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There are all manner of classic chestnuts about how screwy Japanese culture is to Westerners. As a complement, there are also all manner of ways in which Japanese practices permeate Western popular culture. I am no knowledgeable sage in these matters; I can refer you to other places for wisdom here. I will merely point out one curious bit that I have noticed, purely as an anecdote.

Sometimes, Japanese entertainment media, like much Western media, takes a swerve towards the taboo. All manner of subjects may be explored. However, when something...really uncomfortable...is being danced around, as opposed to shown, Japanese anime tends to develop a peculiar schism. Notably, those stories tend not to be set in Japan.

Such is the case with Gunslinger Girl.

On the face of it, Gunslinger Girl contains what might read like a laundry list of touchy subjects. In the very first episode, nay, in the opening credits we are informed that it will concern no less than:

  • Very young girls
  • Older men
  • Control issues
  • Very large guns
  • Innocence
  • Killing
  • Sex roles
...and that's just to start.

See, here's how it goes. Don't worry, I'm not giving anything away, here. The whole series takes place in Italy (hmmmmm...) in the near future. There is a traditionally Mysterious Government Agency which seems to be chiefly concerned with killing people. Much along the lines of La Femme Nikita, this agency takes essentially already-dead or terminally-ill young women and gives them a new lease on life in exchange for becoming government assassins.

But that's where the similarity stops.

These young women are 'adopted' by the 'Department of Social Welfare,' usually from the terminal wards of hospitals. They are secreted off into the mountains, where their bodies are heavily modified and they are turned into 'artificial girls.' Carbon fiber muscles and bones, boosted senses, etc. etc. - but they aren't aged at all. Then their memory is erased, or suppressed, conditioning is added, and they are woken up in a neutral hospital room. Their first sight is that of their partner - an older man, known as their 'supervisor' who will be their trainer and control for the remainder of their existence. Their trainer places a handgun on their bed, and leaves.

Thus it begins.

Along the way, the series touches on the problems of differentiating between conditioning and love; the problem of the handlers' varying attitudes towards the girls, and the problems of the girls' physical conditions and problems. Sometimes, even, their pasts. The oldest, Triela, is around fourteen, it appears. Each has a 'signature' weapon - the main character, Henrietta, is always armed with an FN P90 submachine gun which, on her pre-pubescent frame, looks enormous. Their weapons hidden in expensive stringed instrument cases, they demurely soft-shoe around hostage situations, crime scenes, city streets and paramilitary targets - before unleashing hell without changing expression until much later, giggling over a tea party back at the dormitory.

The whole thing is as disturbing as it sounds, yes.

"Jose, permission to open fire?"
"Nah. Wait a few seconds."
"How about now?"
"Okay. Go ahead."
[Two small girls lean out the sides of a speeding van with assault rifles and pigtails. Cue brief expressions of pure shock on pursuers' faces before gunfire scythes through their car.]

-Henrietta and Jose, Fratello

On the other hand, there are moments of pure snarky humor.

There are thirteen episodes in the series. There is a bit of an arc; mostly, though, it's several two or three-episode plotlines, with minimal closure at the end - more atmospheric closure than story-based. Probably the best parts of the show, in my opinion, are the moments of cognitive dissonance provoked by solemn-faced young girls, looking earnestly like they're trying to recall something important, wearing schoolgirl outfits and carrying assault weaponry.

There are things hinted at in the show that are never delivered, which is frustrating. It's almost as if there was a planned second season that didn't get picked up, I don't know. (Update: There is now, in fact, a second season - Gunslinger Girl: Il Teatrino.) However, it's a fun diversion - and it makes me uncomfortable, slightly, to watch - because I'm not sure what it says about me. I remain very convinced it's not the young girls - I have no interest in watching anime or movies that are simply about young girls, at all. So why do young girls with heavy weapons produce that strange oddness which makes it so compelling? I don't know. I do know I really liked La Femme Nikita (the movie), so that may have something to do with it.

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, no, there's no actual (or even threatened) sex in this. It's not hentai. Nobody even ever gets unclothed. It's all psychological stressors - the blur felt by the men, who are unsure if they are brothers, fathers, bosses, tool-users, or something as yet unnamed. The girls themselves try to express their feelings for their supervisors - 'love' is used a lot - but they know they are conditioned to protect and obey the men and to desire their approval. To make matters worse, they are permanently frozen around the age of puberty and their entire existence centers around combat. The interplay, even when tragic, is fascinating.

Note: BlackPawn tells me that in the manga from which this series is drawn, there is in fact a handler/girl relationship in one of the later books - and that several of the girls had suffered sexual abuse before becoming members of the program. This does, in fact, set the stage for much of the 'head games' that go on.

Gunslinger Girl

Episodes: 13
Published: 2003
Director: Asaka Morio
Author: Aida Yu
Studio: Madhouse Production
US Distribution: FUNimation

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