Between the Panels: Salvation According to Trigun

At first glance, the uncanny merging of Christianity with Trigun’s western/sci-fi antics seems as unlikely as Vash and Wolfwood’s apprehensive friendship. But the implausible combination ultimately works as irony—one that reflects the protagonist Vash’s many apparent contradictions: pacifist/gun-slinger, wanted criminal/savior, demon/angel. Try justifying those personas within a single person, and you have the enigma that is Vash the Stampede.

A walking contradiction, Vash often brings to mind the multi-facets of the Christian faith—the war between flesh and spirit, old man and new, mercy and justice. Trigun is rich with spirituality, but it goes beyond merely type-casting Vash as a Christ-figure and actually portrays elements of the Christian faith as the narrative unfolds.

Perhaps most iconic is Wolfwood’s salvation in the anime. Inspired by Vash’s Christ-like way of life, the wayward priest drags his mortal wounds into a nearby chapel, kneels, and lays his heavy sins (and cross-shaped weapon) before God. It’s perhaps anime’s most literal portrayal of Christian salvation and a royal tear-jerker to boot—one memorable enough to land Wolfwood in many a “Top Ten Saddest Anime Deaths” list. Iconic as it is, though, this scene is nowhere to be found in the Trigun manga.

wolfwood death scene salvation christianity
“My sins are so heavy. Too heavy. Too heavy to ever atone for… Was everything I did in my life a mistake? Would I be wrong, now, to ask for your forgiveness?”

Trigun’s manga, a two-part compilation called Trigun and Trigun MAXIMUM (because copyright problems happened), could have extended its anime counterpart to a multi-season, 60+ episode series. In traditional book-to-movie fashion, however, Trigun left entire arcs of content behind when it made the jump to the silver screen. To compensate, much of the anime is dedicated to sentiments and scenarios never shown in the manga—Wolfwood’s confession in the chapel being one of them.

In the manga, the prodigal priest does say his prayers and admit the weight of his sins, but it all goes down with urgent brevity in the midst of a bloody bullet barrage. Wolfwood’s poignant passing a few chapters later implies he has found a sense of divine forgiveness, but also requires a bit more reading-between-the-lines. From a Christian standpoint, Wolfwood’s moment of crisis speaks of non-circumstantial salvation—something ever at the ready, despite situation and self; similar to the thief’s conversion on the cross. Gone is the anime’s convenient, clear moment of reconciliation in the deserted church, but in its place the manga creates a scenario just as thought-provoking.

vash's salvation trigunIronically, Vash, who stands in as a sort of Christ figure for Wolfwood in the anime, struggles beneath the weight of his own sins—more-so in the manga. He blames himself for an accident he caused in the past which wiped out an entire town of people. Given his otherworldly powers and trying to justify his existence as a god-like Plant among humanity, Vash chooses the life of a pacifist and protector in order to atone for his crimes. When ghosts from his past reappear, forcing him to psychologically relive the day he took thousands of lives, Vash falls into depression. Desperate for relief, he enters a nearby church, just in time to hear the most literal re-telling of the salvation message to ever cross a manga page. But he turns the offer down.

“My sins aren’t forgivable. Nobody can forgive me,” he muses, listlessly.

Watching such an iconic Christ-figure struggle with his own comprehension of Christ-like forgiveness is both paradoxically baffling and intriguing. Vash’s respect for the sanctity of life and belief in second chances—even for the vilest of criminals—is admirable, but that admiration is tainted ever-so-slightly with the realization that guilt drives him to benevolence as much as his love for life does.

“Can salvation be earned?” Wolfwood’s and Vash’s narratives all but directly ask this integral question. Despite Trigun’s heavy focus on self-recompense and repentance, author Nightow—intentionally or otherwise—comes to the conclusion that salvation is something accepted rather than achieved.

Through both Vash’s and Wolfwood’s redemption arcs, the two gunmen face the same weight of sin. Vash’s tremendous guilt causes him to play the martyr, never raising his gun to take a life, even when sparing certain lives causes him immense personal pain and persecution. Wolfwood—a member of the cultic, pseudo-Christian religion, Eye of Michael—assumes he is too deep in treachery and crime already, and so continues to shoot first and ask questions later, considering himself a lost cause in the eyes of God. While they take polar opposite approaches to the same predicament, both Vash and Wolfwood believe themselves incapable of forgiveness for their sins. A paradoxical self-pride blinds them to the reality of salvation being within their grasps.

Shame isn’t usually the word that comes to mind when we think of pride. Pride is a boasting, arrogant, self-confident thing that swaggers like a runway contestant and flashes like a neon sign. But pride is also wrapped up in reputation—something we like to garnish with words like “dignity” and “honor”—and if not monitored appropriately, dignity can blind one to their own self-arrogance.

vash guilt salvation christianity trigun
Under the weight of his guilt, Vash frequently encounters ghosts from his past

Inherently, Vash knows that he has committed sins in his past that need atoning, but believes that dedicating himself to a life of atonement is the only option available. He’s humble and selfless—willing to endure even the most humiliating of tortures from his persecutors—and yet, ironically, his incredible pride in his self-affliction blinds him to the reality of a clean slate. The offer of God’s salvation seems too easy to Vash. He doesn’t want a salvation that’s given to him—he wants one he has to work for, sweat for, cry and bleed for. Vash feels that letting go of his guilt is a sin in and of itself because it disrespects those who he has wronged, and yet he cannot see that refusing to let go of his futile attempts at atonement makes him a victim of his own crimes.

In some sadistic way, humans find pleasure in meting out self-justice. Yet as we strive to pay for our sins through actions, we never find satisfaction. We can never do enough. Each good deed or recompense leaves us temporarily elevated, only to send us lapsing back into a pool of guilt. Despite saving hundreds of lives—perhaps even more lives than he accidentally took—Vash feels that he has not done enough—cannot, in fact, ever do enough—and his martyrdom begins to border on self-abusive. What Vash seeks is freedom from the weight of his sins, but his valiant and well-meaning efforts do nothing to alleviate that weight—only to distract him from the fact that it’s there in the first place.

[Max7]TrigunM_V8_ch4(partB)_28While Vash has a repentant heart but struggles to realize that his self-salvation is in vain, Wolfwood acknowledges his fallible human nature but fails to see how it can ever obtain salvation to begin with. It’s through Vash, imperfect though he is, that Wolfwood begins to catch glimpses of Christ. The way that Vash chooses to spare and love his enemies—and the way that he chooses to see Wolfwood as a friend, even while Wolfwood has plans to betray him to the evil Knives—creates a change of heart in the ornery priest.

Despite his background in the Eye of Michael cult, Wolfwood cautiously begins praying to the Christian God not long after meeting Vash. Perhaps it’s Vash’s unconditional forgiveness that causes Wolfwood to see a reflection of the Christian God and turn to Him for forgiveness. Mortally wounded in the midst of his final battle with an old-friend-turned-rogue, Wolfwood cries out to God, asking if it’s too late for him to change.

Symbolically, his prayer is answered in the form of Vash.

“You can change, Wolfwood!” Vash affirms, as he arrives in the nick of time to shield the bleeding priest from his attacker. Emboldened and free from his past sins, Wolfwood is able to help rid his old friend of a (literal) personal demon before peacefully passing away.

Vash, too, eventually has to own up to the futility of his self-atoning efforts. Perhaps it’s his conflicting, duel natures of infallible Plant and fallible human that cause him to realize his imperfection, as his Plant nature slowly dies away. Face-to-face with his brother’s right-hand henchman, Legato, Vash is forced to choose between killing the villainous Legato and allowing a good friend to die. What is likely a straight-forward decision for most is agonizing to Vash, as shooting even someone as evil as Legato means giving up his efforts of self-atonement and embracing his fallen nature. But in that split second, Vash determines that he can’t allow an innocent man, and good friend, to die in Legato’s place.

He pulls the trigger and accepts the futility of his self-atonement.

Now free to spare life of his own accord, rather than be driven by his guilt to do so, Vash faces off with his evil twin, Knives. In the past, Vash’s repeated attempts to win Knives over proved impossible, as Knives could never see past the hypocrisy of Vash’s martyrdom—sparing lives only by slowly killing himself in the process. But in the midst of the final battle between brothers, Vash chooses to save his brother’s life from on-coming canon fire, even as Knives pierces him through the chest with his blade. In that moment, Knives sees Vash driven not by some self-victimizing agenda but by a genuine conviction.

Seeing something in Vash far greater than he can comprehend, Knives carries his brother to the safety of a small cottage in the desert. There, Knives commits his own body to earth in the form of a humble fruit tree meant to provide for Vash and his caretakers until Vash fully recovers.

Trigun MAXIMUM ends before Vash can ever reconsider Christ’s offer of salvation on-page, but on a symbolic level it’s clear that Vash understands the futility of trying to work toward his own salvation. Now fully human and rid of his Plant heritage, Vash seems to metaphorically embrace his fallible nature. It’s pleasant to think that perhaps Vash eventually returned to that chapel with a new perspective and found a permanent peace through Christ’s salvation, as his friend Wolfwood did.

Trigun_maximum_LAST_BULLET_32-33

The salvation that Christ offers is free to us, though it cost Him greatly. The Bible says “ask and ye shall receive,” not “do these ten things and ye shall receive.” The oft-used metaphor of salvation as a gift may be trite, but true none-the-less. Try to re-pay someone for a gift all you like, but the gift itself is free, regardless of what efforts are attempted to “earn it.”

Pride often blinds us to the reality of salvation’s non-existent price tag. Like Peter feeling unworthy to have Jesus wash his feet (John 13:8), we tend to feel our dignity being threatened when acts of kindness are done for us without anything expected in return. Perhaps this is why Christ often said that a child’s shameless humility and faith were necessary to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Salvation is tailor-made for the Wolfwood’s and Vash’s—those who feel that they cannot escape their sinful nature no matter what they do, and those who feel they must atone for wrongdoings on their own. It takes humility—a shameless plea for forgiveness from Wolfwood, and a giving up of personal perfectionism from Vash—for Trigun’s infamous gunmen to realize the reality of a salvation beyond their ability. I like to think that Vash eventually embraced the gift of salvation, as Wolfwood did before his death; at the very least Nightow’s deliberate, yet un-forced, inclusion of the Christian salvation message within Trigun certainly speaks of a greater power to save within the world of Gunsmoke.

Want to become a follower of Christ? Here is a good resource for accepting God’s gift of salvation.

featured image colored by Kharamar 8 Nightow

7 thoughts on “Between the Panels: Salvation According to Trigun

  1. This was honestly moving, and I loved reading it. I’m slowly gathering Trigun Maximum volumes for when I have time to read again, and I’m looking forward to the experience even more now.

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    1. I was surprised by how much was left behind in the manga when Trigun jumped to anime. Entire characters and plotlines were left out, and so was a lot of the spirituality. That said, I can’t get enough of Wolfwood’s confession in the anime. That’s still one of my favorite scenes of all time. I was very surprised by how direct it was.

      You’ll very much enjoy Trigun Maximum. It’s quite complex in places, but all the more interesting for it. Manga isn’t cheap, so I understand the “slowly gathering” process. I frequent booksales and often piece together whole series over the course of 10 or 15 booksales, haha.

      Thank you for reading and leaving feedback. It’s mean a lot to me that you would call it “moving,” and I have to say that’s only due to how moving the manga itself was. Please enjoy reading Maximum! 🙂

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  2. Cowboy Bebop will probably always be considered the “best” anime by popular acclamation, but Trigun will likely remain my favorite for the reasons you mention in your essay. I never read the manga, so it was interesting to learn that the Gospel is laid out so plainly there. For my part, the thing about the anime ending I always loved was that Vash was unable to overcome Knives without Wolfwood’s cross gun – i.e., wielding the cross “full of mercy.”

    Thanks for writing this, I always love some good Trigun analysis!

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    1. I would like to give Bebop another shot, though I couldn’t get into it during my first attempt. Like you, I definitely favor Trigun, even more-so after reading the manga.

      And that anime ending… No matter how many times I see it, I still get goosebumps every time Vash slams his palm down and levers Punisher out of the sand. The Christian imagery is so cool in that moment, as you said. He literally overcomes Knives with the power of a cross–one said to be “full of mercy.” And it’s that mercy that causes him to spare Knives when logic would demand otherwise. (I wrote a bit about this in an article over at Geekdom House: http://geekdomhouse.com/meek-weak-or-chic/)

      In the manga, the cross is absent from the final battle, as Vash leaves it in the hands of Wolfwood’s childhood friend, Livio (a hardcore gunslinger with a duel personality who never made it into the anime). I was saddened that that imagery with the cross got left behind in the anime. However, mercy is still very much at the center of Vash and Knives’ final confrontation in the manga. Vash nearly dies for Knives, even when there’s no guarantee (or even a likelihood) that his sacrifice will make a difference. Vash just does it out of pure love for his brother.

      Essentially, the two rush each other and Vash is quicker on the draw with his gun than Knives is with his blade. Knives thinks he’s a dead-man, since Vash’s gun literally passes by his forehead in an upward swing. But Vash isn’t aiming to kill Knives but rather to shoot down a large blast of canon fire sent from Earth to take them both out. In that moment, Vash uses his final bullet to nullify the canon fire, while Knives stabs him through the heart, unable to stop his momentum. At this point, earth forces are onto both of them, seeing them as foreign threats, and Vash tells Knives to run and save his own hide. But, of course, Knives has been impacted by the power of Vash’s sacrifice and mercy and chooses to take Vash with him. Later, Knives returns the favor by finding Vash a caretaker until he is strong enough to recover, while Knives dies from the strain on his rapidly deteriorating body.

      Both anime and manga have their own strengths, weaknesses, and sets of symbolism; and I recommend reading and viewing both for that reason. I certainly had a greater appreciation for Trigun and its cast of colorful gun-slingers after taking down the manga. It’s a long one, but a good one.

      Thank you for reading and commenting! 😀 Great to meet another Trigun fan.

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  3. This was very well written and I have nothing to add except…I need to read Trigun Maximum now! I have the first two volumes, but now I need to find it all to read it! 😀

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    1. Super appreciate you commenting, liking, and re-sharing on Twitter and here on the webiste. That made my day. Trigun really should be on every Christian otaku’s “to-do” list, and the manga adds a different depth to our favorite Needlenoggin’ and prodigal priest; I think you’ll really appreciate the angles that the manga takes. Good luck collecting the rest of MAXIMUM! It’s a lengthy read, but one I’d be happy to own myself someday.

      Now if only they’d pull a Brotherhood and re-animate Trigun according to the manga…

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