Reviewby Theron Martin,
The Italian Social Welfare Agency professes to help abandoned and seriously ill or injured children, but that's just a cover for a secretive government program to transform preadolescent girls into assassins via cybernetic implants and extensive brainwashing and conditioning. These assassins are then used to combat Mafia and other underworld elements. Each girl is paired with an adult male handler to form a fratello, which roughly equates to the handler being the girl's older brother as well as supervisor, trainer, and field commander. In this volume the stories of four of the girls are examined: red-headed Henrietta, the short-haired blond Rico, pigtailed blond Triela, and bespectacled brunette Claes.
It's pretty clear what the creators of this series were trying to do: make a startling new variation on the “girls with guns” genre by treating that label literally. Take some young girls, dehumanize them through brainwashing, unspecified conditioning, and cybernetic enhancements, build up the action side by giving them lots of hardware to use, and then rehumanize them by playing up the cute and sympathy cards and showing how they're really still girls at heart despite everything that has been done to them. The result is one of the most conceptually repugnant anime series out there. Oh, this is hardly the first time that a series has turned a little girl into a merciless killer; Noir did it, and Excel Saga savagely parodied it, just to name a couple of cases. Unlike other series with a similar gimmick, Gunslinger Girls invokes an abusive and dirty feel about its treatment of its subjects—which may be the point, since some of the adults clearly feel that way about the circumstances of the girls, while others regard them as nothing more than expendable tools.
Each of the five episodes in this volume is a character study. The first episode, which more or less sets up the story, focuses on events from the point of view of Guise, Henrietta's handler, while the second episode looks at many of the same events from Henrietta's point of view. The latter three episodes profile the other three girls who have been introduced to date. So far there has been a complete lack of an ongoing plot through these episodes, as the time frame jumps around quite a bit. Given that this is only a 13-episode series, and one character is yet to be introduced and profiled, that likely means that this whole series is more a character study with some action scenes thrown in than the action-drama series it appears to be at first.
Key to the success of the series is its characterizations of its girls. All are conditioned to be obedient and submissive to their handlers and are extremely protective of them, to the point of dangerously overreacting to perceived threats. Beyond that, though, all have distinctive looks and personalities which have not been completely buried by their conditioning. Each girl also has a different background and way of looking at her situation. Henrietta, who barely survived the brutal abuse inflicted on her by the people who massacred her family, seems the quietest and most reserved, but she is also the most emotional. She, moreso than the others, looks to her handler Guise as a father figure and seeks emotional validation from him. She is also the most intense and extreme in her overreactions to perceived threats. Rico, who was born with crippling birth defects which left her permanently bedridden, revels in the freedom the mobility of her cybernetically-restored body gives her and loves her new life because of it. Not even the fact that her handler Jean treats her poorly can dampen her spirit. Triela, the oldest and seemingly longest-term member, may have been rescued from a child slavery ring though she cannot remember the details. She is so unsure of who and what she's supposed to be that she would prefer stronger conditioning so she doesn't have to think about it, though her handler is reluctant to do so. She is the most sympathetic and also the most temperamental of the lot. Claes, the bookworm, comes from an unknown background. She is strictly an in-house test subject because she currently lacks a handler and has been brainwashed to forget the one she had, but she seems fine on her own with her books. A fifth girl who is mentioned in the intro, Angelica, has yet to be introduced.
Action scenes exist in sufficient quantity in this volume to establish the status of the girls as skilled killers, and they are suitably intense, slick, bloody, and packed with conventional hardware. They are less the focus of the series than the girls themselves, though, so those expecting an action-intensive series may be disappointed. The animation supports these scenes reasonably well, bolstered in places by CGI effects and tricks of perspective to give a greater sense of motion without resorting to standard anime shortcuts. Movements outside of the action scenes sometimes seem a bit jerky, however. The level of detail on military hardware is impressive and convincing, especially one scene where every piece of a disassembled handgun is carefully laid out; the artists really did their homework on this one, since several different types of guns are used. Character designs for the girls are distinctive, detailed, and appealing, while those for male characters tend to be more generic and less refined (and there's one example of that stereotypical thick-lipped black thug design, which never works. Most anime artists just don't know how to draw black people). Background art is good, though integration between character and background art is imperfect. In keeping with the somber tone, the overall color scheme is very subdued. As a nice touch, the scenes introducing the characters in the opener are labeled with their names, making it easy to identify the characters right from the start.
The musical scoring is heavily based on operatic themes interspersed with piano-driven melodies, which have varying degrees of effectiveness but get better as the series progresses. The closer, which is set to limited artistry, continues the operatic theme, while the opener, “The Light Before We Land,” is sung in English and sounds a lot like something you might expect to be fronting a James Bond movie. The audio tracks include two separate English options: Stereo and 5.1 Dolby. This review is based on the latter format, which needs to be balanced better; it overemphasizes some sound effects (especially the sounds of doors opening) and underemphasizes the girls' voices at times.
Most of the performances on the English dub are pretty good. All of the girls are well-cast, with their voice actresses turning in appropriately understated performances. Laura Bailey in particular is effective as Henrietta, giving a performance so atypical for her that dub fans are unlikely to recognize her. (She normally does hard-edged, husky-voiced roles like Marlene in Blue Gender and Alv in Kiddy Grade, but sounds nothing like that here.) Most of the key male vocal parts are equally well-cast and well-performed, though supporting roles are weaker. Distinctly missing is any serious attempt at use of Italian accents, but that was also missing in the original Japanese vocal so the dub can hardly be criticized for that. The English script is another story, however. FUNimation has a well-established reputation for playing loose with translations for anime titles they “re-version,” and this one is no different. In numerous places the English script was completely rewritten when compared to the sub, resulting in some scenes which have substantially different meanings in Japanese and English. In at least one case copyright issues could be involved—a couple of references to the Seven Dwarves of Disney fame were completely written out of episode 4, for instance—but in others I could see no sensible reason for the changes. There are also at least two places in this block of episodes where dialogis added in for the English dub where none existed in the Japanese audio track; those scenes originally featured people talking but no words. FUNimation also undertakes the annoying practice of providing the exact English script when the subtitles are turned on while watching the English audio tracks, while the literal translation subtitles are shown when the subtitle option is turned on with the Japanese audio track.
In addition to trailers, extras on this volume include character profiles (“Dossiers”) and clean opener and closers (“Songs”). The most distinctive extra is the “Building Henrietta” piece, which goes through a step-by-step process for creating a digital picture of Henrietta in one of her action poses. The DVD case also includes some nice interior artwork featuring Henrietta, Triela, and Rico and a pamphlet containing extensive additional company previews and “coming soon” notices. FUNimation continues its favorable practice of using more chapter breaks than the norm for anime episodes, but this is balanced by some oddly inconsistent behavior in the English voice credits, where only the girls' roles have a character name matched to a voice actor even though some of the male parts have just as many lines in certain episodes—and Caitlin Glass, Triela's English VA, isn't credited at all in the episode which features Triela! As with FUNimation's past releases, viewers get the opening and closing credits in English with the dub on and in Japanese with the sub on, though a viewer can switch back and forth using the Angle button.
How much you like the first volume of Gunslinger Girls will depend heavily on how put off you are by what's being done to the girls. I had to watch it a second time to be desensitized enough to its implied and overt cruelty to give it a reasonably objective review. I am giving it overall positive ratings because it is a well-made series which does a very good job at establishing its characters. It can also invoke the kind of morbid fascination which makes rubbernecking (the practice of slowing down to get a good look at a roadside accident) so popular. Despite the favorable ratings, though, I cannot recommend the series. Anime is much-beloved outside of Japan for pushing the envelope on what is allowable in animation, but this series shows questionable judgment on its subject matter.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Distinctive girl characters, excellent detail on weaponry.
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