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"Gunslinger Girl" Vol. 1: In Truth There Is No Better DVD

“In truth there is no better place to be
Than falling out of darkness still to see
Without a premonition
Could you tell you tell me where we stand?
I’d hate to lose this light before we land.”

-The Delgados, “The Light Before We Land”

Girls with guns. For better or worse, it’s probably one of the most common anime formulae. A buxom beauty packs a realistic weapon and blows everything up in a most unrealistic fashion. As you’d expect, there isn’t typically room in such shows for much emotional depth. Oh sure, you’ll find some fun shows like Gunsmith Cats, and you’ll find shows that at least play at depth, like Noir and Madlax, but there’s really never been a successful character-driven girls-with-guns show. Until now.

It started back in 1998, when a previously unknown manga artist by the name of Yu Aida released a doujinshi entitled Gunslinger Girls. It took the concept literally and featured actual girls — 10 to 14-year-olds — with guns. After a while, Aida gained enough notority in the doujinshi circles to cut a deal to make Gunslinger Girl for Dengeki Daioh, the same manga monthly that serialized Azumanga Daioh. Gunslinger Girl‘s dark, pensive story, brutal action and equally raw characterization made it an overnight hit, and in the fall of 2003 Madhouse, the studio behind such classics as Vampire Hunter D, Metropolis and Millenium Actress, animated it. At the helm was Morio Asaka, who directed among other things both Cardcaptor Sakura movies and Galaxy Angel. As you can probably tell from all this backstory, I think Gunslinger Girl is outstanding, and Funimation has brought their DVD production to a whole new level to match it.

Never mess with a bionically-enhanced little girl packing heat.Here’s the setup: The Social Welfare Agency’s official line is that they help chronically ill and differently-abled children get a new lease on life. The reality is, the girls who enter the Italian facility go through cybernetic enhancement and reconstruction surgeries that give them immense speed and physical strength and a conditioning process that largely erases their previous identity, though what is left can be very troublesome. Then, each girl is paired up with a fratello (older brother, but perhaps it’s easier to think of them as a handler) who teaches them the techniques and tools of their trade, which include not only weapons and hand-to-hand combat but also more traditional disciplines like foreign languages and music (ironic, perhaps, given that most of the girls use Amati violin cases to hold their weaponry when undercover). The goal is the perfect undercover agent, the façade of a little girl hiding a brutally efficient supersoldier. The girls do covert dirty work for the senator that backs the Agency.

We are introduced to this world through the eyes of Jose and Henrietta. Jose has been brought in to the agency via his brother Jean, and he’s been looking for a girl to take as his charge. Finally, after visiting numerous hospitals, he finally chooses a girl out of pity. She has seen her whole family killed in front of her face, and her assailants, rather than just killing her as well, kept her alive and had their way with her throughout the night of the massacre. She’s been physically and mentally destroyed, and she wants to die. Once she awakes from her surgeries and initial conditioning, Jose gives her a new name, Henrietta, and a Sig Sauer 9mm handgun. Soon she’s ready to go on her first mission, to track down a key witness being held by a terrorist faction. It’s a simple reconnaissance mission, but unfortunately for the terrorists, the guy that answers the door decides to cop an attitude with Jose and even begins to rough him up a little. This doesn’t sit well with Henrietta, and she decks the thug with her violin case, spinning him around a few times before he hits the ground. This draws the other terrorists out, and Henrietta and Rico, another girl, gun them all down. Some other members of the agency quickly sweep the rest of the premises and find the target in an air-conditioning duct, but Henrietta is injured and Jose is in trouble. Pressured to give Henrietta psychiatric drugs that will shorten her lifespan, Jose, determined to give Henrietta a second chance, decides to try to build a bond with the girl instead of brainwashing her. He takes her to a fine restaurant to improve her manners, but it’s a bust: she responds to a perceived threat by trying to plunge a steak knife into the waiter’s back.

Jose decides on a different approach. He buys Henrietta a coat and takes her up to the roof for stargazing. Thus some kind of bond or understanding between the two starts to form, and that concludes the first two episodes. The remaining three episodes on the first disc are devoted to the backstory of three other fratello pairs, each with a particular pathos. Basically, it’s girls with guns and souls: Henrietta, Rico, Triela and Claes each have their own issues, their own relationship dynamics with their handlers and their own personalities and tragedies.

Body count by this point: 3.Gunslinger Girl has a strange kind of non-linear continuity where time and perspective frequently shift to serve the emotional and philosophical aspects of the story. The result, evocative of Boogiepop Phantom, is odd but makes sense, especially since Gunslinger Girl feels like it’s got more to say with more accessible characters. The eerie mix of affection, aggression and sorrow that each of the girls evoke is very poignant, and both in concept and execution it’s melancholy, thought-provoking and tear-jerking. I’d be a liar if I said that I wasn’t watery-eyed at the end episode 3, Rico’s story. Rico has to be one of the most unfortunate girls of the group, and she’s not even cognizant of it: she’s just happy that she’s not stuck on a hospital bed anymore, and she’s so doped up that she doesn’t even recognize that her mobility is at the cost of her individuality. The idea alone is sad, but it’s the writing and delivery that makes it genuine and powerful. It’s that element that makes Gunslinger Girl is one the most emotionally loaded, expressive anime titles ever. It may not be at the very top, but it’s in the top 5.

Gunslinger Girl also has outstanding production values, especially for a late night anime. Madhouse’s work on the show – the subtly expressive character animation, the action storyboarding and animation and the overall adaptation of the source material – is amazing. The animation is not only clean and smooth, but wonderfully shaded and lit, and the use of color is dead on. The backgrounds are very good, capturing the overall Italian flavor wonderfully. Even my recurring beefs with many anime – digital compositing and camera movement issues – are essentially absent throughout this disc. I could pick out maybe two or three technical gaffes, but the rest of it is so superb it’d be nitpicking. The music direction in the show is lovely as well, full of lovely orchestral pieces, and the opening theme is outstanding and unusually fitting, considering it wasn’t made for the anime (“The Light Before We Land” originally appeared on the Delgado’s album Hate well before Gunslinger aired). The end theme is quite good too.

She's sorry about the bullet she's about to lodge in your skull.Speaking of quality, Funimation’s handing of Gunslinger Girl is perhaps the best I’ve seen for any product they’ve produced to date. Funimation has never released a show like this before, and that had me worried about the dub. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Funimation’s ADR staff proves once again that they use ADV Films’ voice actors better than ADV Films usually does, as the dub is fantastic. The little girls sound like little girls, the handlers sound great and it’s all delivered with an appropriately low-key tone, enhancing the overall ambiance of the series. The subtitling is excellent as well, as it’s very accurate (they even use the proper Italian “Giuse” rather than “Jose”). They follow it up with good menus and seven points of scene access per episode, a nice change from the usual five-point style most anime DVDs have, and fairly extended pieces of music for each menu.

The extras are quite good as well, as we not only get the credit-less opening and closing, but also dossiers with character and gun designs and a featurette called “Building Henrietta,” which gradually shows the layers of coloring that go into her character and has to be one of the most unique and enlightening things they could have put on the disc. The DVD art itself is quite nice, and the reverse of the cover is so beautiful I wish I had some way of displaying it. The limited edition box also has great art on it and is very glossy and sturdy. The insert is lovely as well: a 24″ by 36″ cloth poster, with better print quality than any wallscroll, featuring all 5 of the main girls. Short of including the Gunslinger Girl video games or artbook with the release (probably couldn’t snag them cause of rights issues), Funimation did the best release anyone could have hoped for. It’s even a three-disc release, a welcome break from the sea of four-disc schedules.

As it stands, Gunslinger Girl is the best overall anime title I’ve seen this year. If you’re looking for anime that’ll make you think and, perhaps more importantly, make you feel, and you don’t mind some very raw, brutal material, then Gunslinger Girl is for you. Get the limited edition box while you can. The only other things I could ask for are the next two volumes. July can’t come fast enough, let alone September.

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