Anime Spotlight: Trigun: Badlands Rumble
Released by FUNimation
If/when someone asks me if an arbitrary, once popular anime might come back, my answer has become "never say never." More of hallmark 90's fantasy action comedy Slayers? Yep, that happened. More of finically strapped Gonzo's aerial steam punk Last Exile. Sure. Post-Evangelion space opera Martial Successor Nadesico. There are factors there that suggests it's very doubtful, but I wouldn't be entirely stupefied if it happened.
The better part of a decade since it aired on Cartoon Network, and more than a decade after the 1998 sci-fi western was first produced, Trigun has returned for a theatrical outing. It's not difficult to make some informed speculation about the trajectory that brought the star of many an internet avatar walking back through the saloon door.
Trigun was a big deal in North America back when anime was a big deal in North American. Like the similarly well remembered Cowboy Bebop, it put an anime stamp on something western, namely the Western, with the pizzazz of a kinetic, clownish, charismatic lead. Like Cowboy Bebop, it was not wildly popular in Japan.
It's not difficult to imagine why newly minted Studio Bones might think it was a good idea to capitalize on Cowboy Bebop's international, if not domestic interest with 1998's Knockin' on Heaven's Door.
Madhouse on the other hand had been around since a bunch of veterans of Osamu Tezuka's Mushi-pro, including Masao Maruyama, Osamu Dezaki, Rintaro, and Yoshiaki Kawajiri founded the studio in 1972. Laudably, Madhouse has mixed more commercially reliable projects (CLAMP adaptations), with more creatively ambitious ones (the Satoshi Kon and Mamoru Hosoda movies). The latter haven't always been great box office/home video sales return on investments (see the anemic box office take of the fantastic Redline or the sub-500 sales numbers for the first volume of Kaiba). So, while Madhouse has been robust in terms work quality, they aren't exactly a financial juggernaut.
As such, it's easy to imagine Madhouse keeping the idea of a Trigun movie in their back pocket for a time when director Satoshi Nishimura was available and some international sales would be welcome.
Fortunately, Trigun manages to come off the shelf without too much dust clinging on.
I'll grumble that a few aspects didn't deliver what I thought they could or what I wanted them to. For example, especially with Knockin' on Heaven's Door's classic, music video evocative opening in mind, and even Trigun's own fairly memorable opening (and memorable not just because of the controversy regarding how it was handled in the anime's initial release), I was expecting a jazzy title sequence. The extended cold opening only stoked the anticipation. A logo, followed by voice over accompanying a dramatic pose of Vash the Stamped, duster billowing in the wind had me thinking "wow, I sure you could have thought of something better during the last decade."
There were a few other cases in which the handling of fanservice was oddly indifferent. However, those underwhelming bits stand out as complains it what was ultimately as good a Trigun movie as you were ever going to get.
Quibbles aside, Badlands Rumble competently delivers what you'd want from a Trigun movie.
While not terribly artful, there were bits that embraced the opportunity to reanimate these characters with real zeal. And, even in the stretches that weren't so inspired, it didn't feel like the product of jobsworth drudgery or a desiccated for-geeks-by-geeks churn. There is little to suggest that this was some dream product that Nishimura was itching to get back to, but alternatively, it's not momma bird Madhouse regurgitating some meal out of obligation.
The cover of the first volume of the Trigun manga promised "Deep Space Planet Future Gun Action," and featured a blonde standing on end Guile/Super Saiyan hair, a loud, red over coat, one hand holding an extended pistol, pinky jutting out, the other, with arm in a Tetsuya Nomura mummy wrapping of belts and buckles, holding a hand up for some Hirohiko Araki vogueing.
The pitch for Trigun is a gang of ruffians, bulked up to Fist of the North Star sci-fi wasteland proportions, blow into town and begin pointing firearms and mean-mugging the locals. The buffoonish man-in-red intervenes and, while dodging bullets with super-human agility, he clowns the ruffians, and despite causing immense damage, somehow ensures no one is killed.
It's a concept tailor made for anime. Think of Gurren Lagann, or, if you've caught the buzz, Red Line. A visually distinctive genre is appropriated and amplified in speed and magnitude to the point where the inflated scale finds new attention drawing gravity.
The makers of Badlands Rumble seem to have studied westerns from spaghetti to more recent action movies that have borrowed from the tradition, such as Robert Rodriguez's Mariachi trilogy. You can be a fan of the genre and appreciate the tips of the hat or not, because it doesn't seem like the production was aiming to stand on the shoulder of a larger cinema context so much as spring board off of it. The series goes for the anime/manga inflated extension by playing off the notion that hero Vash the Stamped is determined to ensure that absolutely no one dies in the shoot out. And, the movie goes especially all out with the premise that he's watching everyone's back. A bar room brawl, in which a couple dozen of Trigun's answer to colorful catena baddies wrestling each other in a crazed melee, inevitably ticking down to someone drawing a gun, and an anarchic invasion, in which a horde of hired guns overrun a town trying to get at the movie's antagonist demonstrate how Trigun builds to its high points by leaping from western tropes by find new velocity in Vash's manic, skittering, flailing guardian angel efforts.
Those sensational action scenes are requisite for a solid Trigun outing. Boasting that, a merely good enough story is definitely good enough. The narrative here is patently predictable, but, not being entirely devoid of heart, it does almost become endearing. The B story finds a way to diminish itself that is weird enough to be almost perplexing, and thereby be interesting in its own off kilter right.
Though no one on this production team thought up a genius idea for a Trigun movie over the last decade, the Madhouse folks did key an eye on Trigun's key fulcrum point. The minor extent to which the movie is emotionally resonant and the major extent to which it is visually bombastic work from an understanding that Vash's dedication to seeing that no one is kill to be used for leverage.
With that knowlege of how to play its hero's dedication to preserves all lives within his reach, Badlands Rumble builds drama out of the moral implications of preserving the lives of malefactors. And, while the woes of a non-lethal protector are wearingly far from unique to Vash the stampede, far from constraining the action, it super charges it. Especially in this case, the physical escapades of trying to save everyone as bullets fly drives most of the movie's best action sequences. Holding onto that premise, Madhouse manage a narrative that is less than classic, but more than flimsy chewed gum and toothpicks holding together than spectacle and fanservice.
That self-understanding extends to the supporting cast, which the movie is able to sell quickly in a way that can both be appreciated by new comers and service fans.
Buddy/rival Nicholas D. Wolfwood gets a good sized role in the movie, in which the preacher gunslinger gets to unload with his giant cross/gun and gets to be a buddy and a rival. One of the movie's visual high points is the really impressive particle effects as he takes cover behind his cross-gun in the face of a maelstrom of bullets.
"Derringer" Meryl Stryfe and the Fafhrd to her Gray Mouser "Stun Gun" Milly Thompson show up on Bernardelli Insurance Society claims agent business. Meryl frets. Milly drops her imposingly large bolt thrower menacing as she innocently "oops"es. The pair gets to play out their routine with Vash for a bit and even do some drinking.
The movie's newcomers are appropriately Triguned versions of genre figures. There's Gasback, a super-villain version of a gray coat with a hulking physique and bolts on his shoulders, who rolls dice and talks about life's zero sum game has he makes his mark with grand heists. And, there's Amelia, somewhat oddly both skittish and confident, making her way among the bounty hunters swarming after Gasback, clearly, even before it's articulated questing for vengeance.
Even as one-offs, Gasback and Amelie feel as native as any character it the movie. They're given enough motivation and complexity to be as rounded as any Trigun characters. More importantly, they're visually interesting.
Looking the part is key for Trigun. Until it broke, I used a keychain of Trigun's Meryl, and like the keychain of Durarara's Celty that I currently use, it's not because I have some notable affection for the character. Though they might not stack up with Trigun's Big Four, Gasback and Amelia certainly aren't boring to look at. To an extent even greater than most comparable characters, Vash's abilities are on a different plane than just about any other character in his universe. Still Gasback's presentation is enough to foster interest in seeing what would happen and he and Vash throw down.
Almost uniquely among popular action anime, being a one off isn't a liability for Trigun. The over arching storyline never appeared to be a fan favorite element of the series. In the case of the anime TV series, time spent with the characters trumped the big conflicts and as such wasn't an anime series that picked up the usual dichotomy of main storyline versus "filler." While there were still significant continuity advancements , an exercise like Badlands Rumble is apt to be compared with the specific confrontations along the road and not some cumulative freight train narrative.
Vash's origin story plays into the explanation of the unique look and feel of Trigun. It factors into why the desert towns are built around giant, light bulb shaped energy generating "plants," which in turn get employed the stage the movies set pieces, such as its plant heist or even the visually impressive mass-migration sand steamer. However, few will complain that Vash's a shade weird back-story doesn't factor into the movie, even if that means despite being otherwise accessible, a Trigun newcomer is likely to come away wondering "what's the deal with this Vash guy anyways."
Trigun: Badlands Rumble is anime produced for an international audience, and these days, don't let the "Cool Japan" chatter fool you, there aren't many of those being produced unless they're tied to a toy/game/multi-media channel franchise. Also, even if it's not a Hayao Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon or Mamoru Hosoda work, it's still a movie, and really, there are never that many of those being produced. As such, the quality of animation is a grade above most anime you see and liable to be at least mildly interesting to many North American genre fans. And if the latter isn't the case, the former is certainly capable of convincing the disclined to give it a chance. Even if it doesn't transcend, with these two factors in mind, Trigun Badlands Rumble is special.