Gunslinger Girl vol. 1
Chad Clayton rates it:
Author/artist: Yu Aida
Maybe I’m nuts for trying to review this title. It’s been out for a while, and most of the people who are interested in it have probably already bought the first volume or gorged themselves on fansubs of the anime series. The few reviews I’ve seen of it thus far have all been glowing; apparently some people out there are big fans of it. I’m not really surprised, since some anime fans seem to patently enjoy this type of stuff, but I still have to wonder how such a shallow, depressing comic could earn any amount of acclaim.
Gunslinger Girl is about the goings-on inside a corrupt Italian government organization that takes abandoned, abused, and/or disabled children from hospitals and transforms them into cyborg assassins that, naturally, work on both sides of the law. These children are given new, artificial bodies and are brainwashed (read: drugged) into being loyal tools of their masters. This naturally screws up the kids’ minds quite a bit, and the exploration of these mental issues, as well as the relationships between the girls and their handlers, comprises the better part of the manga’s first volume.
Now really, I don’t know what to say about the premise. I imagine that in the hands of a great storyteller, this idea could take off in any number of directions. It could be used to make a powerful indictment of the ethics of science, or serve as the basis for blood-freezing psychodrama. That’s a nice thought, but it ain’t happening here, folks. If the first volume is any indication, this premise is little more than a heavy-handed attempt to garner natural sympathy from the audience, and to cover up the fact that this manga is shaping up to be little more than a shallow, dull action/noir-ish crime drama story.
Gunslinger Girl‘s actual storytelling sensibilities are a mixed bag. It’s competent enough with the basics: it doesn’t suffer from pacing problems, mortifyingly stupid dialogue, or insane plot holes. Really, the story lurches forward pretty well, if you don’t mind reading through page after page of grim-faced men discussing their jobs and the cute little killing machines. However, the comic doesn’t seem very interested in stopping to ask “why” or exploring any aspect of the plot beyond face value. Apparently we’re supposed to just accept the fact that a government is making killer cyborgs out of children for who knows what reason, or that all the children are cute little girls, or any number of other interesting questions. Thus far, the comic either doesn’t address these questions, or gives them a simple, unsatisfactory cop-out of an answer. Hopefully this will all be addressed later in the story, but I must say, that’s an awful lot to just swallow out of hand.
The characterization is another problem area in Gunslinger Girl. The problem isn’t so much in the characters themselves, but in how they’re handled. Henrietta is a prototypical love-struck kid, Rico is a happy-go-lucky portriat of repression, and Triela is the self-aware smart aleck of the group (and by far the most interesting of the three girls). The two handlers we see the most of, Giuseppe and Hillshire, seem like somewhat decent guys, at least for people working in a corrupt, violent political organization. Of course, Rico’s handler is a soulless kid-beating bastard, though he doesn’t yet serve much purpose other than fulfilling this comic’s minimum requirement of soulless kid-beating bastards. You knew there had to be at least one, right?
This is a serviceable cast of characters. The problem is, instead of letting the audience get to know and get attached to the characters, the manga spends most of the time beating us over the head with how ghastly and unfortunate these children’s lives have been (and still are). It works at first – the pictures of a mutilated pre-cyborg Henrietta made me wince – but by the end of the volume, I was resentfully rolling my eyes at all the ham-fisted attempts to force me into feeling sorry for these grossly underdeveloped characters. I can enjoy sad stories, but I never enjoy the feeling of being emotionally manipulated.
But really, the general atmosphere of the entire comic is more about misery than mystery. And it’s a forced misery at that – the story just isn’t emotionally involving. It never made me genuinely feel for any of the characters; once the initial sympathy wore off, I didn’t really care about ‘em. It’s hard to relate to the handlers because, no matter how you look at it, they’re taking modified little girls and using them as death machines. It’s just as hard to relate to the girls, because they tend to act more like warped caricatures of little girls than anything resembling real girls of their age. While there are a couple of bittersweet moments between girl and handler, most of the story (including the big emotional/psychological revelations at the end of this volume) just rings hollow. Really, this lack of emotional involvement is the kiss of death for this comic; it makes the story seem like little more than an exercise in shallow self-pity.
Artificial angst aside, something else made it even harder to enjoy this manga. The story makes a big deal out of the chemical brainwashing, and how it tends to make some of these girls absolutely adore their handlers to the point that they would kill and die for them. Much attention is given to how much power these grown men wield over these little girls. All of the little girls are as cute and girlish as china-dolls, while all of the adult women are barely distinguishable as female at first glance. In case you can’t see where I’m going with this, this comic absolutely reeks of quasi-pedophilic overtones, and quite frankly I felt dirty just reading it. To its credit, Gunslinger Girl thus far makes no effort to show any kind of fanservice or nudity, but even that does little to cover up the absolutely creepy themes that are boiling beneath the surface. I can’t say whether the author intended for these themes to be there or not, but they’re there nonetheless.
Not everything is bad about this manga. From an artistic standpoint, Gunslinger Girl is quite nice. Yu Aida’s art style is very polished and fits the atmosphere of the story quite well, even though some of the characters look a bit too much alike. The action scenes flow pretty well, for what action there is. The dialogue bubbles, on the other hand, seldom point to whoever’s speaking, making it difficult to impossible to figure out who’s saying what at times. This naturally has the unfortunate side effect of rendering parts of the dialogue incomprehensible.
I know quite well that I’m hardly the target audience for Gunslinger Girl. I personally don’t find the image of children holding guns particularly shocking (probably because I watch the news), nor do I hold noir stories or films like The Professional in particularly high regard. But if you’re a fan of the aforementioned, or other anime series like Noir or Kite, you’ll probably find more to like in this comic than I did. But in my eyes, this comic is ultimately a competently done but humorless and heartless affair that, despite its pretenses, is more shock than substance. Gunslinger Girl might pick up and remedy some of these problems in later volumes, but I’m simply not the least bit interested in sticking around to find out.
Added: Friday, August 06, 2004
Related Link: ADV Manga