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Monday, 08 November 2010 00:00

Gunslinger Girl

Saved from death by a shadowy government agency, Henrietta and her colleagues at the Social Welfare Agancy have been rebuilt, given cybernetic implants, brainwashed to ensure they do as they're told, and trained to become lethal assassins.  After all, who could ever suspect a sweet young girl would be a heartless killer?  However, the Agency's plans aren't without flaw...

On the outside she may appear to be a normal schoolgirl & is usually seen with a violin case, but Henrietta's life is far from normal.  Her violin case is cover for her machine gun, and calling her a crack shot with it would be an understatement.  She's one of a group of orphaned children "adopted" by the Italian Social Welfare Agency & subjected to a series of physical modifications and brainwashing techniques that have turned them into skilled assassins.  Children are the last thing you would consider to be a threat, you see.  Guise is Henritta's "brother" - her handler and mentor in her new life, and he has a problem: despite extensive training, Henriette doesn't seem to understand the meaning of the word "restraint".

One solution to Henrietta's unpredictability would be to increase the level of mental conditioning (brainwashing, to you and me) she's subjected to - to make her more malleable and controllable.  Guise's unwilling to go down that route, and instead opts for a little extra training to help her understand how she should react under certain circumstances, but even simple things like dinner at a restaurant prove hard for Henrietta to cope with.  A waiter lifting a knife?  Potential threat, to be dealt with accordingly.  Guise's under the impression that if her treats her like a normal young girl, she'll behave like one as well, but things just aren't that simple...

Put any images of all-action, guns-blazing storylines out of your mind - while there are occasional scenes that fit that description, they're very much not what this series is about and serve more to highlight the problems with the Agency's brainwashing techniques than any gratuitous need for action.  Gunslinger Girl borrows heavily from La Femme Nikita (in terms of its assassins not really having any say in the matter) and Leon (in terms of young girls becoming involved in a business they would normally be kept far away from), but adds enough of itself to the story to be something more than either of them.

This is a very dialogue-heavy show, with the main focus being on the relationships between the girls and their handlers.  Each pairing is a different contrast in personalities, with the exploration of how they came together making up a sizeable chunk of the show.  Underneath that main layer there's an undercurrent that the Agency's techniques aren't quite perfected yet, with several of the girls showing instability and unpredictability in a variety of ways that have to be dealt with at the series progresses, and it soon becomes clear that the Agency has bitten off more than it can chew by creating its band of killers.  Each of the girls featured has at least one glaring flaw which indicates there's something not quite right with the modification programme, with Henrietta - who's already showing signs of instability - being the first real clue to the problem.  Likewise, if you pay attention to the others there are signs that their unnatural connection to their handlers is going to cause problems further down the line.

As the series' tagline says, while the girls are cyborgs, they still have the emotional responses of teenage girls - they want to be loved, and when faced with handlers who treat them as machines, they respond in unpredictable ways.  Even in Henrietta, where Guise treats her almost like a daughter, there's a disturbing undercurrent where you're never really sure just how she'll react to what he says or does, and therein lies the Agency's biggest problem.

Come the end of the series, there's no real closure to the matter, either, as the story is left hanging wide open for a continuation (no sign of one appearing as yet).  The girls are alive, active, and the Agency is still in operation, despite its detractors (although there's a certain amount of satisfaction to be had from seeing that it is beginning to fall apart a little, thanks to the unreliability of some of the girls) - but with no episodes left, it does feel like the series has been untidily left unfinished.

Gunslinger Girl is certainly interesting - from most promotional material for it, you'd think you were getting an all action, guns blazing series, but that's very much not it.  The pacing is so slow, though, that at times you wish that was what you were getting.  The premise is good, but the execution is a little bit flawed, and as a result the series doesn't quite live up to its promise.  The price of this set makes it worth picking up, but it's unlikely to become a classic.

For episode summaries and screenshots, check out the following pages of this review.

Rating - ****