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.
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.
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’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 shounen 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.