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"Gunslinger Girl: Il Teatrino": A Great Shot But No Bullseye

by on September 20, 2009

When an anime property changes studio and director, it’s a tough move for the fans, especially when the first studio and director did a brilliant job. The first Gunslinger Girl anime was one in a series of excellent manga-to-adaptions helmed by Morio Asaka and animated by the brilliant artists of Madhouse, and outside of a slightly shaky first two episodes and a few instances of mediocre compositing, it is quantifiably fantastic. It’s even trickier when the studio throws out a lot of what made the first sell, like design style and music. So does Gunslinger Girl: Il Teatrino still work, or does it mar the memory of it’s ancestor?

Lets start with a recap: Gunslinger Girl is a story about the Social Welfare Agency (SFA,) a fictional shell organization in the Italian government whose true purpose is to find young girls near death, then wipe their memories and rebuild them as soldiers specializing in counter-terrorist actions. They are trained by ex-military and ex-police who are effectively surrogate parents/brothers to the girls. Of course, no weapon is perfect, and the conditioning that makes them so obedient also makes them emotionally attached to their handlers, causing them to occasionally act irrationally. This new season of Gunslinger Girl focuses on a multi-threaded arc involving the Five Republics gangs/Padania separatists, their top assassin (a young man by the name of Pinocchio), and the SFA’s actions to take them down. The arc ends up with Triela, one of the SFA’s top girls, taking center stage as she tries to become a better soldier so she can take the ever skilled Pinocchio down. The other girls do get some screen time, especially Claes, but this time around it’s mostly Triela’s show.

From the story side of things, Gunslinger Girl: Il Teatrino holds the line, though not without incident. Manga-ka Yu Aida painted a very vivid, and surprisingly geopolitically accurate world for his story about cybernetically enhanced orphan girls, and he wrote surprisingly complex characters to inhabit it. By and large, Artland, working with Aida himself on the script adaptation, follows through and gets the characters and setting right in animation, though it does at points require a little rearranging of the source material. Even then, the uninformed may still at first glance think it’ll be yet another empty, moe-fulfillment show. But Artland, like Madhouse, brings out Aida’s subtext smoothly, one that chastises the objectification of youth so prominent these days in anime and manga.

It’s not all roses, though, as this the section of manga is a bit continuity-heavy and exposition-laden rather than action-packed, and that has to be worked through to get the pay off. Even then, Il Teatrino is organized such that you really should watch the original series first. There isn’t much introduction, and at points that may reduce the emotional investment the viewer has in characters, especially early on. However, while it does take time to deliver the various on-going threads’ denouement, the results are quite rewarding. Fans of the great one-shot, back-story-oriented episodes that helped define the original series also get their fill with some fantastic episodic content that holds its own against original series. In short, Artland didn’t ruin the fact that Gunslinger Girl is sold on characters and settling, and they basically pull it off in spite of tackling a more difficult section of the manga than Madhouse did. But that doesn’t change the fact you can’t enjoy it cold, and that there is a difference of feeling between an arc and a set of single episodes.

Animation-wise, it’s a dramatic change from the original series, but it’s one that sort of matches the evolution in Yu Aida’s own art style. However, while there don’t seem to be many moments of jarringly bad compositing or bad storyboarding (in fact, only one scene really comes to mind,) it doesn’t change that it’s not quite as visually lush, nor as understated as the original series. Lines are harsher, characters are less-detailed, and movement, while fluid and tight, isn’t as tense and tight in the action scenes, nor as subtle during the character moments. Subtle pieces of facial emotion that communicated just right level of affection or discomfort are replaced with a visual dialogue that is slightly clumsier, and almost inaccurate to the intent of the scene at points, perhaps in part because of the simplified design. I will say that few bits of fanservice that appeared in the manga are nixed in favor of modesty; and offsets, while defining that the problems in the characters’ expressions at points, are just that: problems, not attempts to subtly change the intent of a scene. Furthermore, the rests in pacing just don’t seem as artfully placed as they are in the first series. Again, a lot of that is due to the source material. I have to stress again that the section of manga adapted for this series is much more driven by the setting than the characterization, but even with that, scenes that had such impact and weight in the manga seem to lack that level of punch in animation in some episodes. It’s by no means poorly directed or animated. In fact, it bests most of its contemporaries, but it’s just not as good as the original anime.

Maybe some of that lack of impact hinges on the music; except for the beautiful yet haunting use of “Scarborough Fair” in various arrangements in one episode, the music is just flat compared to the first series. The fantastic “Light Before We Land” by the Delgados is replaced with a forgettable J-Pop number, and the ending theme is no better. The new material may have more appeal to Japanese otaku, but it doesn’t fit with the carefully crafted, old-world vibe of the manga. The rest of the series OST is a reflection of this by and large as well, with lovely orchestral and choral arrangements dropped for forgettable synths and electric pianos most of the time. Again, it feels like an otaku-appeal play, but it undermines the atmosphere and setting all too often: the very element that could have been selling some of the ambiance-oriented and dialogue-heavy scenes I mentioned earlier is absent entirely.

I can’t fault the voice acting or the over-all audio production, as both are enjoyable. The English and Japanese casts punch in with lovely work, though Funimation gets points for maintaining cast continuity with the original series, something the Japanese didn’t do. Additionally, FUNimation backs off a little from the almost theatrical mix they did for their dub of the original anime, which actually makes it a little easier to watch as the viewer doesn’t need to constantly worry about volume fluctuations.

The DVDs themselves are also pretty solid. The packaging is nice looking, though both cases in the box had loose plastic from the spindle breaking. It’s not quite so bonus-content heavy as the original series as well, though whether commentaries from the dub cast or looks at the layering that goes into the digital animation process could add much this time is questionable. Even an awesome cloth poster like the one included with the original volume one with box probably wouldn’t have been a great bonus, since the art is so much more minimal this time around. However, character biographies on the DVD or on an insert might have been really handy for those uninitiated to the Gunslinger Girl universe. The video quality itself is quite good considering the number of episodes jammed on the disc. FUNimation has leveled up considerably since days of slight artifacting on things like the first Fruits Basket release.

On the whole, Gunslinger Girl: Il Teatrino is a very good anime, a respectable adaptation of the source material and a high quality release. However, it’s plagued by what amounts to tenth-of-a-point deductions here and there that add up. Sure, it’s better than a lot of the other new series on the market, especially in this moe-centric environment, but stacked against its predecessor, it’s just not as well-directed, well-animated and well-adapted most of the time. I’d be remiss to say it doesn’t touch the same lovely heights at points, and honestly, I do recommend it, but it’s trying to match a bar so high it’s hard to not leave a little disappointed. Also, with the original series on its way to Blu-Ray, high-def fans may just want to pick that up, then catch Il Teatrino on Blu-Ray later on.

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