Despite the promotional material involving little girls with big guns and the hint of shootouts, Gunslinger Girl is a deliberately paced show that takes itself seriously and focuses more on the human toll of engineering child assassins than the spectacle of violence and explosions. It's not completely devoid of action, but that's far from the focus. This ain't no Black Lagoon, that's for sure. But you know what? I thought it was pretty good.
I really enjoyed this show. Admittedly, it's only the second anime I've watched seriously, but it was nice to try something new.
The story revolves around an Italian government service called the Social Welfare Agency. On the surface they help neglected kids, but really they salvage abused, broken, or emotionally damaged girls and rework them into killing machines. They use cybernetics to give them new combat ready bodies and conditioning (brainwashing) so they're always focused on the job and the protection of their handlers. The bulk of the show is about watching how hard these girls try to hold onto their humanity when they're not mowing down people with sub-machine guns or snapping necks without a second thought. This also extends to the handlers who are a collection of washouts, burnouts, and cripples trying to deal with an awkward job. A lot of them are stuck walking the tightrope of deciding whether to treat their girls like humans or weapons. Some don't even try.
And the show takes itself pretty damn seriously. There are no pop culture references, no obvious shout outs to movies, no lampshading- just a focus on the emotional fallout of turning damaged little girls into government assassins. It's a fucked up premise, and it's great to see them try to get the most mileage out of it. When Gunslinger Girl turns on heartbreaking, it goes for it. However, that means characters are at the forefront here, not crazy story arcs or absurd action. The pace can also be a serious stumbling block. If you're going to give Gunslinger Girl a watch, just know one thing...
It only has one speed: slow.
Early on, the show is mostly about showcasing the cast of girls and their handlers and how they deal with their situation. My favorite would have to be Rico who spent most of her life in a hospital bed before her parents gave her to the Social Welfare Agency. She's so psyched to have a body that lets her move around that she's miss sunny side up. She keeps a positive attitude despite her new life as a killer. Her handler is a guy named Jean who treats her like an attack dog including a heavy hand for physical abuse. Nothing seems to get Rico down, and it's just as creepy as it sounds. Her adorable voice helps sell it.
Henrietta, the newest girl, spends most of her time getting way too attached to her handler Jose. She's also the most unhinged after going on a rampage in the very first episode. Jose does his best to train her otherwise but is still caught up with gifts and getting way too emotionally involved. Considering the cyborg girls are meant to be used and disposed before they get out of their teens, this can only end badly for the both of them. That kind of undercurrent runs through the whole show, and I found almost anything that happens is unnerving and tense. It's like tragedy is just waiting around the corner.
About halfway through this show I wondered why it took place in Italy. Then an episode took place in an art gallery in Florence complete with some pretty good renders of famous paintings. Gunslinger Girl loves making the most of Italian scenery. Not to mention it has a great soundtrack too. The opening is a nice number known as "The Light Before We Land." And the show is no slouch making use of pianos, violins, and other classical music in a country where the Renaissance took place. Italy has been host to well recorded cycles of revenge, murder and betrayal. So if you're going to make little girls assassins and focus on the tragic side of that equation... it's not a bad choice.
The selection of weapons that pop up in the show come from all over Europe. The main girl Henrietta uses a Belgian sub-machine gun. Rico uses a Russian sniper rifle. Angelica uses a Steyr AUG. And so on. They don't always take center stage in major shoot outs, but that's not really Gunslinger Girl's forte in the first place. It was really no surprise to learn that the animation studio was Madhouse considering their work on Black Lagoon and all the guns in that show.
When Gunslinger Girl does dip into action, it has its moments. The best parts are when the girls play up their sweet and innocent routine to do something horrible with their increased strength. Which, is the whole point of turning girls into cyborg assassins in the first place. No one is supposed to see them coming until it's too late. There's one point where Henrietta kidney punches a guy so hard he doesn't get back up. And there's also bookworm Claes who is told to be gentle when she's got her glasses on. As you might expect, when the glasses come off she's a force to be reckoned with. Granted these moments are few and far in between, but I found them great considering how introspective the rest of the show is.
The biggest issue I had with Season 1 was adjusting to the pace. It makes for a slow burn. The first two episodes are probably the hardest to crack since they're supposed to get you into the show. They have some long pauses in the first episode. One of these lasts ten seconds with no characters animating or emoting, no music, and no screen movement. I thought my video player had frozen. But it's really just setting the tone. If you can get past that, there's the second episode that reuses a lot of scenes (without flashbacks interrupting the action) and that's unfortunate. Things get more interesting later on like a murder mystery and hostage rescue... if you can get that far. Going by Tom Pinchuk's impression, I feel like you're in it from the beginning or you're spending your time with something else. And there's nothing wrong with that.