Title: Gunslinger Girl
Length: 13 Episodes (approx 25 mins each)
MPAA Rating: M
My Rating: 5/5
The Social Welfare Agency has a secret. On the surface it ostensibly takes children on the verge of death and, using cutting-edge technology, returns them to health. In reality it is a shadowy government agency that gives these young girls mechanical bodies and turns them into assassins taking care of the state’s dirty business. Enter Henrietta, Triela, Rico, Angelica, Claes and Elsa- six of the agency’s ‘cyborgs’- girls with mechanical bodies, but the hearts and minds of adolescent children.
The melding of machine and human is a staple theme in anime- so prevelant I’m sure numerous PhDs have been written on the subject, investigating what this fascination says about undercurrents in Japanese society. Whether a fascination with technology, a reflection of the mechanical drudge of urban existence, or a search for a flawed and living soul beneath a pristine facade, I don’t know. At any rate, it manifests itself in a plethora of ways. There are the mecha shows like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Full Metal Panic (to name a commercial couple) which place a human inside a near-living mechanical robot; Lain and the .hack franchise which look at the interplay between humans and the technological nexus of the internet; and, the closest cousin to the Gunslinger Girl storyline, the famous Ghost in the Shell, wherein a woman embodies the body of a robot.
I confess I picked up Gunslinger Girl with some trepidation. On the cover is a picture of a prepubescent girl in what looks like a school uniform, pointing a SigSauer P239 semi-automatic pistol straight at the viewer. It looked to have the potential to be all kinds of wrong. I kept myself ready to stop the disc at any point through the first episode.
However I didn’t need to.
Far from being some schlocky, camped-up exploitation series about young girls with a bloodlust, Gunslinger Girl is altogether something different. In fact, in the vein of the very best war and action stories, it involves precious little action of any sort. Instead it is a carefully and subtley told multi-layered story about the nuances and ambiguities of the plot’s premise, punctuated by brief, stark and brutal moments of violence.
The storyline follows the stories of six girls, wound around a general arc of a series of missions that the Social Welfare Agency undertakes over the course of the series. The show pivots about the relationships between the girls and their handlers. Each girl, upon being ‘rescued’ by the agency, is ‘conditioned’ (an unexplained process by which they are brainwashed) and then given over to a handler to be trained and managed in the field. The conditioning causes the girls to be devoted to their handlers, and this is reflected in a variety of ways through the different personalities of the six girls, and their various responses of the six handlers. While the girls express a range of devotion, affection, love and even obsession towards their handlers, this is not returned in kind by their handlers. While some show care and affection in return, others are cold, detatched or even cruel. Herein lies the central dilemma of the series: to the handlers, the girls are robots used to kill enemies of the state, whereas in fact they retain many of the emotions and sensibilities of children.
The series explores this dilemma through the six relationships and through the events and missions that occur over the course of the thirteen episodes- but the storytelling is beautifully done. The action sequences, while relevant, fall in as backdrops to the essential character development taking place, and each one has a purpose.
At the same time, the show explores the moral ambiguities of the premise. At a micro-level, the way in which the handlers treat the girls. At a meso-level, the contradiction between the agency saving these girls from certain death, but then turning them in turn into killers. And at the macro-level, the moral issues around a state agency dealing death to its opponents- at times terrorists, at times its own politicians and agents.
The beauty of the storytelling is the subtlety. At no time does the storytelling rub your noses in the ambiguities its raising. The implication from very early in the series is the greying of the line between good and bad: the girls are the heroines of the story, and every one of them is sympathetic, but their actions are frequently questionable. Nowhere is the question overtly asked, ‘is the Social Welfare Agency just another terrorist organization?’, and yet it is written across the whole series in dark undertones.
Likewise, as observed elsewhere in my reviews (and among the things that I love), the characterisation is beautiful. Each of the girls, and each of the handlers, has their own personality, and each is well played out in script, in plot, and in voice acting. And the differences are subtle. None of the girls fit the regular anime stereotypes, and there is no need to rush to extremes like many lesser series feel the need to do to add diversity. As characters, each of the girls is entirely believable as an adolescent child, captured in both the characterisation and animation.
To each of the girls is an undercurrent of melancholy or darkness, but which they hide behind a veneer- and in each case both the melancholy and the veneer is painted in thoughtful shades. You quickly sympathise with them as characters (essential, given the deeds they commit, and the amorality with which they commit them)- and indeed your heart feels for them when they face their various crises. The story is heavy in pathos, but it’s beautifully done. The interplay between sensitivity and brutality is exceptionally managed.
The artwork in Gunslinger Girl is a treat. The characterisation is well done, the animation fluid and sharp. The animators have shied away from over-cutifying the girls (although they are still done to a type), and the expressions are carefully and thoughtfully brought to life to add depth to what is often a sparse dialogue. The action sequences are excellent. They happen quickly and violently, often just a few seconds per episode. They are fast, brutal, and you really get a feel for the intensity of the events. Best of all are the settings. The series is set in Italy, and the team have gone to painstaking lengths to recreate the locations, with muted, believable tones and great plays of light to add a sense of realism to the scenes. There is a classical, almost historical sense to the entire show, added to by the attractive score consisting primarily of haunting violin and piano pieces. And while on the subject of audio- the gunshot sampling is awesome.
I’ve called this an action/drama, and it really does straddle the line here. On the one hand, it’s far too slow-moving to be called an action show. While there is violence in pretty much every episode, in some cases it makes up just a few seconds of airtime. However it is so central to the plot and character development that there’s no way you could label this a simple drama. The main driver of the series, however, is character development, and the interaction between girl and handler- the so-called fratellos.
I love Gunslinger Girl, and have just completed watching it for the second time. In some ways I enjoyed it more the second time round, because my expectations were a little different. The first time I watched it I was looking for a butt-kicking action-romp, and what I found instead was a thought-provoking and emotionally-intelligent relational showcase, interspersed with pockets of intense and morally ambiguous violence. Everything about this show works great- the artwork, the characterisation, the storyline, the thought that goes into it; as a production, it is of the very highest quality and values. It also has what I’d consider to be the most realistic action sequences of any show I’ve watched (if you ignore the bit about girls with mechanical bodies and superhuman strength). This clearly isn’t a show for everybody- if you’re looking for non-stop action and fight-scenes, go elsewhere, and it is (as with most of the shows I like) somewhat sombre and moody. But it stands up alongside Noir as probably the best example of its genre out there. Highly recommended.
Gunslinger Girl is about a bunch of prepubescent girls who kill people. The violence is brief but moderately graphic- plenty of blood-splatter, although without nastiness. The killing, however, is morally ambiguous at best, and often overtly amoral (the girls, for example, enjoy killing at the behest of their handlers, are proud of it, and never demonstrate any remorse). As such it’s certainly a bit grey for younger viewers. The tone of the series is somewhat dark and frequently delves into emotionally sophisticated themes which kids aren’t going to appreciate. It also deals indirectly with sexual violence against children, and graphically with violence against children. It’s all in the title, really.