The subtitle to the release of the first volume of 'Gunslinger Girl' on DVD says so much about the show that the synopsis for the release was somewhat redundant. Ragazzine Piccole, Armi Grandi - Little Girls, Big Guns. While the thirteen episodes of the first season had much more happening under the layers of action, the hook, line, and sinker concerning the combination of the stereotypes of frailty and power was all that was necessary to initially draw me to the show.
Based on the first two volumes of the Manga series from Yu Aida, the first season of 'Gunslinger Girl' follows an Italian organization known as the SFA: Social Welfare Agency. This group takes broken young girls, suffering from extreme physical ailments, and repairs them in a sense, infusing into them cybernetic implants, creating quasi-cyborgs. These girls are programmed/"conditioned" to follow the beck and call of their handlers (also referred to as brothers, creating the term fratello, which means siblings), and are given extensive training in combat. They feel little to no pain, and mostly aim to please and protect their handlers with their every waking moment. They're little super soldiers, and not the crummy live action movie.
There are six of these young girls who are shown in this first season, though there are certainly others in various stages of the process. While no one girl is the focus of the show, the viewers get the most time spent with the duo of Henrietta and Giuse (joe-say), as her development is shown through the series, and her treatment is considerably better than that of the other girls. Rico, Triela, Claes, Angelica, and Elsa all have varying relationships with their handlers, from hands off management, to micromanagement, to extremely caustic, abusive, and cruel mentoring. These dangerous young lasses are often called upon to solve predicaments and do odd government jobs, and their existence remains but an urban legend to most...primarily because those on the wrong end of these girls end up in body bags.
'Gunslinger Girl' is a hyperbole wrapped in an enigma, in the guise of an anime. It blends human existential drama with military and social politics and morals, with a heavy dose of utterly disturbing (and effective) creepiness.
On the surface, the show is entertaining and can easily can retain its audience's collective attention, as the characters are fleshed out properly, with light hints of backstory melded in with their interactions with each other, as well as their conditioning and performance. Action nuts will get a kick out of the way these girls kick serious ass, and their innocence creates some very fun and unique situations when in combat. 'Gunslinger Girl' is somewhat like a grown up version of Mathilda (Natalie Portman) from the non-USA-butchered cut of 'Leon: The Professional,' in that these girls are thrust from innocence into lives full of slaughter, with lots of regiment and routine forced upon them, with their male counterparts instructing and guiding them, with a mixture of loving devotion and obligation, like they found an injured puppy.
Beneath the surface, though, is where 'Gunslinger Girl' shines. One wouldn't think a show featuring little girls blowing the holy shit out of those they're assigned to kill would be overly intelligent, but rather than just play up a random actioner featuring deadly assassinettes, this short series delves deep into philosophical tangents, and plays the juxtapositions in cliche to the very fullest. The subtleties of 'Gunslinger Girl' are lost in the mix. Just one shot early in the series says everything, as Henrietta is shown disassembling a handgun diligently, but then as we pan down, instead of being some extremely creepy upskirt (we are talking about the same countrymen who make hentai, after all), we see her legs, dangling, not even able to touch the floor. Dismissible by some as just wasted time away from bloody kill shots, moments like that are what make a show truly great, this type of strong attention to minor detail is present in nearly every episode.
The group of girls, obviously the titular and main characters, are beautiful characters, manufactured for perfection, yet so amazingly flawed and almost one dimensional in their new lives that their every interaction, with each other and with their handlers, are intriguing. Their desperate search for approval from the other half of their fratellos is their driving point, with rewards and presents given for good deeds being nowhere near as important as the fact that their handlers actually thought about them and bought them said trinkets. They are fractured in more than just their bodies, as their psyches are fragile as can be. They're awkward, troubled, and hardly even human, but they're no different than any little girl in their age range (save for the whole lethal assassin thing...). Rather than gripping a teddy bear when fearing reprisal, or feeling dismayed, Henrietta grips her PS-90. Their higher ups consider them tools, and their handlers can often be so distanced from their needs that emotional breakdown is an eventuality rather than a possibility.
The first two-thirds of the show are a random smattering of episodes that don't directly tie together, like a prolonged compilation of scenes replacing plot and normal structure. It takes the final batch of episodes to form a real arc of sorts, stemming from tragedy exposing the true vulnerabilities of the little ladies, along with government conspiracy, and even an extended action sequence to give one last hurrah for the blood lusting viewers before reaching an emotional apex.
'Gunslinger Girl' is uneven due to the dramatic changes in tone that it experiences, with three of the final four episodes being mere fractions of the intelligence and charm that the others brought. It takes the finale of the season (which was originally the finale to the entire series for a few years, before the show was re-upped) to hit the final nail in the coffin, the moment that makes everything that came before it full circle, to create a need to review the show from a new angle. People aren't the way they are for no reason, and the frustration of those who appear the most cruel in the series is given explanation, and definition, with a brutally heart warming moment shifting opinion as a whole in a brand new direction. 'Gunslinger Girl' is also creepy, and not due to any sexualization of such "innocent" girls (there is none to be found), and not so much due to the play of immaturity versus responsibility...let's just say that while reaching bodily maturity is an important time in anyone's life, it's really something a show like this could do without.
Strong and intelligent, though flawed, and at times artificial, the first season of 'Gunslinger Girl' is very much like those it portrays. Frustrating at times, amazing and thought provoking in others. Fast paced, like a candle burning at both ends. Tragic, poetic, eclectic and capable of doing nearly everything asked of it. While certainly not for everyone, when 'Gunslinger Girl' clicks, it is among the best and smartest anime out there. When it trips, it hits the cement hard.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Gunslinger Girl: The Complete First Season' arrives on Blu-ray from FUNimation in a two disc set, with episodes 1-9 being housed on a BD50 disc, and episodes 10-13, along with the supplement package being found on a BD25. The discs are coded for Region A/B playback. There is a single trailer in front of each disc, that is skippable through the top menu button, and not next chapter.
'Gunslinger Girl: The Complete First Season' is presented with an AVC MPEG-4 encode at 1080p at 1.78:1, which is the OAR for the show. While that may all sound well and good... the picture here is about on par with the release of 'Samurai Champloo,' and that is not a favorable comparison.
The show has an intentionally drab and muted color palette, mirroring the reality of the girls themselves, so the lack of any bold, striking colors is to be expected. Black levels are appropriate, without any crushing problems, though they are often a hair too bright. Whites often run too hot, with some bleeding issues, which may be an aesthetic choice much like the lack of striking colors, but regardless of intention, they're less than pretty.
The entire series is often very busy looking, from an onslaught of noise and artifacts, oh joy! There is added effect with aliasing problems that create wavering, shimmering, and pulsing lines on top of jagged ones, as well as banding issues. I wish all of that were exaggeration, or a false statement meant to lure readers into a "just kidding, it's not at all like that" followup, but it's really no laughing matter. Macroblocking is an ever-present concern, even in the white title cards, as the faint Italian translation of the Japanese episode titles is blockier than 8 bit Tetris, while any out of focus foreground or background action is just kinda... chunky. There are the occasional errant dots and bits here and there, possibly from the original cels, mirroring the effect of dirt on a print. At the 35:04 mark on the first disc, either there's a sniper readying to blow the holy shit out of Giuse or just a flickering red dot. There are also moments where the picture is blurry, and at a very distinguishably lower level of definition from the rest of the show, where detail is virtually nill. Simply put, 'Gunslinger Girl' looks pretty bad.
Thank you, FUNimation. Thank you, thank you, thank you, and thank you!
Oh I hope upon hopes, and wish upon wishes, that more and more anime releases get this kind of treatment. Lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mixes in two languages, the original Japanese (with optional English subtitles), and the FUNimation produced English dub track. Each disc will default to the English selection with no subs, but considering we're given equal choices (that are not just placebos, as the review below will confirm) on audio for a series, this minor inconvenience is negligible; a nothing.
Since 'Gunslinger Girl: The Complete First Season' has equal audio tracks, there is no need to give each a score, and this review is based off of the natural track for the show, the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Japanese mix.
From the very first shots in the first episode, the score hits rears with great resonance, alongside a nice and active level of background noise/ambience. Dialogue mixes cleanly with the score (which can get strong at times), action, and random background effects, with nary a muffled or drowned out line. Dynamic range is solid, with appropriate volume spikes, crisp highs, and pleasant, though certainly not overly deep lows. Lips rarely match spoken words, even in this native track, but that's an animation/synching issue, not the fault of this release. Some scenes have a high pitched background hum, but they are found only in certain situations and areas, so they appear to be intentional.
Gun sounds are awesome, yet horribly, horribly flawed. Impacts from bullets are seen seconds after the cracking lightning sound of the gunfire, which is ass backwards. A show about gun-toting assassins should have at least done some homework, especially considering that FPS video games often get this important factor correct. The varying firearms in the show all have their distinct sounds, with Henrietta's signature PS-90 getting a bit of a silenced effect, while shotguns and sniper rifles have more oomph. Handguns have virtually no pop. Gunfire mostly originates from the front channels and moves backwards, rather than coming and going in all directions. Sadly, there is no real subwoofer roar in the entire show, so even the most powerful weapons going off won't emit much rumble.
All of the extras for this release are found on the second disc.
'Gunslinger Girl' works on many levels, appealing to those looking for human drama, as well as hot, nasty action. The little girls, big guns sub-sub-genre may be a bit ridiculous, but this series may well be the best example of it. The girls are easy to relate to and understand, while the handlers create some very rich subplots. The Blu-ray release for this first season sports bad video, but very good audio, with both the natural language and the dub track receiving comparable mixes. The supplements are a bit too short for their own good, but for an anime on BD release, they're not bad, by any means. While I'd love to give this show a hearty recommendation, the troubled video makes this release worth a look alone.