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Gunslinger Girl and the Human Spirit

(This post is part of a series of posts covering Christmas-themed anime episodes. For more posts like these, check out the 12 Days of Anime tag.)

Watching Gunslinger Girl is simultaneously humanising and dehumanising. It’s humanising because all of its characters display such poignant depths of emotion. It’s dehumanising because these characters are cyborg assassins whose love for their handlers is partly a result of brainwashing and conditioning.

It’s no surprise that Christmas in the world of Gunslinger Girl is as heartwarming as it is heartbreaking.

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I wasn’t always a fan of Gunslinger Girl. The anime is visually bland, featuring lots of slow pans and uninteresting camera angles. Because of its bloated content, the anime ended up repeating the same points over and over. The filler content of the anime almost entirely revolves around the softer feelings of the girl assassins, which skews the manga’s fine-tuned balance between empathising with these girls and showing them for the dangerous killing machines that they are.

Revisiting the anime after reading the manga, though, did help me understand some of the choices the anime made, or at least put them into perspective. The focus of the anime might be narrower, but it does do an excellent job putting the viewer directly into the girls’ shoes.

Episode 4 focuses on Triela, the “big sister” among the gunslinger girls. Here, the gloves come off and Triela is revealed to be, you guessed it, an ordinary girl.

"This pain reminds me that I'm alive, so I'll endure it."

“This pain reminds me that I’m alive, so I’ll endure it.”

Throughout this entire episode, Triela is on her period. When she mentions her period pains to Henrietta, Henrettia responds, “I’ll never know what that feels like. They took my uterus out during conditioning.”

This was a really simple, yet rather chilling exchange. At the same time they’re discussing something so mundane and universal to the female experience as having a period, one of these girls reminds us that she is not an ordinary girl – her body has been tampered with beyond recognition. It’s these incidental moments that give Gunslinger Girl most of its power and poignancy.

The meat of the episode itself is about Triela’s decision to take pity on a mafia member she is supposed to safeguard and restrain. When she finds out that the guy wanted to be with his daughter for Christmas, she lets him slip away. She is moved by his display of fatherly love, wishing she could experience some of it for herself.

This also shows in her relationship with her handler Hillshire, who is an awkward man uncertain about how much distance he is supposed to keep from Triela. Triela wishes for some kind of affirmation from him, but is unsure about how to express it. Hillshire gets her a teddy bear every year for a gift, but she is unsatisfied, thinking that it’s a sign that he doesn’t put much thought into it. So when Hillshire lowers his standoffish front for once and asks Triela what she would want for Christmas, she realises the gift itself doesn’t matter. “Just get me a teddy bear like you always do,” she says.

Triela’s changing attitude towards her handler’s gifts is reflected in the bears themselves. Notice the contrast between Triela’s bears in the beginning of the episode and how they seem at the end:

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vlcsnap-2014-12-18-23h05m33s39In the end, even in a messed up world like that of Gunslinger Girl, kindness and the human spirit are ever present. Triela, an assassin, saves the life of a mafia member who feels partly responsible for her becoming a cyborg in the first place. And for Christmas, he gives her a teddy bear as well. No matter how cruel the world is, no matter how much evil human beings are capable of, people will always be performing these humble acts of kindness. In this world, even cyborgs are capable of human dignity.

There’s a nice message wrapped up in this episode as well. In the Gunslinger Girl world, as in the real world, it’s the thought that counts.

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Posted on December 19, 2014, in Reviews and Impressions and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Absolutely loved this one! I haven’t watched Gunslinger Girl but this post made me really excited to check it out. Good job!

  2. Would you recommend Gunslinger Girl? It sounds a bit like Noir, which I liked well enough.

  3. Sorta lost interest in watching this when I realized the series stops before doing Petra’s arc (which I really dug). A 3rd season might be cool.

  4. I’m reminded of how Triela become a gunslinger girl now :(

    I think this is one of those animes that you have to watch the dubbed version instead of the subbed. I really dug it though, but I agree with what you sad above and humanizing and dehumanizing. The show is brilliant, but I’m always left with a sour taste when I think about the bigger picture about these girls and their handlers. I still love it though.

    • I’ve actually only ever watched Gunslinger Girl dubbed. It’s like Baccano for me. I just can’t imagine these characters speaking Japanese. Must be the non-Japanese setting.

      The show is brilliant, but I’m always left with a sour taste when I think about the bigger picture about these girls and their handlers.

      I used to feel like this about Gunslinger Girl as well. But I actually interpret it as hopeful overall. Like, none of the crap that happens to these girls could feasibly happen in real life, but I think in creating such a ridiculously overblown scenario like this, Yu Aida is saying that people will always strive to be human even in the most dehumanising systems.

      Anyway, glad you like this anime too!

  5. Good post! But you forget about the ex-mafiasco. His family (and the encounter with Triela) is the main impulse leading him to redemption – in short, you’ll always need others to ‘correct’ yourself. But in the Fratello cases, they are alone fundamentally, but even so, they try.

    My main reason for loving celebrations like Christmas is because they remind you that it’s human’s nature to seek companions, no matter how painful the road it.

    • in short, you’ll always need others to ‘correct’ yourself. But in the Fratello cases, they are alone fundamentally, but even so, they try.

      This is a great point, yeah.

  6. I need to revisit this story and see how it all ends, as I’ve only seen the tv shows and skimmed some of the manga.

    Thing is, I got squicked out when I encountered a pre-GSG doujinshi by Yuu Aida. Now, instead of an edgy and subversive tale with SOMETHING TO SAY, I can’t help but see it wish-fulfillment about how the only joy these damaged little girls have in their lives is through explicitly romantic relationships with middle-aged men. Which makes the story much less ground-breaking, and much grosser.

    Which makes me wonder why Yuu Aida was so unhappy with the Madhouse anime. I recall that show having a shockingly bleak ending, showing that the relationship with the handlers was no salvation for the girls, but rather just another piece of exploitation in an F-ed up system. Did Madhouse understand the material better than its author, and refuse to indulge in ‘Mono no aware’ catharsis, destroying the moe-tragedy fantasy?

    Or am I mis-reading/remembering the material?

    As someone who has recent experienxe with the whole thing, I’m very interested to hear your thoughts Sir Frog.

    • Wow, what sort of doujinshi did Yu Aida write? It must have been terrible for you to react that way.

      But you know, regardless of what he wrote before Gunslinger Girl or since, it wouldn’t change my impression of Gunslinger Girl as a tastefully told story overall. If he literally said, “I intended this story to be pedo bait” I’d feel somewhat disturbed. But that’s just speaking in hypotheticals. I’m not a fan of taking the author’s intentions too literally when it comes to making my own interpretations.

      You’re free to interpret the series however you like, however! If it does feel like pedo bait to you, then there’s no way you can unsee that, so I sympathise.

      • I ended up having to reply to a similar comment made on /r/anime the following hours after I posted my own take on Gunslinger Girl with knowledge of Yu Aida’s previous work in eroge, and I took a position similar to yours. Let me tell you that it wasn’t fun at all afterwards having the author of that comment make a following comment that suggested I was a pedophile.

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