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Original Tumblr Post: Justice, Punishment, and Mercy
Justice, Punishment, and Mercy
Trigun Maximum Volume 9, Chapter 5: Demon and Chapter 6: Fortitude really hit the whole justice, punishment, and mercy themes hard. I guess it’s kind of inevitable when you have a religious cult who sees justice as something that’s primarily meted out via “punishment” at the end of a barrel of a huge-ass gun.
The whole discussion on these three items is continuous throughout the story, but at this part it’s very much focused on the conflict between Wolfwood and Chapel. Or, perhaps, between the teachings Wolfwood received from Chapel and the outlook he’s gained from Vash.
It seems like Wolfwood’s idea of justice is and has always been different than Chapel’s, but Chapel did his best to beat that out of Wolfwood over the years. He wanted Wolfwood to be the perfect assassin, to sever all ties and to kill for the cause without thought or hesitation. It must have taken to some degree, since we still have this scene way back at the beginning of TriMax.
This is the first time Wolfwood goes into battle alongside Vash, and Vash’s suggestion that they should try to get through this without killing anyone takes Wolfwood completely by surprise. (In the ’98 anime, the subtitles translate Wolfwood’s response as, “Don’t ask for the impossible!” while the dubs have him say, “Why don’t you just ask me not to breathe?”) Nonetheless, he does his best. We don’t see him take anyone else out until Rai-Dei, and he gets an earful from Vash for doing that.
In fact, it seems like after Vash first repremands him, the only people Wolfwood still goes after with intention to kill are the other Gung-Ho Guns. Even at this point in the story where he’s coming after Chapel and Livio, he’s done his best to spare all the mercs, with the only casualties being caused by Livio and by the mercs themselves.
And Wolfwood, like Vash did with him, reprimands Livio for the kill he makes.
At this point, Wolfwood’s not simply trying to be merciful (if one defines Vash’s philosophy as mercy… which seems to be Nightow’s intent despite the room for debate on, say, whether all the people Vash injures actually make a decent recovery). Rather, Wolfwood has moved on to preaching it to others he cares about.
And what does that get him? Oh, right. It gets him beat into a pulp by Razlo, with Chapel looming over him, ready to end his life. For justice.
Chapel takes one look at Wolfwood’s sorry state and decides to chastise him, to remind Wolfwood that he is a failure and a disappointment, and it is for those reasons that Wolfwood will die.
The thing is… if Wolfwood dies because he refuses to kill Livio/Razlo, I don’t think it would be reasonable to say he failed or made a “wrong” choice choice. The moral perspective here is muddy; one person might find Wolfwood’s lack of self-preservation morally repugnant despite any attachment Wolfwood might feel to his murderous opponent, but that’s not going to be the universal experience. But to label it failure, a sin…?
**Minor spoilers for Attack on Titan ahead; skip a few paragraphs if you want to avoid them.**
I’m reminded of a conversation from Attack on Titan where Captain Levi was debriefing some Scouts after they found themselves in a life-or-death situation against humans rather than titans. Levi had given them all orders to kill since it was a bit of a kill-or-be-killed situation. But this isn’t what they signed up for, and one of the Scouts can’t bring themselves to take a life when faced with a human enemy.
This hesitating Scout apologizes profusely to Levi for their hesitancy and disobedience. Levi is quick to turn their apology away, not because “it all turned out alright in the end” or “at least you made it through” or any other common platitude, but because he notes his own moral system isn’t what any of the other Scouts should base their own moral systems on.
Levi straight up admits he has no idea what the “right” choice was in that scenario. He knows what choice he personally would make, but readily admits that maybe for the hesitating Scout, the “right” choice would always be to refuse to kill, even if it cost the Scout their own life.
**End Minor Attack on Titan Spoilers**
Neither killing nor refusing to kill is necessarily morally superior here.
Chapel treating Wolfwood like his mercy is a flaw is… well, more indicative of the kind of person Chapel is than anything else. Chapel sees mercy as hesitancy and hesitancy as weakness; even if the opponent is fully incapacitated, the merciful person has hesitated to kill, and that might very well lead not only to their own doom, but to failure of their mission. Since the mission is defined as just by nature of it being from the Eye of Michael, then such a failure is shameful and entirely unacceptable, a betrayal of the righteous cause.
In Chapel’s eyes, Wolfwood has failed the cause over and over and over again, even going so far as to fail right in front of him when he refuses to kill the mercs and Livio. For these failures, Chapel thinks Wolfwood should pay.
But Chapel’s not so blind he doesn’t recognize Vash’s influence in this. He sees Vash as having turned Wolfwood from a simple traitor to Eye of Michael to someone who would risk their own life to spare another, and his anger that Vash would further “corrupt” his pupil is palpable in the way Nightow frames his dialog.
But, for Wolfwood, it was never just about Vash.
Wolfwood may have been assigned by Knives to escort Vash, but chose to follow Vash in more than just a physical sense. He didn’t decide this easily or blindly. He knew the risks, not just from Chapel’s teachings, but from his own experience.
But Wolfwood has always been a protector.
Chapel may have tried to run that out of him, to make the thing that Wolfwood “protects” be the Cause over everything else, but he failed. Wolfwood attacked and tried to kill Chapel to protect the orphanage before he ever met Vash. Nothing Chapel or even Knives could do would stop Wolfwood from wanting to prevent any dangers that might come to the orphanage and all those who belonged to it… including Livio, who disappeared from the orphanage before Wolfwood was recruited to Eye of Michael and who has forced him into a position of kill or be killed.
When Wolfwood shoots Livio through the heart, he begs him not to die. I think even without Vash’s influence, Wolfwood would have wanted to show Livio mercy. If Livio didn’t get back up from that wound, Wolfwood would have never let go of his guilt over pulling the trigger. Which would have suited Chapel just fine; it would have just been one more deserved punishment for Wolfwood.
And without Vash’s influence, it’s entirely possible Wolfwood would have just accepted that punishment, added the guilt of Livio’s death to all the guilt he already feels for all the lives he’s taken.
Over their time together, Vash has shown Wolfwood not only that even when pulling a trigger, Wolfwood can be merciful, but also that Wolfwood himself deserves a measure of mercy. Nightow once said of the Punisher in an interview, “But who’s being punished?” With each life he takes, Wolfwood punishes himself a bit more, but in working with Vash, he’s slowly, painfully, gradually learned that maybe… just maybe… he doesn’t have to.
Maybe Wolfwood should be merciful to himself.
The final chapter of Volume 9 ends with Wolfwood trying to pull himself to his feet, not done with the battle yet despite all odds, but even if dies here, we’re shown that his regret will not be that he hadn’t killed Livo, but that he hadn’t saved him.
He probably wouldn’t even be so concerned with killing Chapel if he could see a way forward that prevented Chapel from preying on the children in the orphanage. His motivation in taking Chapel’s life at this point isn’t revenge or even justice. It’s simply a matter of protecting that which he holds dear. And because Chapel has no mercy for the children of the orphanage, Wolfwood has no mercy for him.
How ironic that this one time that Wolfwood goes with a calm heart to administer the kind of “justice” the Eye of Michael has instilled in him, it’s not in the name of their cause, but in the name of following those ideals he’s had since he was just a kid. For once, he would kill without fear or regret, not for the Order, but so he can protect those he loves.
Chapel tries one final time to pound into him all the ways Wolfwood has become a worthless, sullied sinner who won’t find redemption even in death, but Wolfwood’s having none of it. Despite everything Wolfwood’s done, he’s come to an understanding and a peace with himself. Chapel’s words, meant to hurt and drag down, only fuel his resolve.
Wolfwood’s chosen his path. He’ll follow what he learned from Vash because regardless of how difficult the path is, it’s the path he wants for himself, has always wanted for himself. He won’t let his past failures be an excuse to turn from it.