AKA Lolis with Guns
Gunslinger Girl was introduced to me as “lolis with guns.” I was immediately interested by this description and knew that I would be watching this anime. Up until now, the opportunity hadn’t arisen. I had started it up with some friends awhile back, but we never got around to finishing it. Fortunately, Anime ABC’s is just the opportunity that I was looking for to finish this show. I’ll be taking a look at both seasons of the show and the OVA’s in this review, so let’s get started!
For those unfamiliar, Gunslinger Girl tells the story of several young girls taken in by the Social Welfare Agency in Italy. These girls once left abandoned, are offered a second chance at life. The catch, they are now trained assassins who have been brainwashed and cybernetically enhanced all to further the needs of the Italian Government in secret. Fratello, or “sibling/brother” act as the girls’ handlers. A tragic tale that offers a glimmer of hope amidst it all.
Having premiered during the Fall 2003 season, Gunslinger Girl‘s first season is 13 episodes long and was handled by Madhouse. Let me first say that this anime offers fantastic visuals. Madhouse lives up to their reputation once again. Compared to several of the other titles that came out during 2003, this one is certainly one of the best looking.
For the first few episodes, we are mainly introduced to the various girls in the Social Welfare Agency’s care. There is a fair amount of focus on the obvious implications of using children as instruments of war. This is by no means the first anime to feature child solider-like characters but something that is still often left unexplored as it is a sensitive topic.
Of these initial episodes, I found episode 3, “Boy” to be the best one to introduce and display many of the core ideas in this series. Rico, the girl followed in episode 3, is way better off with living her life as an assassin. Most of the episode features an uplifting tone, with a hint of melancholy in the background.
In this episode, Rico meets a boy working at a hotel she is scouting for an assassination. He mistakes her gun case for a violin and presumes her to be a musician. They begin to chat and feelings develop. She however must leave and he asks her to come back and play for him sometime, as she did not then. The episode ends with her “playing for him,” having to kill him when he witnesses her performing the assassination.
It’s an excellent introduction to the core themes and the structure of each of these initial episodes. This isn’t to say that episode 1 and 2 don’t accomplish either task, but “Boy” has that twinge of tragic irony that adds to its story telling that I greatly appreciated. Episode 1 and 2 are meant more for the setup of Henrietta and Jose’s (Henrietta’s fratello) relationship than anything else. In addition, episode 1 and 2 question the ends justifying the means and the conflicted nature of using children as tools that are meant to eventually be discarded once they have no further use.
Really, several of the episodes following this one are equally strong. Some are more subtle in their delivery and require reading between the lines, but none of the stories told from episode to episode are all that complex. It’s an attractive quality that Gunslinger Girl has; sometimes a more simplistic approach to a complex topic can be the most interesting.
The show continues on with its usual clip of a pace hinting at some overarching narrative and developing the (seemingly) b-plot of Henrietta’s love for Jose. This came to a head for me at episode 11, “High Fever,” where I felt that the show culminated all of its ideas in the guise of a murder mystery subplot. You get to see the various attitudes that each handler has toward their “cyborg.” An outside party is also featured in this episode and acts as a surrogate for the audience, noting that these girls are still people, despite everything, presenting questions that are sure to crop up in viewer’s minds.
Not only this, but the episode is a lot darker than the other ones. As you may know, darker narratives are something that I find quite compelling and this episode delivered. While I knew exactly where everything was headed from the onset of the episode, it was all presented in a compelling way that had me interested regardless of how simple all of the elements for the episode were. It left quite the impression and is probably my favorite episode.
“High Fever” was roughly the turning point for the series into darker territory as the final episodes abandon most of the hopeful undertones in favor of the bleak and dreary. Yet, somehow, in the end the sentiment that the show presents is overall hopeful despite this.
Ultimately, Gunslinger Girl is a tone piece that leaves some room for interpretation, but is mostly a straightforward anime that was enjoyable. I did feel that some aspects of the show were weak, such as the development of Henrietta and Jose’s relationship and the attempt at some overarching plot (which there absolutely is, but what it is exactly doesn’t seem to matter).
I’d like to take a moment to note how enjoyable the music for he series was. The opening theme, “The Light Before We Land” fit the show perfectly. Never once did I skip it. Take a moment to enjoy it.
“Dopo il Sogno ~Yume no Ato ni~,” the show’s ED, which I and some friends affectionately dubbed, “The Sad Gun Theme” always came in at the pique of the emotional climax of each episode, only ever having an exception twice in the entire series where it came just a bit too late. Musically, it isn’t the best, but it fits well in context of everything else.
Everything about Gunslinger Girl had these little touches that added up to the overall experience. The way the name of each episode was presented in Italian on a simple screen with a simple font, the general aesthetic, and the utilization of classical and tonal music elevated this show from something that could have just been average to something that is just a bit more than that. This series is worth taking a look at.
As a standalone piece, I’d give this anime a soft 8/10 with the recommendation to give it a watch. It’s definitely a try before you buy as millage is going to vary. Thankfully, you can watch at least the first season on Netflix and Hulu. You can also try out the first two episodes of either the dub or sub officially through Funimation’s YouTube; I’ll leave episode one below.
Of course, you can always pick the series up at Righstuf on Blu-ray/DVD since Funimation has begun distributing the title again. This package contains both seasons and the OVA’s.
I did things a bit differently this time and wrote this section of the review without seeing any of season two. Additionally, I wrote the review as I watched, making edits along the way of course. Would love to know how you like this style compared to other articles I’ve done in this series (I tend to try something just a little bit different for each one). At this point, I’m looking forward to watching season two and hope it can at least match season one’s quality.
Oh my, season two does not start off on a good foot. I didn’t even make it ten whole minutes into the very first episode before I felt the need to write down my exact frustrations.
The second season, Gunslinger Girl: Il Teatrino came out a full five years after the first season. During this time production changed hands from Studio Madhouse to a studio called Artland for these 13 episodes, and later the 2 OVA’s. I had never heard of these guys before, but after looking them up they did seem to have some well regarded titles under their belt’s such as Mushishi and Legend of the Galactic Heroes.
Unfortunately, in this case the switch is fairly negative. The stylistic change is extremely jarring. Everything has tis bright, painterly pastel look to it. Not to mention the lack of animation in the opening riot scene is just hideous. It’s like some kind of diabolical children’s book, all very off putting. It does not bode well, and not even ten minutes in.
Granted, I am writing this opening bit extremely early. I hope that I’m wrong and it all works out but I have a nagging feeling that it won’t. Still, at this point I’m looking forward to watching season two regardless.
*At the end of the episode*
Gross! The tone is wrong, the pacing is wrong, the presentation, it’s all just… for lack of a better word, wrong. Everything felt so cherry, while season one had a sense of hopefulness to it, never once did it feel upbeat and cherry. Not to mention the issues I presented earlier.
I take back what I said, not looking forward to this season. Anime was a mistake. In all seriousness, it is still early to call the series but if it stays like this I won’t be giving it any sort of praise. Take a look for yourself; like season one, the first episode of the second season can be viewed legally and for free on Funimation’s YouTube channel.
Episode one had the overarching terrorist plot from season one, doesn’t seem to be going anywhere though. Henrietta and Jose have their awkward and flat relationship going on too. However, Triela remains largely unchanged. She has always been the most interesting and well developed of the girls, and since she seems to be the focal point of the season, that could make up for a lot of shortcomings. For now, the show must go on!
Full disclosure, I almost cut that above part out. Episode one gained such a knee-jerk reaction that I just had to write something about it in the moment. I felt a little bad about doing so because I started to warm up to season two a little bit as it went on. Pinocchio was a bit interesting, if not somewhat ham-fisted at times. Though, I disliked Angelica being in the story at all, her revisions were decent enough (plus who doesn’t love the pasta story?), but then episode eight happened.
Now look, there was a lot of stuff that had bugged me up until this point like this particular scene that looked like it was ripped straight out of the ’95 Ghost in the Shell film and a lot of what I’ve already mentioned. It would hardly be surprising to say that I’m not giving this a good recommendation, but at least the show felt like it was trying its best to respect the ground work that the first season made, albeit poorly, but it did have that feeling at least.
Episode eight not only pulls a retcon, but alters some basic scenes for the worse. Claes had a moving backstory in season one that felt really good. It was presented with the right level of subtext in its direction pertaining to the tragedy, but here, not even close. Earlier, when they changed Angelica’s story, that made sense if they wanted her in season two. This time around, it was completely asinine.
Let’s start with the very first alarm bell that went off in this episode. Beatrice. She’s just some random character that pops up in the episode and she doesn’t do anything for the narrative. Her sole purpose is to force out Claes’ line about how she enjoys the idle time the most. This is to give you a nostalgic moment for season one, but the whole thing was so altered and far removed from how season one went that it just felt manipulative and stupid. Not to mention the whole conversation with Beatrice is had with the Dr. as well but there the Dr. is an actual character we know already and he also contributes to the conversation.
Another example is when Claes ventures to the shooting range and for some reason she was remembered to wear a very obvious and unique outfit. Not to mention the guy in charge blabs about some dude she’s not even supposed to know any more (and he should know that). Then there is the forced interaction with Henrietta and Jose. The worst though, that’s the next bit.
How to ruin something good: water it down. In season one, when Claes is first interacting with Raballo (her initial handler) their is an excellent scene that demonstrates the tragedy of Claes’ character. Raballo is looking at Claes’ file and notes that she loves to read, or did before being taken in by The Agency. The viewer sees him pouring over this file in order to find a way to connect with her. That’s when Claes shows up and he asks her if she enjoys reading, only to get a fairly blaze and uninterested response.
That is a great scene. How did season two do the same scene?
Season two opted to just have Raballo tell Claes, well almost tell Claes, that she used to just love reading. There isn’t anything for the viewer to see here. It is all tell vs show. Then the rest of her backstory is basically told to you in the same fashion via flashbacks. The only redeeming factor was in a nonsense scene where they show Claes a movie for some reason and she notes being sad about it. That was a fine enough scene, but just forced in to make you feel for her. BAD WRITTING AND DIRECTION ALL AROUND!
That’s enough harping on the negatives. Allow me to shift the focus to some things that were actually pretty good. Now, nothing about season two was great or fantastic, but it did have some interesting ideas and the final stretch of episodes managed to engage me. A step up considering an overwhelming portion of this season’s runtime did not.
One aspect that I enjoyed about season two was that there was a fair amount of character development. It was great to have some context into Jose’s character and why he hates terrorists so much. Also, this offered more insight into the differing opinions and approaches that Jose and his brother have at the organization.
I was correct in my guess that Triela would take more of a focal role for this season. Mostly evident in the final few episodes, it is a looming plot point for a majority of he season’s runtime. The Triela v Pinocchio plot was the highlight of the season. Here Triela was given a lot of character, her backstory explored, and she really developed into something that none of the other girls in the show really could. Additionally, the parallels between Pinocchio and her, while oblivious, were handled well. Lastly, we got to explore the bomber couple that was introduced way back in season one. They were truly excellent characters that ended up being my favorites by the end of it all.
In fact, by the end of the show, I felt more sympathetic to the antagonist’s than the girls at The Social Welfare Agency. This isn’t really a fault of the show, but something that I found interesting. What this means to me, is that the antagonists were given a fair amount of screen time and development. They ended up being compelling to watch, and by the end were who I was rooting for the most. As silly as this may sound, I’m sure that those of you who have seen season two would know where I’m coming from.
While I didn’t enjoy the general look of season two, I do want to note that I am glad that they changed Angelica’s design. She looks so much better in this season, but most importantly, she doesn’t look almost identically to Claes. Some of the other characters looked better as well, but it was confusing at times to tell who was supposed to be who from season one since the design’s were so different in some cases.
One strength Gunslinger Girl: Il Teatrino had was in its OP. Reminiscent of the weird live-action filtered stuff Gainax did on their older work, T”atta Hitotsu no Omoi” offered a pretty catchy song with interesting visuals.
This unfortunately changes by episode seven to an excessively generic opening that gives just a little too much away if you know what to look for [link]. They kept the song though, so that was a plus. Speaking of, hope you do enjoy this song because they use it as a background piece a lot. When you know its good, or something like that. I didn’t really mind that much, but it did become comical how often it was used in tandem with this other background piece.
Ultimately, the second season suffered from a lot of problems but managed to recover somewhat in its final episodes. Far from perfect and largely uninteresting, I’d recommend staying clear of season two unless you are a completionist like myself or are morbidly curious. It’s a different beast entirely, and if you enjoyed season one, you are likely going to be letdown by this one. Had this been the only thing for Gunslinger Girl, I would probably be more forgiving, but this contrast in seasons really hurt season two. For this reason, I give season two a 5/10. Meaning, the show managed to be just entertaining and competent enough to be passable, but not really worth recommending.
Again, you can always pick the series up at Righstuf on Blu-ray/DVD. You can buy season two separately for some reason, but not season one if that interests you as well. I wouldn’t advise that, but to each their own.
The OVA’s are episode 14 and 15 of season two. Well, that’s what MAL and the disks say any way. They weren’t really that related, but that isn’t a bad thing. These episodes were a bit disjointed but mostly enjoyable. Each episode was a bit slow and interesting in their own way, but it felt like they needed more than two of these OVA’s. I’m a bit conflicted because I enjoyed how these episodes were slowed down like season one, but they also felt a bit lacking. If you watched season two, there’s no harm in watching these. Something around 6/10; totally unnecessary for viewing but not a bad watch if desired. If you watched season two, you may as well at this point.