Reviewby Jacob Chapman, Jul 7th 2010
BLURAY - Season 1
Italy's economic and political instabilities have led to an increase in terrorism, and the authorization of a new government agency to quell the threats. Known as the Social Welfare Agency, they maintain a cover as a charity institution to hide a much darker reality. The Special Ops division at the heart of this institution has been creating some very unique weapons of counter-terrorism that must never be made public: cyborgs. It's not the cybernetic transformations and conditioning of the subjects that the government is so desperate to hide, but the nature of the subjects themselves. The cyborg soldiers are little girls, found to be the only vessels capable of adapting to the strain of the implants and taking the psychological conditioning in stride. Even so, their lives are short. Girls like Henrietta, Rico, Triela, Claes and Angelica are assigned to adult agents known as handlers who treat the girls however they see fit, some with the compassion of an older brother and some as ruthless snipers adopting a gun only to abandon it when it rusts or jams. Regardless of how the girls see their fate or how long they live, they adore their handlers and will do anything, from take life to sacrifice their own, to make their fratello proud of them.
A new rating needs to be created for material like this, both unforgettable and alienating, heartwarming and horrific. It isn't foul or explicit by nature, in fact it is consistently delicate, clever, and beautiful, but it seems to have greater power to offend than the most shameless, tacky ecchi or gorefests on the market. This is a series about the slow dehumanization of little girls who are rescued from abusive environments by the government only to be brainwashed as assassins with a slavish devotion to a superior who may or may not choose to show them love in return. This is a situation made all the more unsettling by the constant reminders in each episode that the girls are aware of the cruel hand they've been dealt and fear the day they will “die empty and alone,” (a direct quote.) The content here is fairly tame, particularly for a political thriller, but it's the spirit of the premise itself that makes viewers squirm in discomfort. In Hellsing, hailing bullets, hordes of zombies feasting on entrails and demonic blood rituals are a thrill met with laughter and applause. In Gunslinger Girl, the sight of a nine year old girl with a blank expression cracking off perfect headshots by the second on firing range targets is all it takes to send some viewers turning their heads in disgust. What this show really needs is a bright yellow sticker across the front labeled “NOT FOR EVERYONE.”
Obviously that would be a terrible idea in terms of marketing, but it's not meant to be an insult. In most cases the moniker “not for everyone” denotes high quality that only certain people will appreciate, and Gunslinger Girl fits this description perfectly.
Far from being overwrought with exploitation and melodrama, Gunslinger Girl is restrained and terse, keeping its contents under pressure to maintain the idea's freshness. The emotional depth of each agent and the intricacy of the relationships they share doesn't hurt either. In fact, the understated development of the premise is Gunslinger Girl's greatest strength. This is not angst-filled, suggestive girls-with-guns lolicon despite the suggestive nature of the box art or character designs. The maturity and restraint in the writing is remarkable. Actually, that's an understatement. Gunslinger Girl is more rife with cold subtlety than a healthy number of seinen titles.
Due to the sordid nature of their work, all the handlers speak in veiled words with double meanings, half-truths and, every so often, hint at misgivings or worse, mental instability. The girls range all over from domesticated killing machines simply happy to be alive, (Rico,) to fragile dolls starving for love and normalcy while striving to excel in their duties, (Henrietta,) and even a few who seem to have made peace with their place in life enough to make decisions on their own (Triela.) They are entirely molded by their handlers' treatment, which in itself becomes an interesting study in personal duties battling personal ethics. Treating the girls as weapons dehumanizes them as well as the handler, but showing them compassion can lead to confusion for the little soldiers and endangerment for everyone in the agency. Guise more than anyone struggles with this, and on numerous occasions, his slide across the scale brings him dangerously close to adopting a shift in paradigm.
However, the sad fact remains that he doesn't. Given that there is a second season to the anime, it should come as no surprise that despite the moral questions, political turmoil, and various dangers inside the agency and out, the government is a rock of stability for these little girls and their handlers and no one will (successfully) rise up to shake the box. Many psychological thrillers set out to “make you think,” but in turn secretly tell you what to think. Not even more morally apathetic titles like Death Note stay unbiased for very long, and sometimes become the most persuasive because of their false impartiality. Gunslinger Girl truly is the exception to the rule as it constantly jabs at your mind and heart from all sides without taking one. To some people this is a rare gem, truly rich entertainment, to others, a nauseating nightmare with no reason to exist.
For Funimation's blu-ray release of the series, all of the extras from the DVD releases: galleries, clean themes, commentaries, interviews, model sheets, have been transferred over onto much more attractive menus. The DVD menu usually isn't worth commenting on, but this set has some menus pretty enough to get lost in for a minute or so before the show, playing different clips from the series layed in with slick ammunition graphics and varied gun click effects for all the options. On the issue of video quality, that's a less pretty story. The transfer is not remotely close to HD quality and depending on your flatscreen's resolution, can appear a bit “buzzy,” for lack of a better description, in the dark outlines and oversaturated in brighter areas like the hotel in episode 2. Is the video superior to the DVD set of the series? Absolutely, especially considering this was an early Funimation release, but it's not HD-quality and the more fabulous plasma sets are actually going to make it look worse. It's just enough to recommend over the DVD, but not quite worth a double dip.
That's okay really, because while Madhouse's art is striking, Gunslinger Girl is really more of an aural adventure than a visual one. The music is flat-out gorgeous and consistently memorable, orchestrated with several lovely themes for different characters, and throwing in a few familiar tunes or Italian opera pieces for good measure. Vocally, both languages walk a fine line with the sweet, piping little girls' voices and a hushed, wise-beyond-their-years delivery they must adopt. In both cases, the Henrietta/Guise pairing stands out most, pure trembly sweetness toting a semi-automatic behind what sounds like the kindest, most exhausted person in the world, who teaches her how to use it to kill a man in one shot before taking her antique shopping or something. That might best sum up what makes this anime so uniquely unsettling.
Really, the most unsettling thing about Gunslinger Girl is not that it justifies the exploitation of children, because it never does. Neither, however, does it condemn the idea. People may talk, a few may question, but there are no answers. It's strictly business for a much larger government with larger concerns. The real point of tension here is that the series, and the characters that compose it, simply carry out their missions without a word one way or the other.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : A
+ Deftly crafted characters, excellent writing, prudent and thought-provoking treatment of what could easily have become moe fodder, overall something of a beautiful nightmare
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