[Feature] The Powerful Women of Trigun

SPOILERS: General discussion of Trigun and Trigun Maximum

Yasuhiro Nightow‘s manga Trigun is most assuredly defined by its tagline: Deep Space Planet Future Gun Action! Even so, those words also make the series damn near impossible to truly fit into a genre. It has a heavy science fiction origin, a Spaghetti Western backdrop, themes and symbolism from Christianity, and is also fiercely environmentalist, anti-nuclear, and anti-war, while utilizing violence to address these themes.

This all sets the scene for Trigun to be a little out of ordinary, a bit scruffier and more radical than its Space Western cousin, Cowboy Bebop. Nightow’s narrative is more inherently political than some anime and manga at this time period, full of contradictions and conundrums that make Trigun stand apart from many titles that have come after it.

It is fitting then, that the women in this singular series, which was mainly ignored in its native country and wildly popular overseas, can’t be neatly categorized either.

Even if it obfuscates some of its politics with gunslinger protagonist Vash’s unflinching pacifist and optimistic ways, not to mention Nightow’s patented goofy jokes, if Trigun is more inherently political what does this mean for the women who populate this desolate and cruel world?

Thankfully, Nightow answers this question for us with three complicated, genre-busting female leads: heroines Meryl Strife and Milly Thompson, professional women who do their job with little supervision, high responsibility, and unflinching dedication, and Elendira the Crimsonnail, the most dangerous antagonist in the series who is upstaged only by primary villain Millions Knives.

Enter Meryl Strife and Milly Thompson

Meryl and Milly are introduced in the very first chapter of Trigun. As insurance agents from Bernardelli Insurance Society (the “Insurance Girls”), they are sent into the field to file an extensive report on Vash the Stampede, who is considered “mankind’s first localized disaster:” where he goes, property damage is sure to follow.

We first meet the Insurance Girls walking into a sleazy tavern to ask for a banana sundae and tea, only to be laughed at and teased by the men inside. Since the tavern is full of tough guys, all of the teasing is very sexual in nature. As a reader, you are meant to fear for the women’s’ safety at first, worried about overworked men living in a border town, stuffed away in a bar with no other women around. Milly calls out the men on their behavior, but they only offer more jokes – that is, until the strap breaks on Milly’s enormous stun gun, falls out of her overcoat, and crushes the foot of a catcaller. She apologizes, and again asks the men not to make any more lewd comments toward her. Now frightened of her, the men agree, while Meryl continues to grill the bartender about where Vash was last seen.

I love this moment for two reasons: first, it instantly establishes two women confronting everyday sexism, but entirely capable of protecting and supporting themselves. Second, it sets up the dynamic between the two of them as worldly but also naive; Meryl’s professionalism and seriousness contrasts Milly’s sweetness and inexperience (she calls Meryl ‘sempai‘ until many volumes later). They do not agree on everything, nor do they have the same motivations, but they are both responsible and respectful to each other.

As readers we are no longer afraid for their safety until they are in a situation we know they cannot handle without help. This is an important way for Nightow to establish his female characters as decidedly independent, strong women who will of course grow and change throughout the course of the narrative.

Meryl (left) and Milly surprise Wolfwood by defeating his foe with a single finishing move.

Milly and Meryl’s prominent roles are also important to defy genre conventions. While the anime adaptation neatly packages them as love interests by the end of the series, the relationships between major characters Milly, Meryl, Vash, and wandering priest Nicholas D. Wolfwood are far more complex in the manga.

Meryl in particular, breaks from her initial overworked businesswoman/tsundere trope: she is intrepid and tirelessly committed to her work, but her work ethic obscures a wealth of insecurities. As a young woman, she is worried about her future, conflicted about losing contact with her family to keep up with Vash, and of course suffers cognitive dissonance from other women in her workplace. These women praise her courage, but say things like “independence is all fine and good, but I don’t think a woman can be happy being thrust into violent, dangerous scenarios.”

Meryl’s work is indeed dangerous, and throughout the course of the series, she and Milly act as bodyguards, fight assassins, and risk their lives confronting the bounty hunters and enemies dispatched to kill Vash. Meryl even develops fierce anxiety after Vash nearly dies to protect her from a group of assassins set to kill them both. She struggles with the emotional aftermath of this incident throughout the rest of the series, complicating her relationship with Vash and solidifying her determination to understand herself more clearly. Still, she does not cower from her responsibilities. She joins the resistance when it comes time to fight, she stands up to authority and goes so far to reprimand Vash for daring to fight without asking for help.

Petite Meryl, with short dark hair, and tall Milly, with long fair hair and masculine clothes, stand over a kneeling Vash, who grins awkwardly up at them.

There is a great moment in chapter three of the first volume of Trigun Maximum in which Meryl confronts a male agent from Bernardelli who has replaced her in the field – he turns out to be an assassin dead set on killing Vash and Wolfwood. Meryl intervenes not only out of duty, but also because Keele is a terrible insurance agent who disregards all of the field work she has compiled and calls her “overly sentimental.”

When she confronts him, Meryl offers her assessment of his tactics: “So that’s it… ultimately the most effective way to prevent disasters is to take out the culprit before he can act. This is your idea of ‘risk management,’ correct? It is not only illogical but unethical as well… so very immature.” Keele is angry by the obvious but warranted attack on his pride and pulls a gun on her, calls her foolish, and ridicules her for underestimating him. Meryl, cool as ever, retorts: “Actually, you are the one who isn’t quick enough.” Nightow immediately cuts to Milly across the way, her mouth wide open in laughter, firing at Keele with a bolt from the stun gun. The chapter ends with the Insurance Girls headed out on vacation, while the office decides to reinstate Meryl in the field.

There  many other moments in which these women establish their agency without relying on the men in their lives, but this one is my particular favorite. It addresses the shifting gender roles prominent in the era Nightow was writing in: more women were in the workplace, single, and financially independent, a continuing trend in Japanese society today.

Though characters often comment on how surprised they are to find these women in situations they have (willingly!) placed themselves, Meryl and Milly aren’t helpless. They always retain their autonomy, even if they fight insurmountable odds, and have the added bonus of not being objectified while doing so. Meryl and Milly remain pillars of self-confidence and character development throughout the entire series.

All Hail the Crimsonnail

Many people are surprised to find a prominent character in this series is a trans woman, and I am happy to say she holds a prominent role in the narrative, too. Elendira the Crimsonnail is the thirteenth member of the murderous Gung Ho Guns, the private army ordered to pursue and kill Vash by his brother, Millions Knives. She makes her first appearance in volume five of Trigun Maximum, and becomes a major adversary until the end of the series.

While it is in some ways troubling to see a trans woman as a villain, what makes Elendira’s representation so important is that her trans identity is never used to cast her as monstrous or explain why she is “evil.” One of the many prevalent themes in Trigun is the body: how the body is appropriated, commodified, abused, and understood. Being a trans woman is presented not as incorrect or strange, but as just another way in which bodies are represented. Elendira is not a monster but a person, which makes her much different from her Gung Ho Gun counterparts, who have traded in their humanity for monstrosity. Elendira retains her humanity because she has complete control over her body and how she presents herself to the world.

Elendira, a tall and smartly dressed woman with a pillbox hat, long fair hair and a long shawl over her tweed jacket, stands holding an overly long briefcase.

Elendira’s personality is refreshingly frank and sarcastic, considering she is the most dangerous assassin in the whole series, and her confidence makes her effortlessly cool. She always wears stylish clothing, complete with a pillbox hat, and bright red lipstick. Her briefcase is actually a crossbow that fires large nails at her opponents, which she can fire in a matter of seconds. This is a woman who knows herself, loves herself, owns her sexuality, and isn’t afraid to intimidate anyone by pressing a few buttons, even if that person includes her boss. It is always a treat to see Elendira dare to criticize Knives, especially since he respects her opinion and often doesn’t deny her when she tells him he’s making several mistakes.

The text is not without its flaws when it comes to Elendira, though; she is referred to as a transvestite several times, now an outdated term, and Wolfwood purposefully refers to her as a man to antagonize her.  However, she is in many ways a foil to the other women in the Trigun canon: Elendira fully embraces her shortcomings and stands by her choices, rather than agonize over them. She knows she is on a complicated path, and she’s determined to enjoy the ride as much as she can before the time comes to fulfill her duties as a villain. She is not punished for daring to enjoy herself. Even in her final battle, her opponent is upset to realize he will defeat her, because her strength has left a profound impression on him. 

It is a rare thing to find a shōnen manga that not only prioritizes its female characters, but does so without relegating them to simple tropes (wives, mothers, lovers, etc.) or undermining them via the male gaze or the threat of sexual violence. Trigun offers a different insight into being a woman in a cruel world, for finding spaces of agency in male-dominated places, for daring to be confident and flawed at the same time.

 

Comments are open! We are particularly keen to hear trans women’s thoughts on Elendira’s characterization. Please read our comments policy before joining the conversation and contact us if you have any problems.

Elena M. Aponte is a Master of Arts candidate at Bowling Green State University. Her research interests include Latino literature, Japanese cinema, and the history of manga. Her creative work has appeared in Cheap Pop and Matchbook Lit. Subs > Dubs. Fight her on it.

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  • Zelpok

    I’ve never read more than a few volumes of the manga, but your piece just convinced me to read it all. Trigun is one of my favorite anime, and that’s largely because of Meryl & Milly. I watched the series on Adult Swim, and while many of the other anime on there at the time had strong female characters (Inuyasha, Witch Hunter Robin, Fullmetal Alchemist), the insurance girls stood out. I was a young teen at the time, and Trigun was the first anime I saw where the gals could be just as dangerous as the guys, and used real weapons! If they’re even better in the manga, I definitely have to give it a read. I also look forward to seeing Elendira’s character, since the anime cut her out.

    • Elena M. Aponte

      That’s great! I absolutely encourage reading the manga, the storylines are much more developed and less one-track minded. And if anything it’s worth it for manga only characters like Elendira and Livio.

  • AsteriskCGY

    It’s kinda interesting how a few of these adapted series diverged instead of filled to end their runs against ongoing source material, and how much is lost or changed.

  • J.S.A.

    Nice article. I’m someone who liked the anime and later read the manga but was very underwhelmed to be honest and didn’t care for it, so my opinion is surely biased. With that said, yes the women in the manga are less stereotypical and repetitive and they have more agency and such, but my problem is… they are barely in the story and not very well defined, Meryl and Milly included (the manga is mostly “The Vash and Wolfwood show”), Elendira is the only one who has a big enough role.

    Meryl and Milly not only have short and random appearances, but while they don’t have the characterization defects of the anime, they don’t have either… any particular traits that distinguish them, at least to me, I wouldn’t be able to describe their personalities and what differentiates Meryl from Milly for example, which for me is a HUGE problem because they didn’t feel to me like individuals. And with these problems weighing in, their role in the story felt to me like “witness” secondary characters whose development is arbitrary to react to whatever Vash is dealing with and then disappear to come back two volumes later in other situation. And I know you could technically accuse the anime of the same thing (about basically just reacting to Vash), but in the series they’re primary characters and you are always on their perspective and slowly (sometimes too slowly) developing so even if they are more stereotypical and repetitive, in the final result they felt to me more like grounded characters, while in the manga they felt like plot devices I couldn’t engage with.

    And when these are some of the only women in the story with some presence in a series with so many male important characters, honestly its problem comes down to absence and (in my opinion) under-development. Which it’s not like horrible or anything and the fact that avoids so many cliches is refreshing given other similar mangas, but I think it’s a legit criticism to be had, and if you ask me, despite all the flaws of their characterization in the anime I still felt more fond of them than the manga. But as I said, I didn’t care for the manga in general so it can be boiled down to “this author’s storytelling doesn’t work with me”, but still here’s my take.

    Regards

    • Elena M. Aponte

      I think there is something to be said about the way the Girls reappear in the manga and how they’re storylines do not always inersect with Vash’s in a way that gives them as much agency as you would like them to have. However, I think the benefit of the anime is that it gives voice to Milly and Meryl and they have even more contrasting personalities as a result. The anime also leans heavily on tsundre tropes for Meryl, more so than the manga does, so there is automatically something viewers respond to when it comes to the anime version of her.
      The manga is very different. It is subtle and the characterization is much different. It is more realistic for the world they live in for them to interact with it the way they do in the manga. I have to disagree about underdevelopment; as working woman with anxiety myself, Meryl’s experiences, though nuanced, speak to something much more powerfully in the manga than they did in the anime. I appreciate your discussion! I’m just going to have to disagree 🙂

  • Elena M. Aponte

    I absolutely adore Rem’s characterization in the manga. I could certainly talk about her if I had had more space 😉 I agree that Rem’s struggles with depression and her decision to become a mother were much more detailed and nuanced in the manga, and I also appreciate the way Nightow doesn’t hesitate to show how flawed she is, too. And yes, the way the manga deals with mental illness is very well done, especially with Livio!