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Thursday, 25 November 2010 00:00

Gunslinger Girl ~Il Teatrino~

Here's one that people seem to love to hate - Gunslinger Girl ~Il Teatrino~, the second season of the little-girls-with-guns series whose first season went down so well - and ironically, much of the ire seems to be down to it trying to be closer to the source manga. There's just no keeping anime fans happy, it seems...

The first season of Gunslinger Girl was a tightly focussed affair, looking at the girls of the Italian Social Welfare Agency, who had each been "rescued" from situations where they would have otherwise been killed. "Rescued" comes in quotes, though, as the price of that rescue was to be turned into literal cyborgs, part-mechanical creatures with a large dose of conditioning (brainwashing to you and me) that turned them into ruthless killing machines, completely loyal to their assigned handlers. In short, these were some fucked-up little girls, and the main focus of the series - wrapped around the missions of the girls in dealing with Italy's internal terrorist threats - was in exploring just how abnormal they had become as a result of their rebuilding and reconditioning. It's a concept that gathered quite a few fans at the time, although the result wasn't quite as true to the source manga as it could have been. Personally, I loved it, and I wasn't alone. For more background you might want to check out the Season One review. The first season DVDs have been delisted in the UK, but the episodes are still available for streaming via FUNimation's YouTube channel.

Fast forward a few years, and along comes Il Teatrino, where in an effort to make the series more true to its origins manga creator Yu Aida was given essentially complete creative control of the TV series and subsequent 2-episode OVA (reviewed separately). The results did not, it's fair to say, meet with universal approval: along with changes to the character designs of the girls that made them considerably more "moe" (a hanging offence for a show that wants to be treated seriously), the focus of the show has also shifted, with a lot of the emphasis taken away from the girls and instead placed on three members of the Five Republics Faction, a terrorist organisation dedicated to changing the political makeup of Italy.

Three of their members are planning a bomb attack on a new bridge being built over the Straits of Messina, linking the Italian mainland to Sicily: Pinochhio, an orphan taken on by one of the leaders of the FRF's Milan group; Franco, a former bomb-maker tempted out of retirement for the job; and Franca, aka Caterina, who came up with the idea of the attack as her way of taking vengeance for the killing of her father. They're an intriguing bunch, with some clear parallels to be drawn between Pinocchio and the Agency's cyborgs - he was raised by his adoptive father to be little more than a loyal killing machine himself, with only the lack of the girls' cybernetics differentiating him from them - but it has to be said that the amount of time devoted to this trio changes the tone of the show irrevocably.

Instead of continuing with the exploration of the girls' weaknesses and issues, we get an exploration of the motivations and drivers that could turn a person to terrorism, with most of the Agency girls reduced to plot tools. The exception is Triela, who develops something of an obsession with Pinocchio after he manages to escape from her early in the season - she also benefits from being given an "origin story" of sorts, showing how she and her handler Kirscher came to be with the Agency in the first place (and it's a decidedly unpleasant and unsavoury tale that I won't spoil here).

Pacing has also changed, with the series having slowed down further - quite an achievement, as the first season was hardly fast-paced - with the result being that it often feels that it isn't really going anywhere. This is a 13-episode series, but you get the distinct impression that the main story could have been told in half that. Instead we get lengthy interludes, with Franca and her group holed up on her country farm, or filler episodes showing a day in the life of one of the characters (Claes gets a surprisingly good one of these). By the time the main story raises its head again, you've almost forgotten what was going on. There's also a bewildering collection of personal relationships, that sees members of the Agency connected to Franca's group by perhaps only two degrees of separation - an interesting situation, but one that doesn't feel quite right, in that it's almost too convenient.

The end result is a definite step backwards from the first season, with the changes to style and tone being a large part of the problem as they cause a certain amount of distraction while you try and get used to them (and I never did get to like the new character designs). But one person on Twitter, on hearing I was watching the series, commented that Il Teatrino took a "large, smelly dump" on the spirit of the first season, and having watched the full series and taken some time to digest it before sitting down to write the review I have to say that's an over-reaction. No-one likes something they love being tinkered with - if it ain't broke, don't fix it - but I am left wondering how much of the backlash against Il Teatrino is down to the flaws with the series itself (and they are there), and how much is down to simple fandom anger. No, Il Teatrino is not as good as its predecessor, but neither is it without merit or so poor as to be worth discarding. With the season being streamed for free (there's no UK DVD release at present, although Manga UK were recently gauging interest in the series on Twitter), there's really no reason not to give it a try. You may end up pleasantly surprised.

Full episode summaries and screenshots on the following pages.

Rating - ***