Trigun Stampede was always a tragedy. It just managed to momentarily trick us in that first episode. Vash’s story, his lack of bodily autonomy, his armor being gifts bestowed on him by human kindness, his love for humanity stemming from a need for atonement, and his century-long grief, it all resolves itself (for now) in “High Noon at July,” a visually devastating, and operatic season finale. Garishly grandiose, Trigun Stampede lays it all out bare as Vash’s hand is forced to violence in a confrontation of ruinous reckoning, having to unmake himself in a feat to regain physical and mental agency that his brother had come so close to stripping him of.
At the end of its season one finale, Trigun Stampede sets the stage for a follow-up while making it clear that this may have been more of a prequel to the main story all along. Perhaps, there’s a reason why this version of Vash was drawn softer this time around. Because despite the horrors he’s faced and the trouble that’s followed him, nothing quite obliterates hope like watching your sibling plummet and burn to nothing in a desperate chase for annihilation.
One has to wonder what version of Vash we’ll meet next and if his prior pacifism will have been shaken.
“High Noon at July” picks up immediately where the penultimate episode left off, with Knives seemingly won and Vash being completely taken over which has allowed Knives to pass through the gate into the higher dimension, planning to connect with the plant core in order to artificially impregnate all of the plants in order to create new independents. Once finished, he plans to wipe out all of humanity to create a new world in his image. Part of the brilliance in Knives’s characterization is how often at odds his ideals and actions are, made worse by the hint of truth in his accusations against humanity. He wants to save his brother from human error and believes plants are being used and abused against their will, yet subjects his brother to a similar fate, using him to try and manufacture life without his consent.
Vash awakens due to his warped memories and Meryl’s pleas, the roots folding back into the cube, becoming yet another would-be catastrophe that Vash plans on stopping by getting it as far away from the city as possible. One of the roots that had grown from him becomes a wing, of a pair with the one Knives produced from his own shoulder blade. In Knives’s eyes, they are two of a pair, angels who have fallen from heaven to build a bridge to another world, ushering in peace and tranquility for their kind. They’re mirrors of one another, but while Knives sees it as a means to unite, Vash is only given the stark reflection of how much his twin no longer resembles either him or the brother he once knew.
While it’s unsurprising that Vash was able to break free, the manner in which he did so and the fury that urges him straight into combat with Knives is staggering nonetheless. Not a single part of this fight is triumphant, and each frame aches with desperation. From the start, with Vash firing his gun, to the ending coda, where we learn 90% of the city’s population was killed and that Vash has been blamed, his bounty increased though it’s been two years since the city became a crater. Even still, the emotional wound delivered with brutal accuracy comes mid-ascent, as Vash cries out to his brother:
“Since when have we been so different?”
He pleads with Knives to see that they aren’t so different from humans; he seeks in their final flight to understand just how his brother could be in such opposition to the one he grew up with. Yoshitsugu Matsuoka delivers a tremendous performance this episode and has the entire season as we’ve gotten to see the ups and downs of this character as he’s shaken off, barreled through, or hardly weathered the weight he’s positioned on his shoulders. But the notes of despair he hits in Knives’s final moments, the determination that pierces through his voice, messy and jagged, as he vows that he’ll continue to run as humanity chases him until they forget his sins and he can peacefully stand beside them, fully embody what drives this character forward, to keep on running.
Directed by Kenji Muto, “High Noon at July” exemplifies a creative team firing on all cylinders, who even after demonstrating refined skill and detailed artistry in the previous eleven episodes, still manage to up the ante. From the roots that spool from Vash, signalling his transformation and undoing, his growth and decay as it overtakes July, the plant that looms over the city made in the likeness of his caretaker Rem, a symbol of destruction despite its extraterrestrial beauty, to the red geraniums that make their return this episode, symbolic of the protection of the naivety of youth, the visuals are breathtaking.
There are such Western influences in Trigun Stampede from the title of “High Noon” being incorporated in the title to the exploration of new frontiers and endless spaces of forgotten, and a decimated town filled with outlaws and misfits. It’s part of what makes the science-fiction and fantastical elements so effective, the dissonance of style coming together to create a picture larger than life with scenery that seems to reach beyond the plains of the frame. It’s endless, it’s tortuous, the heat comes rolling off the screen, and yet there’s beauty that’s found in each episode through the heightened elements.
The gravity-defying grace distilled into that final showdown between Vash and Knives, where their fight styles both balance one another and cancel the other out, makes for a balletic sequence, a crescendo that curls like the crest of a wave always on the very of breaking. Add to that an image of Knives as he burns to nothing, becoming completely unmade after he tried to remake Vash and caused by the same thing he used as a weapon and the result is visual poetry.
Trigun Stampede will continue, even if Vash seemingly has lost his memories. For now, we too are left in the wake of “High Noon at July,” a mournful, visual, epic that is one of the episodic highlights of 2023 so far. Orange has drawn its own impossible bar to scale – it’s certain though they’ll clear it.
Featured Image Courtesy of ORANGE / Hulu