Gunslinger Girl
by Polly



WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW

I originally latched onto Gunslinger Girl back in 2005 and blurbed briefly about it as well on the mainpage. Has it really been four years since I got back into this hellish world again? Yeow... Anyway, this was during the period of time when I was getting right back into Japanese Cartoons after viewing Elfen Lied in its entirety and having enjoyed it. I don't exactly remember how I came to hear about this show, but it probably had something to do with the title jumping out at me. Coming fresh off a show like Elfen Lied, I guess it'd be fair to say I was ready for more violence, more forced drama, and some more violence. Pretty easy to see why the title might set off a few alarm bells for me now, yeah? This show, instead, ended up surprising me in a completely different way.

You see, I have a tendency to be a fan of the mindless. As if my love of Contra wasn't enough to prove that. Hell, you could take just about anything that might usually seem stale or boring and slap a gun on it or some explosions and you've got my attention for at least a little while.

Uh oh, I think my American is showing...

Anyway, check this out...



Let's have a look at Natsuhi here. She has no significance to Gunslinger Girl whatsoever, but let's have a look anyway, shall we? What impression do you get of her? Yeah? Like me, you probably get the feeling she's one of those prudish, up her own ass type people with enough sand in her vagina rebuild model replicas of Windsor Castle for days and days and days. Probably not anyone you wanna hang out with, right? Yeah, me neither.

Now, one quickie adjustment later...



Woah! What the hell just happened? You wanna hang out sometime, Natsuhi? Maybe get a drink and put a top to an alien invasion or two together? Clearly you see what I mean. Her Awesome Factor just shot through the roof as did her Interesting Factor. It's not true in all cases, but it can work. So, next time someone tells you that you're boring, go grab a gun and show 'em you know how to maximize your "Interesting Potential" just fine...

Back on track now... Gunslinger Girl is an entirely different experience than I had been expecting or hoping for. Though there's a healthy dose of action and violence, it pulls much more from the drama and slice of life styles while tugging firmly at your own moral strings with a somewhat challenging concept.

The story takes place in modern day Italy (which may be a sigh of relief to those who are feeling a bit Over Japan-ized) and centers on a secret government entity known as the Social Welfare Agency. To the outside world, it's just as it sounds: The Social Welfare Agency assists those in need of rehabilitation and prosthetic limbs. In actuality, that's a cover-up for the Agency's true role as a higly-funded counter-terrorist unit specializing in assassination and advanced cybernetics. The show's main focus is on Section 2 within the Agency. They get their hands dirty in a multitude of, perhaps, morally reprehensible ways.

Section 2 employs young girls as agents in the field. Young girls who are either terminally ill and signed away by their parents or are found to be victims of heinous crimes and on the brink of death are brought to Section 2 where they undergo complete cyberization. These new bodies grant them near-perfect health and the ability to perform superhuman feats of strength and accuracy, armed or unarmed. The cost these girls unwillingly pay for a new chance at life is brainwashing to forget who they were in their previous lives, the loss of their own personal freedoms, and an extremely shortened lifespan. Each girl is paired up with an adult male handler whom they are to devote themselves to protecting and assist in carrying out various missions, mostly involving assassination. The pairings are referred to as fratello which means "siblings". This is where the show gets its "moral edge," so to speak.

Each girl, though completely cyberized, retains their innocent looks and features. They talk and act just as you'd expect little girls to, but can switch to efficient little murder machines at the slightest provacation. It's an immensely dark premise that you really have to wonder about morally. Though the girls were all going to die had they not been cyberized, would dying have been better than forgetting who they ever were and being turned into what can essentially be considered the government's hunting dogs? Though the girls are sent on missions to hunt down and destroy terrorists hell-bent on splitting up Italy taking as many lives as possible, does the fact that they kill terrorists make it right? Probably not, but I found it to be a fascinating line to ride and made all the drama in the show even more compelling.

Another plus is that the show never takes that whole adult male handler + little girl thing in a direction that would completely ruin the show's credibility. Given that it's Japan making this (sorry guys) my fear when initially watching the show was that it would devolve into some loli fantasy nonsense. Thankfully, nobody in the show is sexualized at all in any fashion. The relationships between each fratello are almost always handled in a professional and straight-laced fashion. Each handler has their own way of dealing with their girl ranging from trying to give them as normal a life as possible to a strictly hands-off approach. This makes each relationship unique and interesting to see play out in the field and shapes each character accordingly.

A large percentage of the first season's episodes play out from the perspective of the Henrietta/Jose fratello. Henrietta is the Agency's newest recruit, after being "rescued" from witnessing the murder of her entire family and being badly assaulted herself and left for dead. The relationship between handler and girl in this fratello is the closest to resembling the word siblings. For reasons not explained in the show, Jose does his best to treat Henrietta like a normal girl, or at least as much as the job will allow, taking her on trips, giving rewards for good performances on missions, and doling out brotherly-type advice. Though Henrietta's attachment to Jose can feel a little creepy at times, (and she does basically admit to being in love with him) the awkwardness feels like a natural product of the show's premise and the wandering thoughts of a little girl with her first crush. Nothing disgusting here at all. Henrietta's emotional journey toward understanding and accepting herself and the inevitablity of her situation are a good deal of what helps the show thrive.

Almost the polar opposite of Jose and Henrietta are Jose's brother Jean and his girl Rico's relationship. Jean treats Rico as a mere tool of the trade and makes no effort to bond with her at all, and there's evidence he's not above knocking her around a bit if her training isn't up to par. Rico, along with winning the "cute as a button" award for the show, has another one of the more touching backstories in the series. Since birth, she'd been confined to a bed with an unknown illness until her parents simply signed her over to the Agency and left. Post-cyberization Rico doesn't ever see her job at the Agency as a burden, even when her handler treats her like crap. For some reason she retains the memories of her life before being turned into a cyborg, so with her new body she sees every day as a beautiful new ball of experiences and faces every challenge with an unshakable optimism. She may just be the most interesting character in the show just because everything about her is so messed up.

Triela, seeming the oldest of the girls, and her handler Hilshire share a more hands-off approach relationship. They work together very well, and Hilshire pretty much lets her act independantly as she's shown good enough judgement to do so. She acts as sort of a mother hen to the other girls, helping them along with various schooling and looking out for their general well-being. Among the girls she maintains the most care-free attitude and understands the role cyborgs play in the Agency probably more than anyone. Of all the characters, Triela is probably the most awesome to see in an action scene and damn if she didn't need more of them.

Up next is Claes. She doesn't get to play much of a role in the story and is given very little screentime compared to the other girls. Due to circumstances that occurred during her first few months at the Agency, she doesn't have a handler and is now used as a test subject for all the latest cybernetic upgrades and when the time calls for it, a decoy. She spends her time reading and planting a garden near the dormitory where the girls live. She's there mostly to deal out philosophical advice, do some gardening and make tea and cakes. Every show needs a character that everyone can go visit that makes tea and cakes, I guess. Though her situation is quite pitiable, she remains as positive as anyone could be, making her seem very lonely and aloof.

The last girl the show focuses on is Angelica. She was the first to undergo the cybernetics process after her parents deliberately tried to off her in a hit and run to collect on a big life insurance policy. As the show progresses she becomes the visual model for what a cyborg may go through toward the end of her lifecycle. Though she's clearly in terrible shape, she struggles daily to try and return to proper form seeking the praise of her handler Marco. It's clear she's looked on with great pity from those around her, making her place in the story a rather sad and lonely one. The time the show spends explaining her past with her handler and the creation of Section 2 offer some of the show's finer quiet moments and her story itself builds the final climax of the show which is handled in both dramatic and very tasteful fashion.

Those who go in expecting Gunslinger Girl to have an ongoing plot may feel a bit disappointed. Even I was at first. Though the common theme of combating terrorism is there in nearly every episode, the show chooses instead to focus more on one-shot stories until the last batch of episodes. Until that point, each episode will either be a mission with a plan then action or a quiet story that'll focus on the emotional plight of the characters or their pasts and how they deal with them. The one-off nature of the show makes a lot of characters simply feel like Meatsauce Terrorists only there to be killed, but there's still a few interesting folks that pop up every now and then (unfortunately you won't know much about them unless you're familiar with the manga). With the show's "story of the week" setup, I'd suggest watching this one in one or two episode chunks as opposed to full-on marathons. The only real kink in that formula happens early in the series when the second episode of the damn thing ends up being nearly ten minutes of recap from the first episode. I can't for the life of me figure out what they were thinking there. It's almost an immediate turn-off. Once the show's finished with one-shot episodes it closes out with two decently emotional stories involving the sudden murder of a fratello and how it impacts the other girls and their handlers and the ending arc focusing on Angelica's story.

Gunslinger Girl features what I believe to be a very unique and pleasing to the eyes and ears presentation. While most anime opts for very bright colors and character designs, Gunslinger Girl goes the complete opposite direction and uses very muted tones on the characters and backgrounds giving them all a more mature, kinda washed-out, and somewhat realistic look. Given the show's nature and subject matter, they couldn't have chosen a better way to handle it. The look gives the show more of a live-action TV drama or movie feel rather than a cartoon.

This look carries over into all the detail work that goes into creating Gunslinger Girl's world. Details, details, details. This series overall look is all about details. Whether it be the detailed beauty of the backgrounds of Italy, all of the various paintings and artwork presented, or the painstaking detail that went into creating weapons that looked and sounded just like their real world counterparts, it's hard not to be impressed with the lengths that Madhouse went to give this show just the right feeling and to make the setting entirely believable.

My guess is they were able to maintain the level of quality, because Gunslinger Girl ends up being a lot more talky-talky than shooty-shooty. But don't let that fool you. The action scenes that the show does love to explode with every now and again contain some fantastic animation that makes watching the girls do their thing highly exciting. Every gunshot or physical blow looks and sounds equally brutal and satisfying. That's not to say there's not some "animation wonk" here and there, but for the most part, the show keeps its visual appeal throughout.

In terms of sound, Gunslinger Girl does exactly what it needs to do. Given that it's more of a dialog-driven show there's not a whole lot of use for any kind of fancy 5.1 mixing or anything of the sort (though it does have one). The sound is exceptional when it does matter though, featuring an excellent Italian-flavored score for background music and as mentioned before, weapons and explosives sound authentic to their real world counterparts. The best point musically may be the show's opening theme "The Light Before We Land" by The Delgados. Along with the opening's visuals, the overall mood and lyrical themes of the song itself fit together so well, it'd be quite easy for someone to judge just from the opening animation the overall feel of the series. Another one of my favorite Japanese Cartoon openings ever.

I'm gonna go ahead and turn into a bit of a dub-promoting monster again and praise the cast of the English dub of Gunslinger Girl for doing an excellent job in their roles and directors for doing their jobs in getting the right people for the job and helping them turn out great performances. The main cast, all girls and handlers, are damn near perfect. You usually have a lot of inner-ear bleeding when grown women try to portray little girls, but the female cast here matches so well that I never once found myself changing over to the Japanese track. Going by the subtitles, the dub does tend to stray a bit too far with some of the lines intended meanings, but I think these extreme differences can still be overlooked as they rarely change the entire mood of a scene or the story.

Gunslinger Girl season one's biggest strength is just how well everything that makes up the show comes together. There may be no cohesive story, and all in all the whole thing can end up feeling like one gigantic thirteen episode introduction, but it's the presentation, drama, and moral ambiguity that make this show what it is. As a manga adaptation, the Japanese Cartoon manages to flesh out parts of the manga that either felt rushed or flimsy rather than omitting details for the sake of time constraints. It comes to a satisfying and emotional conclusion, but I'm gonna go ahead and tell ya now, if you're going to watch Il Teatrino and not want to throw a brick through the TV, you're going to have to let that feeling go and realize it could be interpreted a couple different ways and the manga's original storyline is what they went with in season 2, no matter what is implied here. Standing by itself, Gunslinger Girl season one is a good drama with great characters and a dark premise definitely worth checking out.






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