do not know the meaning of the cross for the followers of Christ. they wear the cross as a symbol of strength rather than as a symbol of gentleness. may God rebuke these people

    1. That’s true. I actually got rebuked once because of that. I wasn’t a Christian at the time in high school, and another student in my class who (I think was Christian..) who saw I was wearing a beaded cross on my neck told me “you don’t know what that really means” and that left me thinking…it’s true, I used to wear the cross as a cultural symbol, something to look cool (spiritual swag). Now I know the difference and the true meaning.

  3. Another great one. Wow, this person did their HOMEWORK on Wolfwood. I need to read that book “Silence” by Shunsaku Endo. Thanks for finding this, keep the hard to find great articles coming 🙂

    1. Be warned that Silence is a heavy and disturbing book, if you do read it. I simultaneously loved it and barely made it through.

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