Sunday, January 9, 2011

Gunslinger Girl (2003-2004)

A secret arm of the Italian government has invented an especially nefarious tool in their fight against a loose grouping of left-wing terror organizations working in the country: cybernetically augmented and brainwashed assassins. For practical reasons (and because of the utter lack in ethics that comes with a political position), the government agency - going by the name of the "Social Welfare Agency" - only uses small, orphaned girls who wouldn't survive without its very special medical intervention.

These girls are then paired up with adult males working as their handlers, called "Fratellos", whom they are conditioned to love and obey. Surprisingly enough, most of the handlers grow quite attached to the girls, and are consequently guilt-ridden and depressed.

Gunslinger Girl is a thirteen-part Japanese anime TV show. There does exist a second season/show (the differences between these two things tend to be less clear in Japan than here), Gunslinger Girl: Il Teatrino, that is followed by several OVAs, but that has been created by completely different companies and people, and so doesn't really belong in this post.

If you want to, there's more than enough material in Gunslinger Girl to read it as a show speaking metaphorically about paedophilia, but I don't think that's the direction the show or the manga by Aida Yu it is based on are consciously out to explore. Sexuality isn't really on the agenda here except in a few bitter asides. in fact, the show thankfully goes out of its way to avoid even the tiniest bit of sleaze (it does the same with other science fictional elements beside the cyborgs, by the way; as a lot of the best SF outside of space opera does, the show keeps to one basic new thing/idea and just follows its implications).

Rather, Gunslinger Girl is interested in less specific questions about what it means to be human, guilt, and the nature of affection and love. Mostly, the show realizes these exploration through slow, somewhat ponderous character-driven episodes that concentrate on of the girls and her handler at a time. Most of the episodes aren't much interested in turning directly towards the political conspiracy at the show's centre, or the acts of violence themselves, which tend to be short and fast, and not necessarily built to excite. The show is this still is a spy series in which the assassins not only kill terrorists, but also politicians and cops who act perfectly in their democratic rights, it's just not concentrating on analysing anyone's ideologies or the moral horrors of covert work. These spy thriller elements do appear, but for most of the time they are side-lined as much as possible. Moral questions are explored through the effects actions have on characters instead of directly. These elements are there to enable the character work happening all around them.

This character work truly is character work too - the show usually avoids casting its characters into the typical anime types, and instead gives its sad, hurt and terribly twisted (in a subtle way) girls and its sad, guilt-ridden and sometimes cruel men room to breathe.

Although part of the basic tone of the show is that of melodrama, Gunslinger Girl likes its ambiguity more than its scenes of crying, and sets much more trust into its audience's ability to fill in blanks and interpret the emotional (and often moral) implications of what is going on for themselves than is to be expected. This makes it the type of show that needs viewers willing to work a little, paying us off with an emotional mix of melancholy and disquietude, and moments of beauty that would be kitschy if they weren't standing in contrast to the show's more disturbing moments.

What Gunslinger Girl doesn't deliver is much of a plot. Sure, in about half of the episodes (sometimes terrible) things are happening to the characters, yet the emphasis is never on the outside action, instead always on the things the outside action causes inside the characters.

Of course, the world is full of TV shows and movies always concentrating on the action and the mega plot instead of the characterization, so a show building on other aspects with as much subtlety and intensity as Gunslinger Girl does provides a needed balance, especially when it packs as much of an emotional punch as this one does. And I don't even like children.


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