Yasuhiro Nightow’s series Trigun covers a lot of topics spanning from the morality of man to the effects of abuse all the way back to environmentalism. However, speaking as someone who’s only watched the anime the whole way through—I’ve read some of the manga, but not all of Maximum—I’ve now realized how much the anime series lost compared to its manga counterpart. There’s only so much you can fit into twenty six episodes, but unfortunately the shortness led to the trivialization of one of the most important species of the show, the Plants.
As far as intergalactic spaghetti westerns go, Plants are the closest thing Trigun gets to magic. And while the reality is that humans had a hand in creating them, the anime never got that far into explaining them. They were just there on planet Gunsmoke, as natural as the dust beneath your boot. Putting outside (aka: manga) knowledge aside, the anime presents the Plants as these ephemeral, pale women who live their lives in gigantic light bulbs. Their purpose: to provide power to the cities of Gunsmoke. Not military or physical power, mind you; mechanical power and electrical power. Planet Gunsmoke is a planet with very little natural resources, and even fewer sustainable natural resources—except for a few locations, there is no greenery on the planet, and water is extremely scarce. Plants provide both the means to facilitate electricity and other aspects to boost technology, as well as allowing the land around to thrive with things like water and plants. As to be expected, Plants are vital to the survival of larger settlements on Gunsmoke.
More interestingly, in the anime it seems as though the Plants need essentially nothing to survive. They’re kept in their lightbulbs with people going in for what I can assume are maintenance checks every once in awhile, but outside of that, who knows. The only interaction shown with the Plants is when Vash speaks with them when they start “malfunctioning”. In the entire series, Vash is the only one who treats them like people, which makes sense because Vash is a Plant too.
This is where a lot of my problems with the anime portrayal of Plants come in. Vash and his brother Knives (protagonist… kind of… and antagonist respectively) are both Plants; however they’re unlike the other Plants in that they have free will and can work autonomously outside of the containment of the light bulbs. Also, they’re dudes. Every single other Plant in the anime is a woman (or at least is addressed as a woman), and this also seems to denote what Plant powers they have. While the lady Plants have all those environment stabilizing powers, Vash and Knives have powers that grant them, well, actual physical power. They have superhuman speed and intelligence, as well as having the ability to form something called an “angel arm”.
Another huge difference between the brothers and the other Plants is that the brothers are found in space as opposed to… not found in space. The anime doesn’t even offer a glimpse at where the lady Plants could have come from, or why they all ended up in captivity. Since in the anime we don’t have the information that Plants are tied to the genetic experimentation of humans, they’re just… there. And as such, while the lady Plants arguably have a more important power, the entire power/agency distribution comes off as a bit sexist.
In the manga (apparently) Vash and Knives end up not being the only Plants who have free will; in fact, the other two autonomous Plants who are introduced are both women. Yet anime viewers don’t get to meet them because that arc is completely ignored for the sake of succinctness. It’s this same succinctness that ends up downplaying the actual importance—plot-wise and universe-wise—of the Plants outside of Vash and Knives. Trigun’s anime would essentially be the same if there were no Plants and the brothers just happened to be, let’s say, genetically modified assassins. Since viewers don’t get to see the Plants actually do anything, it’s hard to accept them as important, and thus the magic they’re given becomes nullified—obsolete, even, which is unfortunate when that power is basically one of the only things allowing the continued thriving of the human race.
In terms of the manga, it’s also the Plants who inadvertently bring near destruction to the human race as well. It’s Knives who decides to get rid of humanity, his belief that humans are nothing more than parasites solidified with the continued abuse of his kinsfolk. In the anime, it’s alluded that both Vash and Knives are abused by one member of the crew of the ship they were taken onto. However, in the manga while the brothers are still abused, it’s not until they both witness the treatment of another Plant—the cruel experiments performed on her and how she died, alone and ill—that Knives is convinced that humanity doesn’t deserve to prosper. So whereas in the manga Knives uses his power both to cause destruction and bring some form of justice, in the anime Knives comes off as traumatized, but also unjustified, in his thought process.
While it’s understandable why the anime series didn’t get to have the same explanation that the manga did—the anime came out in 1998 while Maximum didn’t finish publication until ten years later—the handling of the Plants could have been done with a bit more finesse. It’s a shame that Nightow said that Trigun will not get a re-release (like Full Metal Alchemist did with Brotherhood) since I’m almost certain that would alleviate most of my qualms, but at least a more accurate representation of the powers and consequences of Plants can be explored in the later volumes of the manga. Unfortunately, the anime will have to remain as it is: a work that practically ignores one of its most interesting aspects.