Meryl Stryfe in front of the moon in "Trigun Stampede".

To Persist in Cataclysm — “Trigun Stampede”

The first scene of “Trigun Stampede” captivates – a seed ship full of colonists collapses in flame around a desert planet, taking out its support vessels on the way. We fast-forward many years. Settlers are scattered. The resources that survived are meager. Towns subsist on broken-down equipment.

The gunslinger Vash the Stampede has a bounty on his head, wanted for destroying the energy plants that allow humans to eke out their survival. Two reporters stumble across him, the biggest story they could possibly imagine. Yet Vash isn’t the terror described in the stories. He’s a skilled gunman, but also a pacifist. He runs from a fight. He helps the local towns. He tries to save the villains and show them a better way – often succeeding. So why does destruction follow him?

Ambitious rookie reporter Meryl Stryfe and grizzled veteran journalist Roberto de Niro join up with Vash in order to uncover the trut…wait, Roberto de Niro? Well, “Trigun Stampede” is based on a 90s manga, and re-adapts a 90s anime, and the 90s really were a wacky ti– oh, he was invented exclusively for this new adaptation? You know what, it gave me pause for half a second before I saw the guy in action, and then I thought, yep he’s a Roberto de Niro if I’ve ever seen one.

We jump straight into the action. Just look at this trailer:

The animation is beautiful. The first thing I thought of as I watched “Trigun Stampede” was how much it reminds me of Don Bluth’s expressive, energetic, character-driven animation style. Bluth was the director of “The Secret of NIMH”, “An American Tail”, and “Anastasia”, just to name a few.

The in media res storytelling style jumps us into the action in early episodes, and its episodic but linear traveling nature (combined with a larger arc) in later ones recalls popular Watanabe Shinichiro series like “Cowboy Bebop” or “Samurai Champloo”.

“Trigun Stampede” is made by one of the most interesting animation studios on the planet, Studio Orange in Tokyo, Japan. They’re renowned for trailblazing on CG anime that’s full of heart, but this isn’t the most important thing to know about them. What you should know is that they do not world-build so that you and I can see their worlds. They world-build so that the characters can exist in them. We’re only shown the corners the characters encounter each episode. Studio Orange guards the truths of their worlds from their viewers, so that what we’re left with is different characters’ interpretations, memories, myths, and even lies. They’ll show you what’s pertinent to that moment.

This is almost a cardinal sin when it comes to sci-fi worldbuilding as we know it. After the first scene, there’s very little of the grandeur of sci-fi we’re used to. There’s silliness, terror, heartbreak, each as the characters witness the larger world crash into these corners and leave them wiped clean.

As with Studio Orange’s earlier “Land of the Lustrous” and “Beastars”, this means the early episodes are difficult to get into. I wrote in my “Land of the Lustrous” review:

“I was ready to turn ‘Land of the Lustrous’ off after two episodes. I wasn’t sure whether I’d keep watching. This is because I misinterpreted what it is. ‘Land of the Lustrous’ fosters this misinterpretation so that it can turn it upside down inside you.”

You could say the very same thing for “Trigun Stampede”. That’s because “Land of the Lustrous”, a series about sentient mineral-people being hunted and harvested by Buddhist cosmic horrors, ended up shattering me. It left me in heartbroken awe and became my favorite anime series.

That’s why I waited until “Trigun Stampede” had several episodes out. I had a review of this written after two episodes, and it was much less favorable. I held it because I suspected whatever I thought it was, it would change. Whatever corner of its world it showed me, I would understand and remember it so differently later.

The first two episodes of “Trigun Stampede” are filled with charming characters and clever action, but as you watch them, it’s easy to wonder if the show will be capable of offering anything else. They pack too many villains in, the pace is off, and it’s hard to pin down exactly what kind of genre you’re expected to watch from one minute to the next. Then the third episode breaks it all and lays out the true stakes. It’s here I’m reminded how well Studio Orange can tell stories in a specific kind of dissonant space: between the abject terror of victims, the debilitating awe of bystanders, and the banal and casual deliberateness of those who inflict that terror.

Studio Orange series can feel erratic at first because they sacrifice the world-building of omniscience that Western sci-fi often leans on – explanations, histories, foreshadowing – in order to establish longer-term character development. It can feel awkward to miss those details and be thrust into chaos, but it pays off when you see certain elements for the first time alongside the characters, trying to make sense of the senseless at the same speed they do.

This trade-off means it can be very hard to get invested in the world at first, and early stories feel weak and badly paced. The pay-off is that we can identify with the characters readily, we truly feel the strangeness and desolation of this world, and a strong emotional tone emerges. This last is Studio Orange’s toybox, and even when plots are familiar or recognizable, their strength as storytellers can still pierce straight through you at a moment’s notice.

Western sci-fi habitually world-builds like it’s trying to close a sale. Not all of it, of course, but especially in series and film, it wants you to buy the world straight in, and then it keeps building value to stack confirmations that you’re going to keep it. It’s a cynical description, but it’s also an effective blueprint for getting everyone on the same page quickly so that the storyteller can extend into multiple subgenres and create extremely solid foundations for engaging social sci-fi.

Japanese sci-fi has always had a streak of placing you closer to the characters, and allowing its sci-fi elements to enter only as they’re encountered, and then often foregoing a deep explanation until much later. After all, if it’s an everyday thing that everyone knows about, why would they stop and explain it to each other? And if it’s a world-ending horror, why would they stop running or fighting long enough to explain what they can’t? It’s not difficult to look at the history of the last 80 years and understand why this difference exists, or why it became crucial to process in Japanese storytelling.

This reveals the heart of “Trigun Stampede”. Yes, we’re on a journey, but among Vash, Meryl, Roberto, and others, we learn how each cope and hold onto their values in the face of cataclysm, how each finds their own way to persist and endure. Their adventures mean encountering those who had to give up those values at some point, or those who were never given the choice to embrace them. It’s a story of choosing to fight an impending and unknowable terror by knowing yourself, and thereby ensuring there’s at least one factor that you can truly bring to bear with determination.

“Trigun Stampede” always impresses in its animation, design and aesthetic, and characterizations. The storytelling is still gelling, and I continue to have issues with its pacing, but there are story moments every episode that make me appreciate that I’m watching it. The sci-fi environments are phenomenal, but what Studio Orange always delivers is a human understanding of its characters.

Does “Trigun Stampede” hold its own with “Land of the Lustrous” or “Beastars”? I’m not sure yet. Is it worth watching? Yes. There’s a sheer artistic will in all of Studio Orange’s work that captures the most foundational element of storytelling – our need to know what happens next. Their talent in guarding their worlds from us makes us want to see them all the more. The connection to these characters makes us eager to see this alongside them. It makes us listen when characters tell us their stories and beliefs. Somehow, despite mashing together a variety of elements we’ve seen before, the best argument for “Trigun Stampede” is the same one for anything by Studio Orange: because you won’t see anything like it anywhere else.

You can watch “Trigun Stampede” on Hulu or Crunchyroll.

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