I’m a cynical anime watcher, and that has a lot to do with the fact that I’m a girl in a fanboys’ world. It’s a mine-field of gratuitous panty shots, triple-D bra cups, big-eyed pre-teens and unnecessary bathing scenes. Not to say that these things are automatically bad, but let’s just say they’re not exactly points of interest for someone like me. So it’s perhaps understandable if I avoid (somewhat like the plague) anything that involves a) girls and mecha, b) girls and supernatural powers, or c) girls and guns, because in my infinite anime-watching, gender-superior wisdom, it’s bound to be tripe, right?
Enter, in the third weight category, Gunslinger Girl, and I find myself man enough to know when to admit I’m wrong.
Gunslinger Girl took my fangirl cynicism and turned it on its head. Generally speaking, and aside from any actual quality of story or character, there is almost always an element of fantasised sexual vulnerability in titles involving doe-eyed twelve year-olds. This title not only doesn’t take that path, it actually makes of the subject of exploitation a narrative point, one that’s chillingly pertinent in the harsh realities of modern warfare. These girls, children really, are trained to kill. And as a result, they are not normal. They are stunted, socially deficient, struggling to make sense of an emotional world with which they are not properly equipped to deal, and they have only a sketchy grasp of what its like to be a normal kid; children playing at being children committing adult atrocities.
Contrast this with the relationship each girl forms with her ‘handler’, upon whom she is virtually dependent for growth and learning as much as for orders issued from the Agency. There is a fascinating range of individual and social psychologies on display, not all of them healthy. The handlers don’t see the girls as girls; they see them as things, as commodities or tools, or at least they’re supposed to. But even then, the adult characters in this series are interesting, flawed and real. They’re not big, bad, two-dimensional villains; they don’t necessarily like treating their wards as things, but each has their own reasons, their own issues, and they are more like struggling fathers or older brothers than anything else. And it’s the sometimes awkward, painful, stumbling attempts at humanity between handler and tool, man and girl, father and daughter, that prevents this show from becoming boring or superficial, or anything else I ever actually expected it to be.
And it’s at this point you’ll notice I haven’t yet mentioned the violence, the unmitigated gunplay, the chase scenes or the impressive, impossible abilities of these super-soldier children. Not that this series doesn’t have its fair share of such, but surprisingly, the show resists making that the point. It’s the quiet moments in between killing that are the truly telling aspects of this series, the low key dialogue, the spaces and silences, the muted colours and the gently dramatic backdrop of classical music, that all contribute to the subtle gravity of the moments when people are living, rather than dying. This is serious, and that fact alone makes it both a pleasant surprise and a source of genuine respect.
Also, and in all fairness, Gunslinger Girl did something else I never expected it to – made me unable to decide between the Japanese and the English dub. Maybe this isn’t an issue for you, but nine times out of ten, I find the generally grating, try-too-hard American voices fail to match many of the more subtle performances of the Japanese vocal talent, especially in a series which relies on understatement punctuated by shockingly abrupt violence. However, someone in the ADR department at FUNimation really got this series, and the English dub is as superb as the Japanese, and there’s yet another convention shot down in flames. At this point I’m really not sure what I’m supposed to do with myself.
There’s one thing I am sure of, however, and that’s what to do when faced with a series which effectively and efficiently assassinates every single one of my deeply entrenched and regularly reinforced prejudices about girls and guns anime – and that’s keep watching. After all, it’s not every day I’m proven wrong.