Reviewby Jacob Chapman, Aug 9th 2010
Gunslinger Girl: Il Teatrino
Life goes on as ever at the Social Welfare Agency, where little girls are trained to counteract terrorism against the Italian government. These enhanced cyborgs are created not to feel or to question, but they remain human, making their conditioning a dangerous balancing act kept in check by an adult male handler, who the girls project their feelings onto while blindly obeying their orders to kill.
Meanwhile, the Five Republics Faction, a coalition of nationalists, are plotting to change the nation through the bombing of the grand Messina bridge and the abduction of a few state figures should the explosion not make their message clear enough. Familiar antagonists Franco and Flanca are at the forefront of the scheme, along with the powerful executive Cristiano and his apprentice killer, Pinocchio. The troubled teen soon comes into conflict with Triela, a young assassin he shares more in common with than he can imagine.
It's no secret that Gunslinger Girl creator Yu Aida enjoys shocking people. While the manga-ka was marginally involved with the production of Madhouse's first season of Gunslinger Girl, he was given head writing detail when Artland took over for the second season and the narrative differences between these two seasons are almost more drastic than the visual ones. (Almost.)
Aida apparently decided he had wrung all the braintangle value out of the Social Welfare Agency's dealings. In Il Teatrino, he turns his tale around to focus on the terrorists. The Five Republics Faction are the real stars of this season, and most episodes spent with the girls feel like filler, composed of repeated emotions and conflicts from the first season, which we know will not change because that would bring the agency tumbling down and end the tale…well, things change somewhat. The girls' reactions to their lives as cyborgs do develop and the eerie implication that Henrietta sees Guise as more of a would-be boyfriend than a brother as she grows is a halting note to start the series on. She tells the viewers that they are close, but “not close enough to touch,” as she reaches for his hand sometimes but shrinks back before taking it, and snuggles up with his dress shirt in lieu of him one night. Disturbing? Yes, but only the kind of disturbing we've come to expect from Aida's unique story. Expanding it through the eyes of the Five Republics Faction was a stellar idea.
While the Social Welfare Agency is characterized as loyal to the state to the point of moral ambivalency, criminals like Flanca and Cristiano are passionate and principled, and it's impossible not to find them easier to root for, despite being more familiar with the girls on the opposite team. Dilemmas like Flanca's motivations in vengeance colliding with her rightist political views, Franco's somewhat lusty aims in choosing to get involved with her plot, and Pinocchio's need for a father figure dominating all his actions are the juice that continues to prove Gunslinger Girl is a strong, adult story that can explore complex issues without resorting to cheap tactics. It's hard to find one character to justify, much less an entire organization, and the moral ambiguity of the whole package makes for some superb writing as good or better than that of the first season.
The bad news is that the improvements in plotting and strong new characters are overshadowed by a more negative difference between the seasons: the 1st was slow, but the 2nd is boring. Boring, boring, boring, and the reason is clear: anime is not manga. Dramatic timing and shot composition do not factor into a comic the same way they do a filmed piece, and the minds trying to bridge the gap here lack imagination completely. Il Teatrino's writing is sharp, but its direction is limp, a field of talking heads interrupted by the odd sepia flashback or poorly animated fight scene. Cinematically, this is a whitewash of drawings that sit there uninspired, all lit and composed the same way. It's horribly dull, saved only by the complex conversations those talking heads share. The characters are probably more alive if you close your eyes as you listen to the story instead of staring at those flat, bored faces. Not a high compliment for an animated series though, is it?
Sadly, the visual differences are the main point of contention with this series. The animation takes an inescapable nosedive after changing studios, kicking off the first episode with car chases and fight scenes completely dominated by speedlines, and an incredibly long mob scene consisting only of shaken still frames. The Pinocchio/Triela fights are given a little more attention than the rest of the action, but this is still laughable animation compared to what we've come to expect from Gunslinger Girl. The art is simpler too, and not in a positive way, but in a flat, bland, more moe-fied incarnation that, by design, isn't capable of expressing the subtlety of emotion the previous art scheme could. It's a shame, but if viewers can get past these large devolutions, the narrative still holds strong.
Despite the grimace-worthy new art choices, the blu-ray transfer for this set is a far cry nicer on the eyes than for the first season. I would venture a guess that there were native HD masters available for Il Teatrino, given how clean, crisp, full and beautiful the video is here, but even if this reviewer's eyes have been tricked, there's not even a comparison between the DVD quality and the Blu-ray here. This certainly isn't an upscale, and if you're a Blu-ray enthusiast, getting this set over the DVD is a no-brainer. The mix is once again wicked rich, provided you have a good sound system to support it. (On older TVs, the gunshots are just plain loud, but on a good 5.1 setup, you may feel like ducking under a pillow when Rico points a gun at the screen.) The music is a slight step down from the first season's compositions, but still appropriate to the tone of the series. Claes' Scarborough Fair themes are certainly the highlight, in any case.
Vocally, the series has had a cast overhaul in Japanese, retaining none of the first season voices. The new seiyuu have more cutesy, flat performances to match the cuter, flatter faces, but aren't noticeably bad, just inferior to the more childlike, quiet performances in the first season. The dub retains its superb first season cast with the exception of Dameon Clarke, who has been replaced by J Michael Tatum as Hilshire, a significant replacement since Hilshire and Triela have a much larger part in this series than their peers. Sadly, extras are more lax here than on the first season's set: limited to clean themes and trailers, along with the two-episode OVA. This is odd considering the DVD release for Il Teatrino contained Japanese promos for the series and seiyuu interviews. Still, it didn't have the OVA, so maybe it's a fair tradeoff?
Il Teatrino is not without merit, and fans of the first series should absolutely give it a watch, but not even the improved storyline and breadth of intelligence in the writing can save an anime that's anything but animated. This is an inferior effort to what came before, and as it humanizes the good and bad alike in every character, the finale is perhaps the most shocking element in a show created to shock. The themes of humanity's need for love and acceptance taking precedence above all else veer off a dark road from the 1st season into a very black ocean where all assumptions of right and wrong diffuse into a cold, quiet mess when the terrorists are pitted against the government and no one is fighting for the reasons a foreign eye would assume. This franchise will always be one man's heaven and another man's hell.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B
Animation : C+
Art : C
Music : B-
+ Thorough characterizations of the handlers and terrorists in contrast to the girls, faster pace and fuller story than first season, really nice transfer on Blu-ray
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