Italy’s Social Welfare Agency- on the surface, it is an organisation dedicated to helping disadvantaged children and giving them a new lease of life. Whilst this not strictly inaccurate, however, what few people know is that the girls taken in by the Agency are actually turned into cyborgs and given training and conditioning designed to turn them into deadly assassins. The girls seem happy enough with their new lives, but can anyone justify robbing them of their childhood and turning them into mere tools to be used and discarded? Or is this the only way the Italian government can hope to fight back against the terrorists who would go to any length to ensure their message is heard?
Most of us are familiar with the Gunslinger Girl anime, an absorbing tale that blended excellent production values with healthy doses of action, politics and characterisation. Even so, thirteen episodes of such a series could never be enough, and anyone who fell under its spell must surely have craved more. Luckily, by going back to the original manga, those needs can easily be satisfied.
Of course, it should be admitted from the outset that Gunslinger Girl is not perfect. The ‘government vs. terrorists’ political backdrop against which the series is set is hardly the most original of concepts, and the details of specific missions can even be quite dull at times. That being said, basic storyline is not the area in which the series is aiming to excel, for even the potentially thought-provoking moral issues behind turning children into weapons is little more than a side dish here. Instead, what gives the series its true strength is the level of characterisation, and it is that more than anything that makes Gunslinger Girl stand head and shoulders above the crowd.
At the core of the series are the cyborg girls and their handlers, and it is the range of relationships between the different pairs that makes it so absorbing. There is Rico, treated as nothing more than a tool by her handler Jean and given extreme amounts of conditioning to keep her obedient; Triela, who shares more of a brother-sister relationship with handler Hilshire; Angelica, whose handler Marco has lost interest in her ever since her memory began to deteriorate; Claes, who lost her handler and had all memory of him erased and Henrietta, who is given more of a free rein by her handler and is absolutely devoted to him. The different dynamics between the various pairs are entirely fascinating, and also raise many interesting questions along the way. These are girls who can be talking about teddy bears in one scene, and how many people they’ve killed in the next, but how much of what they think and feel are the genuine emotions of adolescent girls, and how much is simply due to the conditioning? Does it matter, as long as they believe that the emotions they are feeling are real?
Interesting as the main characters are, however, the manga also addresses one issue that the anime did not have time to cover- the development of more minor characters. From the supporting staff at the Agency to the various named antagonists, each is gradually given their turn in the spotlight; in fact, by volume five, it is possible to sympathise with the ‘bad guys’ so much that there are points when it seems only natural to support them in favour of the heroes.
Visually, the manga version of Gunslinger Girl may lack the polish and high production values of the anime, but nonetheless remains well drawn and with a commendable attention to detail with regards to locations, firearms and vehicles. The only real quibble is that action scenes can sometimes seem a little confusingly laid out.
An absorbing and addictive tale, Gunslinger Girl maintains a high standard over the course of its first five volumes, and certainly shows no sign of running out of steam any time soon. Whether you wanted more after watching the anime, or have never even touched the franchise before, this is one series to try sooner rather than later.