2011 lulled me into a false sense of security. Metal Fighter Miku was far from the best anime I ever watched but it was not horrible. In fact we loved episode ten. And we actually had to CHOOSE between that and Rune Soldier. It was so nice to participate in secret Santa and not make it into Sophie’s Choice when we decide what to watch. This year sadly was a return to the normal grind we have with secret Santa.
Our choices were Kaiba, Mysterious Girlfriend X, and Gunslinger Girl. There was a palpable sense of dread between Narutaki and I when we were trying to pick which of the three shows to watch. Kaiba was out because it would have meant the Kickheart diehards would have won and that is like letting the terrorists win (also WE watched an episode of the series in the past and were colossally turned off). Narutaki could not watch Mysterious Girlfriend X partially for personal reasons and partially BECAUSE PEOPLE LICKING EACH OTHERS SPIT IS DISGUSTING. So all we were left with was Gunslinger Girl. We had already read the first three volumes of the manga so in a way we were going over territory we had already crossed. But this let us see if the anime did anything different that might let us enjoy it more. Also we had already been bitten by this snake so we hoped we would be slightly more immune to its poison.
Everything I said about the manga ends up going for the anime as well: some politics and plots are interesting but isn’t the focus enough of the time; the girls lives are so so so sad that I stop caring almost immediately; and it has a tendency to be quite talkie.
Gunslinger Girl takes place in a world where a division of the Italian Government called the Social Welfare Agency has devised an unusual method of approach towards counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism. They take little girls on the verge of death and save their bodies with cybernetic implants. They then brainwash them and turn them into killing machines who are completely devoted to their adult handlers in the organization. The series focuses on Henrietta, her handler Jose Croce, and the other members of the Social Welfare Agency as they hunt down members of a radical organization that wants independence for Northern Italy.
To me, the atmosphere of Gunslinger Girl was so oppressive right from the get-go with its sadsadsadness that it made me roll my eyes. Its continued insistence that I find every moment so tragic basically rendered me emotionless. It is much too heavy-handed in its execution making it a generally boring ride. There is no connection between me and these girls, it is too contrived for me to really engage them. And therefore I’m not invested in what perils befall them. This is usually the point when I get called a heartless human being, bring it on.
If this story happened to be about Triela acting as a double agent, helping Section 1 with their investigation to take down Section 2, I would have probably gotten on board despite the desperate and disturbing nature of the show.
Shows that try to make me feel really bad about something always get under my skin. Plots with oppressively gloomy atmospheres also have to be really good for me to enjoy them. And complete tragedies really have to have some compelling characters to make me care. So Gunslinger Girl did all three of these things without any of the reasons I might forgive those elements which take me out of a show. In a way this really reminded me of the emotional manipulation of a Key game where they want you to feel the absolute sorrow of tragic heroines who are doomed to die but live so bravely until they do. I know that some people find the fragility of existence and how easily it can vanish to be wonderfully poetic and moving. Some real Dust in the Wind stuff. It mostly just makes me gag.
I don’t mind some darkness. Heck. That can be lots of fun. But these absolutely morbid and almost depressing shows always turn me off. I need some contrast in mood to help things have any serious impact. The problem is even the happy scenes are filled with a sickly ataraxia. You can tell anytime the girls are having fun it is a perverse simulacrum of actually joy programmed into them by the conditioning they get from the Agency. The fact that most of their happiness comes from pleasing their handlers only makes it creepier. There is no reason to feel bad for these girls. They are already dead.
Maybe that is a poignant point for some people. But it just makes me sigh.
As far as I can tell, the girls are not “conditioned” into loving their handlers, it seems more like love through dependence since both Henrietta and Elsa had psychotic love for their guardians, yet Henrietta was conditioned very little while Elsa was conditioned with a ferocity. Actually, I couldn’t really tell what conditioning did beyond make them more willing to listen to orders but admittedly I didn’t want to think too hard on this show.
Even if it is trying to subvert moe, Gunslinger Girl actually comes off more moe to me than almost anything I’ve ever watched. Not only did these girls have tragic, murder machine lives, but they also had tragic lives before that even occurred; parents who didn’t care about them/tried to kill them, seeing their family murdered before their eyes, etc. They are now cyborg killers yet they do still need someone to protect their brainwashed, young, naive, girlish hearts.
There is only one good handler in the series. He regained a modicum of sanity and tried to blow the whistle on the organization, so clearly he was killed. He should have been Triela’s handler and then they could have taken down Section 2 together! Again, that would be a show I could get behind.
I don’t believe that Gunslinger Girl is supposed to be this super subversive critique of moe. The rhythm and feel of the interaction between the girls and handlers strikes me as moe with murder as a spice as opposed to murder that shows the true horrible flaws of moe. While it is clear that there is often something perverse about the relationship between the handlers and the girls there is still a distinct approval of the whole affair. There is a bit too much “Gee Willikers it is so gosh darn adorable that these little girls will commit any sin to make their masters happy.” Your definitely supposed to think that Jose Croce is a great guy in a bad situation.
“Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
The thing is if Gunslinger Girl is supposed to be a subversion of the genre it fails to do so because it quickly becomes exactly what people claim it is trying to critique. If you frame these prepubescent relationships between the girls and their handlers in such rosy ways long enough it begins to feed the complex you are supposedly taking to task. It can quickly be hard to tell where the subversion ends and the catering begins. As I said in my review of the manga there is nothing overtly sexual. We never see Henrietta panty flash or Triela pleasuring herself in the shower. But there is still this romantic devotion from the girls to the guy who protects and guides them that particularly defines the stereotypical moe relationship. In my opinion far too much of the show fetishizes this for it ever to work as a condemnation of the idea. It just happens to play out the idea is the most twisted way possible. If anything it adds an even more disturbing layer with the violence.
Also I think it is implied that the conditioning helps dull their conscience so they don’t feel bad about being little murder machines and well as wipe their memories so they don’t feel they have something else to run to outside the Agency. But I can’t remember them ever outright saying that.
Random thing that drove me crazy, every person that met Rico would flip out about her having a “boy’s name.” Seriously, it was not the most crazy name ever, you’d think Jean had named her Marvin the Martian.
I think by biggest problem with the series was it was hard to really feel any sympathy for anyone in the cast. I think I could have easily been more into the show if anyone outside of Triela was even vaguely enjoyable. But the girls mostly come off as cloying dolls with a penchant for mindless violence and the handlers mostly come off as morally muted punch-clock sociopaths. The moments of subtle quiet and reflection of the beauty of life just come off as hollow more than poignant.
I could see why some people would find this series compelling, but it just doesn’t work for me to hate these handlers and the lives of these girls so much. And at this point these girls are pretty psychotic assassins so I’m not sure I’d like to see them go off into the big wide world. It is hard to like watching a show when you are constantly hoping the entire cast will be firebombed.
And to top it all off, it doesn’t really feel like these jerks in Section 2 will get their comeuppance. Maybe they do? Death would be far too kind so it would need to be much much worse than that. Since this show doesn’t hint that will happen, what am I really watching for?
The funny thing is this is the good season. Gunslinger Girl: Il Teatrino apparently makes everything more moe and is just a poorer overall production. I think that comes less from Artland ruining the original source material and more them not being able to cover up the inherent flaws in the material.
Either way I’m just glad this is the last of Gunslinger Girl I will probably ever have to experience. As Narutaki mentioned I’m not even interested in seeing all these characters die. It is clear they are doomed. The grand problem is that death provides no catharsis for the characters or the audience. It is just another sad note in a symphony of misery. That is something I can do without.