As paradoxically retarded as it sounds, Gunslinger Girl is not technically an offspring of the eminently-exploitative “Girls with Guns” sub genre of action, despite being exploitative in other, much creepier ways. Yes, there are little girls and yes, they do tote guns, but the disingeniousness stems from the whole “slinging” aspect being relegated to bench-warmer status. Fortunately, it's not a bad choice in the slightest.
Ostensibly a character study with decidedly little action, Gunslinger Girl focuses on the lives of five prim-and-proper girls who happen to be cybernetically-augmented and mentally-conditioned Swiss Army Knives of assassination. Their tragic backstories, upbringings, and complicated father-daughter-weapon-of-mass-destruction relationships with their priggish “handlers” are slowly dribbled out with as much painstaking detail as heart-twisting pathos and maybe a splash or two of subtlety to satisfy the edu-crowd.
I mentioned that Gunslinger Girl is exploitative, but in an icky, squirm-in-your-seat sort of way. To the series’ credit, it doesn’t go for the barebones, unimaginative juxtaposition of cuddly dolls and deadly assassins. No, this is a series that is well aware that the tips of our mental lightning rods have been dulled by the rampant Creepy Children scuttling about in campy action flicks or horror movies and compensates by packing more moral penetration in its punch.
At its wretched heart, Gunslinger Girl is about the irreparable ruination of innocence-something the very image of a young carefree girl is supposed to evoke. Early on, this gruesome, unflinching annihilation of the essence of childhood itself is the only thing keeping us hooked. And it works remarkably well.
Despite being devoid of personality before their proper introductions, the eponymous Gunslinger Girls are anything but soulless abominations, as the effort of desperately groping for and latching onto the last valuable strands of the childhood that they were denied is etched firmly and painfully in every forlorn expression that graces their cherubic faces. It's pitiful, really, how much they struggle to escape their own self-destruction and you really can’t help but feel for them.
And what would a character study be without character development? Giving each girl her own episode feels like a bit of a cop-out, but the result is functional, if inelegant. Nevertheless, it's quite enjoyable to see these would-be inorganic tykebombs slip naturally into their own distinct, likable personalities.
Henrietta is timid and naive, Triela acts as the grown-up big sister, Rico smiles in that stepford sort of way, Claes is sweet but tough, and Angelica plays tragic foil to the four-man ensemble. Although interactions between the girls are disappointingly limited, they have incredible chemistry and may qualify as one of the truest nakama in recent history, which is more than can be said about the handlers.
The disparity in effort is glaring from just one glance at the character designs. The girls are clean, crisp, and highly distinctive, while the handlers share the same generic faces and suits with colorization serving as the only distinguishing factor. And beneath the surface, well, let’s just say that one line from Henrietta often conveys much more than, say, an entire monologue from José.
Speaking of which, it's a real problem that most of the exposition comes from the adults because their lines come from the most uneconomical of scripts. Much of what the handlers and higher-ups have to say is pointless rambling and the series has much more to answer for its stodgy dialogue than, say, its morally questionable premise.
Gunslinger Girl is certainly a slow, sympathetic burn, but a structurally weak narrative and excruciatingly-equivocal dialogue keeps it at arm’s length. Secondhand leakage is still quite damaging, however, like an oil spill (from BP naturally) seeping into a nearby reservoir. While the immersion factor does crescendo to a tearful, symphonic shower of meteors, everything leading up to it is tragedy for the sake of tragedy, which feels a bit like cheating.
In any case, Gunslinger Girl certainly carries a unique brand of psychological slice-of-life, so it's a hard to pass up for fans of either genre.