Monday, July 27, 2015

[Anime] Gunslinger Girl Review


Gunslinger Girl - 10/10

The first impression one might have of Gunslinger Girl is that it is another "cute girls with guns" show. The name does not help the series any either, as it sounds cavalier in its use of violence. When I first watched it a few years ago I was not expecting much, but thirteen episodes later it had impressed me more than any series has before or since.

Gunslinger Girl is not an action series, but a drama without plot. The structure is primarily episodic, focusing on each of the individual girls in the organization, along with their "handlers" and back stories. But this does not describe its true purpose. It is profoundly sad, but the sadness is muted.  It isn't about what happens in the series, but the fact that it can happen.  At the core is a desperate questioning of how the world can be so distinctly wrong. The phrase that comes to mind is a title somebody used for an AMV: Expendable Innocence. Nothing cuts to the core better than that epithet.

"I am very happy to be here at the Social Welfare Corporation..."
The essence of the conditioning is what is most perverse.  The girls are stripped of much of their humanity so they may kill, but left with enough to suffer.  Referred to generically as "brainwashing," observing it in action makes it clear what it is. These girls have had their fundamental need to be loved and appreciated turned to the ends of the organization. This is why it works best on children: it is a deformation of the most basic child-parent bond.  For the entire series you can see them desperately seeking the attention and approval of their handlers, and everything in their world is distorted for it. The scene that hit home the most for me was Angelica's trainer watching her on her first mission: she moves through the targets, killing them in rapid succession, then turns to the observation camera with an innocent smile, as if to ask, "Did I do a good job?"

However, it is the final episode that makes the series whole.  For humans, the essence of spirituality is connectedness.  We experience a vibrancy of our being when we feel fundamentally linked to something else, whether this be a higher power, the universe, or other people.  In a sense they all mirror each other.

As the series comes to a close, Angelica dies.  It is a tragedy, but it is not unmitigated.  She has suffered so much, but as she leaves this world she is cared for, appreciated.  Her affection, so long unrequited, has finally been returned in these last moments.  I know it is taboo to use such a word on the internet, but "spiritual" is the only proper description.  It can be said that this does not fix anything, but that is missing the point.


The Good:
The visual design is subtle and exquisitely matches the tone of the show.  The color pallet is subdued, but not dark.  Instead, there is always light, coming from elsewhere, seeming to suffuse through the world.  This approach also acts to heighten the shadows, often creating strong visual cues throughout the series.  This low-key, unextravagant approach is reciprocated by the appearance of the characters.  The girls in particular are well-designed: young, vulnerable, but not "cutesy."  Matching these visuals, the direction of the series is to a slower pace, giving us time to think.  Many situations pass silently, the shots slowly shifting across the scene, lingering on single people or objects.  It is, in a word, contemplative.

Further complimenting this design, the series places great stock in the accuracy of its world.  Scenes take place in well-established locations, such as the Uffizi Gallery, the Spanish Steps, and the Apennine Mountains.  There is also a curiously high level of detail given to the weapons and their technique, which are exceedingly accurate despite being employed by young girls.

Another thing Gunslinger Girl is to be commended on is its restraint.  In a series which features abuse, rape, human trafficking, and the suicide of a child, it stays above utilizing them for vulgar shock value.  What has happened to these girls is something nobody ever needs to see.

"If you ordered her to practice last night, she should still be there."

The musical score of Gunslinger Girl also deserves mention.  Starting off is the OP of the series, set to the haunting, "The Light Before We Land."  Matched with the meaningful visuals and simple introduction of the characters, it is one of the few openings that I never skipped while watching.

Beyond this the series possesses a melancholy Western-sounding classical score, which fits perfectly with the Italian setting.  The score is not just beautiful, but it is applied with great poignancy.  The main theme, Tema I, is sorrowful and captures a powerful loneliness and grandness in its notes.  Another of my personal favorites is Etereo, played when irreparable damage is being done: the training of Henrietta and the dismissal of Elsa.  The confusion comes pouring through in the disjointed notes, fading slowly into a quiet end and a dark last chord.

Finally, Gunslinger Girl ends with Beethoven's Ninth, a song that like "Light Before We Land" is not written for the series but finds exquisite application.  I would like to end this section with a translated section of the lyrics, sung as Angelica dies:

Joy, beautiful spark of divinity
Daughter from Elysium
We enter, drunk with fire,
Into your sanctuary, heavenly (daughter)!
Your magic reunites
What custom strictly divided.
All men become brothers,
Where your gentle wing rests.


The Bad: 
I find no major faults with Gunslinger Girl as a series, aside from the occasional drop in visual quality.  However, I do feel compelled to mention that the anime is slow. It is very slow. In fact the first two episodes are the same day, repeating much of the same content. This can be particularly off-putting for many people. This is doubly bad if the show doesn't really "click" with the watcher, because many of the scenes have no explanation. An example that comes to mind is the moment when Henrietta watches the couple ride past on the motorbike. She doesn't say anything, they don't explain anything; we just track her gaze. But in the context it's her mind obviously trying to understand that existence, as it is so far outside of her. I found it a poignant moment, but it and many others can slip by easily. So I highly recommend that if the show isn't clicking to just drop it, because it won't "get better."

The other thing I must mention is the existence of a second season, which I would normally not mention because it's terrible. Studio changed, VAs changed, tone changed, theme changed, everything changed. Even worse, Angelica doesn't die according to the second season. This is such a horrible mangling of the first season's ending, robbing it of the power that it has. I just pretend it doesn't exist.

Gunslinger Girl is a series that is deeply resonant, subtle, tragic, and beautiful.  It is my recommendation that every thoughtful person take the time to view it.


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