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"Gunslinger Girl" Box Set: Killing with High Caliber Cuteness

Anime fans come in many shapes, sizes, and scents. But if they have nothing else in common, they are all very experienced at explaining their hobby to the bewildered general public. Unfortunately, the average person tends to have a hard time comprehending what appeal anime holds for people other than children and perverts, so one is constantly searching for the perfect anime example to show others you don’t really need psychoanalysis after all. Not that it would explain your human femur wiffle bat. Or is that just me?

ImageThe Gunslinger Girl box set (identical to the individual volumes reviewed here: 1, 2, 3) is at the same time an excellent and a terrible example to hold up to skeptics. On the one hand the sophisticated plots, beautiful animation, and tense action amply demonstrate that this show isn’t kids stuff. Anyone who enjoys the Mission Impossible or Bourne films is sure to thrill to the fast-paced, blood-soaked, and mostly realistic counter-terrorism missions. The quiet sections are filled with plenty of compelling character drama probing the extent of the cyborg assassins’ humanity. No simple action heroes, the characters are a dysfunctional, brooding lot that could stand a dose of therapy themselves. Overall, a few cutesy character features aside, the world and action of Gunslinger are depicted in a detailed and realistic manner that resembles live action as much as it does animation.

All this would be well and good to entice fans of 24, if only the lead characters weren’t prepubescent girl assassins. Not only do we see these minors cut down in brutal gunfights, but also develop unnervingly deep romantic feelings for their adult male handlers. None of this may seem particularly odd to veteran anime fans, but it’s sure to strike most Westerners as bizarre or even creepy. Of course the French film Leon (The Professional) explored a similar relationship a decade earlier, but perhaps unsurprisingly that film seemed to strike more of a chord in Japan than the U.S., where potentially controversial scenes were edited out.

So friends and family may continue to look at you askance, but you’ll be far too preoccupied watching one of the best anime series of the decade to care. It’s impressive that in spite of the title and premise, Gunslinger is absorbing throughout its lengthy action-free stretches. The second to last episode is alight with muzzle flashes as the girls assault a terrorist stronghold to rescue one of their own, but the finale is surprisingly serene.

“Who would have thought hall monitors got so much respect?”

The girls’ last objective is nothing more than watching stars, and yet this melancholy episode is one of the most memorable. These seemingly unstoppable killing machines finally begin to confront the fragility of their existence as they watch a critically wounded comrade despair. As the series began the human handlers regarded the cyborgs as simple tools for a job, but by the end several ponder whether it is they who are inhuman to have thrust this harsh duty upon their surprisingly emotional charges. Even hardhearted viewers like myself can’t help but get a little misty eyed when a formally standoffish handler comes to the ailing girl’s bedside to read her favorite story, and she closes her eyes for the last time as shooting stars fill the sky and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” swells on the soundtrack.

Then again, I wouldn’t be writing this review and you wouldn’t be reading it (or searching for fetish photos) if it weren’t for the hot and heavy gunplay. It doesn’t get any better than heroine Henrietta’s first outing, when she becomes a little overenthusiastic and completely wipes out a room full of suspects. Animation-wise it’s a thing of beauty to watch her assault rifle blaze and shell casings fly as she systematically shreds the opposition and much of the building.

There’s something poetic about the death ballet anime characters do when hit by automatic weapon fire, rhythmically writhing back and forth with each blow and yet somehow still standing, as might an inebriated Pinocchio. I’ve yet to see this effectively emulated in live action, possibly because it defies several laws of physics.

But enough talk. If you’re a discerning anime fan you either already own Gunslinger Girl, or were just waiting for the box set. That excuse is gone, so it’s time to lock and load with the show no NRA member could fail to love. Charlton Heston never looked this good in a skirt.

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