This is a review of all of Gunslinger Girl (Seasons 1 and 2). WARNING: SPOILERS FOR SEASON 2!!
I stumbled randomly across Gunslinger Girl in my post-Shigurui frustration with samurai/sword-slashing anime and ended up really enjoying this creepy and yet strangely fascinating anime about brainwashed little girls turned into cyborg assassins.
The two 13-episode seasons of this anime series are set in Italy, where the government-run Social Welfare Agency, under the guise of caring for young children, takes the hopeless cases, gives them cybernetic implants, and then brainwashes ("conditions") and trains them into killers to do the government's dirty work. Throughout the two seasons, the gov't fights and kills a whole bunch of terrorists and their various factions. The girls go on a bunch of missions and shoot up bad guys with different types of guns. But that part of the show was always the least interesting to me. The most interesting things in the show are character-driven.
The best part of the show for me was its characters and their relationships with each other. Each girl is paired with a male handler, and the pair form a fratelo, Italian for siblings. The girls are brainwashed to look up to and obey their handler and to protect their handler at all costs. It's a little creepy, but it's enormously interesting to watch. The first series focuses on 6 different girls and their handlers, and very different they are. Each pair's relationship has a completely different dynamic, and it is fascinating to watch all the characters interact while they are committing heinous acts of violence against terrorists.
The second series, Il Teatrino, also fleshes out some "bad guy" characters, including a pair of explosives experts and a boy assassin named Pinocchio. I love it when shows humanize the "bad guys" and feel that Il Teatrino does it extremely well. All that character work made the climactic fight at the end of series two all the more gripping, because I at least wasn't quite sure who I was cheering for...
I really enjoyed the coloring and animation of this show in its first season, which featured dark, subdued colors. In the second series, Il Teatrino, the show gets uncomfortably brighter and much more colorful, and the character designs get changed for the worse, which I'll discuss below. The action sequences were ... fine. I don't really have much of an opinion about that: for me, guns are a lot less interesting to watch than swords. Then again, the action scenes aren't what make this anime worth watching, so I didn't really care.
SERIES 1 V. SERIES 2 (Il Teatrino)
This review points out that some of my gripes with the second series of Gunslinger Girl. The brightened colors and redesigned characters really bothered me. For example, the redesigned Jose looked... just like the redesigned Hiltshire. (Why do all the male characters look and sound alike?) I also largely agree with that reviewer's complaint that the second series lost the beautiful nuance and subtlety of the first series. The viewer definitely got beaten over the head with the girls' affection for their handlers, and the affection definitely got, well, um, creepier.
Another thing that bothered me was the return of Angelica, one of the cyborgs, in series two. I thought she had died at the end of series one (in a great and poignant final episode), though to be fair I guess the show left it ambiguous. Even if they didn't have to have her die, though, I thought they should have. The Angelica of series two was annoying and uninteresting, and I thought it would have been much more interesting if she had died. Apparently she does die in the manga; I'm very curious about the effect her death will have on both her handler and the other girls (and their handlers). Since the anime wasn't gutsy enough to explore this, though, I guess I'll have to actually read manga to find out...
Still, gripes aside, I thought the character work on Franco, Flanca, and Pinocchio (some of the so-called bad guys) in Il Teatrino was really excellent, so on the whole I still really enjoyed the season.
I was pleasantly surprised by this anime. The premise sounded uninteresting, not to mention kind of gross and amoral, and it seemed like it was just going to be a bang-bang shoot 'em up anime that exploited the little-girls-as-killers motif. But despite the random and not-that-compelling plot and political backdrop, the heavy emphasis on characterization and relationships really made this anime enjoyable.