As I continue to watch Gun X Sword I’m struck by several things. Firstly it does not get significantly less uneven in quality. Secondly, the El Dora V episode feels even by the halfway point like a weird anomaly of sincerity – although other episodes, in their own ways, hit equally weird and interesting concepts. Thirdly it is a series that has an unbelievably strong villain even before he actually does anything.
One thing you might have heard about Gun X Sword is that it is a series that presents vengeance as a good thing, a necessary kind of catharsis and the only solution to some wrongs. This isn’t quite right. It doesn’t condemn seeking vengeance but I don’t really think it actively endorses it without some cheating of definitions. At each individual stage of logic, Van killing The Claw is a pretty good thing. He is clearly not in a position where standard judicial methods will bring him to task for killing the women he killed. He has an exceptionally dubious plan to take over the world that needs stopping. And so his death at the hands of the two men he wronged most is simultaneously catharsis for them, justice for his victims and salvation for the world.
But what does this mean, and why is it not good vengeance? Well, the net good that comes from killing The Claw is he isn’t taking over the world. And that’s very much not the sort of thing Van cares much about given for most of the series he can’t be bothered to stop people like Bucci and generally is prepared to let anything happen around him. He is not someone motivated, for a very long time, by justice as a concept. Whether or not The Claw was just a random opportunist murderer or the leader of a doomsday cult, he would want to kill him. That is the vengeance aspect, and the series’ handling of that is significantly more nuanced than you would think given it tends to mostly put the usual explorations of the morality of the avenger in the mouths of villains.
The people who come out with the phrases along the lines of an eye for an eye leaves the world blind or how if you seek vengeance you will need two coffins are associates of The Claw, villains who themselves hold reprehensible positions and ill-gotten power. It would be very easy to see a series that puts challenges to the morality of vengeance into the mouths of villains as implicitly saying vengeance isn’t a bad thing. Except they aren’t actually wrong, and the conflict of the series ends up not really being about vengeance. Whatever Van’s motives, he is doing a good thing unintentionally by fighting a greater evil. The episode on the island resort sums this up best, early on – but the later episode when Ray finally gets his shot at vengeance only for his brother to intercede brings matters to a head. What Joshua does is, generally speaking, the right thing. He stops his brother killing someone for no reason other than personal catharsis because at this point in the series nobody really understands The Claw’s plan. It seems naïve and frustrating and like it directly leads to a whole lot of problems down the line, but that is a very shrewd use of limited or unreliable information.
It’s certainly a more interesting take on the ends justifying the means than you might expect from a series that’s full of very stupid puns and jokes. And it only works because you have a hero who is simultaneously completely apathetic and driven by personal grudges. In other episodes Van barely fights his foes, or if he does go all out it simply ends with them escaping in comedic fashion. Any good he does is purely unintentional or out of necessity, and it’s important to remember what this is impressing upon the viewer. He’s not a good person. He’s a funny layabout with a cool robot who can be pressed into doing the right thing eventually, and he’s been wronged, but he still isn’t actually a particularly good person.
And I think Gun X Sword, in its depiction of him, goes a lot further to show how bad vengeance is as a concept. Vengeance is the only thing that will make Van happy, and he is allowed to get it because he is too thick-skinned, too deeply in grief, to be talked out of it. But at the same time this all comes at a result of his making a lot of people worried and unhappy, very nearly doing some reprehensible things except he is too apathetic to even commit to that (as in Priscilla’s debut episode), and leaving a lot of destruction alongside the incidental good.
A common feature of the idiot slacker comedy anime (and more broadly, I think, other comedy which focuses on not good people) is any good done is achieved blithely from the surrounding chaos, and the chaos is played for laughs. This comes from having the agent of chaos be one of stupid, naïve or actually incredibly clever but simply bad at dealing with people. Gun X Sword does it by having the agent of chaos be simply extremely angry all the time, singular in rage. Anything that occurs in the meantime, good or bad – be it dealing with the town of twins, dealing with the salvagers or the railwaymen or anything else – is triggered either because he wanders into the situation, or he is driven to rage by his quest for vengeance.
But how does this all end up with a series that suggests vengeance isn’t bad? Well a lot of it is that the pursuit of vengeance for one crime provides proof of the others (which means the good thing isn’t the vengeance itself by the fact that someone has dealt, however they are motivated, with a villain). And the rest is that the vengeance succeeds with no catches or tricks. The Claw must die. And he does. But that isn’t endorsing anything. It’s showing how in this strange and convoluted and chaotic series of events one man’s quest for vengeance has achieved a far greater good and given him some catharsis. Vengeance as a concept isn’t being evaluated here. One man’s actions are being shown to have achieved some good one time. And it is only achieved with the help of a lot of people whose motivations are much more heroic. The El Dorado team are every inch superheroes. Priscilla is a good-hearted woman who looks after children. Wendy is an innocent who sees the good in people.
Vengeance can’t be achieved alone. It isn’t intrinsically good or bad, it sometimes helps and sometimes – when all other avenues are non-existent – is the only way to salvage a poor situation.I think a good companion mecha anime to watch to Gun X Sword is probably Xabungle, which (aside from simple aesthetic considerations) begins with a spirited pilot setting off to avenge a murder even when everything in society says he shouldn’t. And in both situations this act of pursuit kicks off a whole lot of things that happen until eventually society is shaken. Why not throw in Reconguista in G too? That starts with someone doing something ill-advised with a robot and ends up with an interplanetary war that, despite nobody really knowing what they’re doing, achieves some good in the midst of the chaos and personal rivalries.
I’m still not even sure, rewatching Gun X Sword and laughing a whole lot at its daftness, it’s even as good a show as I remembered on an episode-by-episode basis. I’d be more hesitant to recommend it because it remains loud and stupid and abrasive for all its moments of extremely good and sincere dialogue and nuance. But on the other hand I’m thinking about it a hell of a lot for a stupid pun-driven comedy, and it’s making me think a bit more about all the other mecha anime I’ve watched.