At first I thought this was just going to be another light weight, but good fun, action centric anime. However I was seriously wrong, this title is far more original and complex that I thought, and is sufficiently good that I'm seriously tempted to give it a top rating. This is a title worth seeing.
The story opens on a dry and empty land. People live here, but life is hard and the wilderness makes their tiny communities seem transient and insignificant. The atmosphere has the feeling of a dangerous frontier and is filled with echoes from the genre of the American Westerns. It's not exactly the same, for this society seems a bit artificial and there are still elements of high technology which stand out from the relatively primitive life they seem to lead. But the social atmosphere, the technology they can create and support themselves and the forces of law and order are all from a simpler and more deadly time. This is a land with desperado's, thieves, hoarders and manipulators who will look after their own desires even if it means hurting those people doing their best to live normal and happy human lives.
And the most feared individual in this land is the one known as Vash the Stampede. A man best known for having completely obliterated an entire city singlehandedly. A monster of a man with superhuman abilities, no fear or mercy, and an immense body-count behind him. We get to follow two females who have been sent on the somewhat hopeless, and definitely dangerous, quest to save their company. It seems they represent this worlds largest insurance company and have been charged with trying to convince Vash not to obliterate any more towns. Of course finding the truth about Vash, and even finding Vash himself, is proving difficult. On the other hand they do meet a rather strange, over energetic, guy in a long red coat...but the legend of Vash couldn't be quite this wrong could it?
Probably one of the worlds most non-specific synopsis ever written. And part of the reason for that is because this anime is one of the most fun trips I've ever taken. The story blossoms from a handful of characters, and a simple start, into a quite complex piece of work. And the risk of spoiling the thrill of discovery horrifies me.
It begins, largely, as a sort of wild west action comedy. We get to explore a couple of isolated stories in this partly familiar and partly strange world. We get to know the character of the two females, of some of the occupants of this world, and also the red coated gunmen they have met. The two women come to realise, even if he's not Vash, he has a surprising degree of fighting skill. He's also a bit strange, sometimes perceptive, sometimes dangerous and other times a big slightly comedic goof-ball. The question of what drives him becoming more interesting as the women start to know him better. It's fast, entertaining and a lot of fun.
And then it slowly changes. It seems Vash the stampede also has an enemy, one as powerful as he who has gathered some of the most dangerous and insane criminals of this world. And they are beginning to move against him, and indeed anyone who stands at his side or even in the general vicinity. While a great new character joins the group the tone becomes darker and more deadly and the encounters start to take more out of Vash, both in energy, health and even sanity. There's some impressive action, and some quite scary moments, to be had in this phase.
Finally, in yet another metamorphosis, it turns out that in fact the anime isn't so much about the physical conflict. Instead the story starts to delve into what has made Vash the way he is, the events in the past, the effects in the present and what it is that motivates him for the future. In a similar way the other characters, and even the villains, start to represent various personality archetypes and philosophical approaches to life and existence. The battle is as much within the minds, and allegiances, of the various players in what is still a deadly game. It's the sort of thing that media students could well have fun with. There's the feeling of rich sub-text, meaningful gestures and dialogue that means a lot more than is said. And along the way you realise you feel for the characters and are affected by what is happening to them.
What can I say, it's great stuff. I thought it was just going to be slightly comedic fun and never realised it would end up so serious or with so many memorable scenes. The world, characters and essence of the story grows strongly over the whole series to become an interesting and novel creation. As a character study, especially of the hero, it seems to invite you to explore the character as deeply as you want. Many of the words, and elements, don't seem to be deep but there is the feeling you are watching something with a lot hidden beneath the surface. It's incredibly well balanced, strongly directed and extremely memorable. And the supporting characters are wonderful both within themselves and as parts of a more complex pattern.
Of course if you just wanted a bit of action and comedy you might find the changeover unexpected and un-welcome. This becomes far more of a character piece, albeit with some good action, than the first episodes would ever lead you to suspect.
The production itself is somewhat interesting. It's not actually hugely impressive animation from a technical standpoint, but it's got a lot of style and character. Thus while the linework is sometimes a bit weak and the color a bit simple it's ultimately very fun to watch. The world starts to feel very real, the character art is occasionally quite wonderful and the action is intricate and incredibly entertaining. It must also be mentioned that Vash himself is a stand-out character, the way he moves is one thing but the way the whole `atmosphere' around the character can change in a nano-second is fantastic. A lot of credit for this must also be given to the voice actors, their's some huge work in here in addition to Vash's amazing performance. Back this up with some energetic and very fitting music, and a general degree of care being evident in the production, and you've got something very good. And unlike much animation stills will not bring it out, it seems so much richer when it's moving.