Most anime involving young girls puts a lot of emphasis on cuteness. Even if that’s not strictly the focus of the story, cuteness inevitably leaks in, mostly because it sells. Gunslinger Girl doesn’t do this at all, even though the premise makes it seem like the kind of show that would.
Gunslinger Girl takes place in Italy where a secret government organization called the Social Welfare Agency takes in orphaned adolescent girls with severe injuries or terminal illnesses and uses advanced technology to fix their bodies. It appears benevolent on the surface, but it actually brainwashes them and turns them into cyborgs to use as soldiers in various clandestine operations. The girls are each paired with an ordinary agent whom they are conditioned to care for and always obey. These units are known as Fratellos (Italian for siblings) and form the core of the story.
Gunslinger Girl is completely aware of how fucked up its premise is and never tries to sugarcoat it. The girls are never made to seem unrealistically cute and mostly act like girls that age would when they’re not on missions. The action scenes are relatively infrequent and never forget that what’s going on is ultimately tragic. Much of the show has a very heavy atmosphere and creates a sense of sadness without really needing to do anything. The premise is just that strong.
The entire anime is mostly episodic with very few plotlines stretching between episodes, similar to Cowboy Bebop. Like Bebop, what anchors the individual stories together is the strong characterization. Each episode follows a different Fratello, and the interactions between the girls and their handlers form the strongest aspect of the show. The handlers themselves each have a different way of treating the girl they are paired with, which strongly influences the girls’ personalities and their relationships. Giuse treats his partner Henrietta like a little sister and seems to truly care for her, and Henrietta in turn worships him like a little sister would. Hillshire doesn’t seem to know how to relate to Triella and they act more like partners who can’t figure each other out. Not all of them are this nice though. Jean treats Rico more like a tool than an actual person, and she acts like a doll who happily goes along with whatever she’s ordered to do. It’s these relationships that really carry the series from start to finish.
The animation for Gunslinger Girl was done by Madhouse and is good for its time (2003) but isn’t anything special by modern standards. It carries scenes just fine with few, if any, shortcuts, but rarely adds anything. The art is quite good and adds a sense of realism to everything. It avoids making the girls look particularly moe, which would have ruined the darker parts of it. The music is primarily operatic songs which both complement the scenes themselves and sound great on their own. The dub was done by Funimation and is up to their usual level of quality. The girls are all voiced in a realistic manner and actually sound like girls their age would. The dub might actually be preferable to the sub since there are some Italian terms that show up throughout the series.
Gunslinger Girl ultimately turns out to be more than it would seem from the premise, largely due to the strength of its characters. There’s also a second season, although it was done by a different studio and a different director. I haven’t seen it myself, but I’ve heard it isn’t as good as the first. Luckily, season 1 has a solid ending and doesn’t require additional content to complete its story.
Gunslinger Girl is available from Funimation and is available for streaming on their website.
Final Score: 9/10