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14 February 2012 @ 12:10 am
Recommendation: Gunslinger Girl  
Musings on manga as a medium, with a side of spoilers, spoilers and more spoilers, cut for your courtesy.

So today I caught up on Yu Aida's Gunslinger Girl. This is a series that has been on my radar since seeing its trailer on the original FMA dvd box set I borrowed from a friend in my last year (I think?) of high school in 2008. I watched the first season, got hooked, saw the artwork for the second season and decided to stay away. I didn't start reading the manga until I got unto uni, and although the art style was different, I was immediately struck by the power of the manga.

There's something I love about manga as a storytelling medium. It's almost equal parts visuals and text, but like any other visual form like a film, what isn't said, or shown is just as important as what is not -- and all of these things are even more deliberately considered and scrutinised to be crammed into just 20 pages.

Panel size, angles, shading, the positioning of text, blank boxes, 'air scratches', speed lines, sound effects ... everything seems to just compound into a heady mix of images and words which, if balanced with a strong story and solid characters, produces some powerful effects.

The story of Gunslinger Girl started out as more of an action story, with cool cyborg assassins -- young girls 'rehabilitated' by a well-funded organisation called the Social Welfare Agency in Italy (at the forefront of medical technology) -- who could go from talking about killing people in one second to tea parties the next, and their relationships with each other and their handlers. As a pair, they were called 'fratello' or, siblings. With strong political agendas directing their missions against right wing terrorists, the series established each fratello and their backstory amongst battles and also quiet moments.

Towards (what I am assuming is) the end of the series, Giacomo (the criminal who staged the Croce Affair) returns in an all out assault against the SWA, allied with the terrorist factions around Italy seeking to create a Five Republican state, where many of the stories of the fratello reach full circle -- although there are others to be unfolded.

The main fratello in the series is comprised of Henrietta and Jose. Jose joined SWA in order to avenge the death of his family and younger sister, Enrica who was murdered in the Croce Affair. Henrietta also bears a strong resemblence to Enrica; although she has a tragic past of her own -- something she remembers in flashes of trauma. However, she forms an obsession with Jose, who treats her with kindness. Their relationship is juxtaposed with that of Elsa and Lauro, the latter of whom sees the job as merely that, and does not invest any emotions in his working relationship with his cyborg. As a result of her unrequited feelings, Elsa murders Lauro and then commits suicide, something that Henrietta empathises with.
Due to the stress of her constant operations to repair damage to her body, she (like many of the cyborgs) suffers memory loss. As her body begins to shut down, the doctors operate on her to 'reset' her conditioning and she completely loses her personality, becoming a robot soldier. In the final battle, Henrietta snaps and remembers the murder of her family by a man in a mask and mercilessly continues to abuse a masked enemy after she has killed him. Jose attempts to pull her off him and calm her down but in her confusion, Henrietta shoots him, fatally wounding him. He recalls her 're-enactment' of Elsa and Lauro's deaths and asks that if he should die by her hand, she must also kill herself.

Triela and Hillshire have a longer history, and their bond is stronger and almost that of equals. Hillshire lacks the troubled past shared by Jean and Jose, and also genuinely cares for Triela, who is aware that her feelings for her handler are completely nurtured by chemical conditioning. The Hillshire-Triela fratello is my absolute favourite; they have a strong chemistry and he sees her not as a tool for revenge but as a part of his life. He returns for her after she is fatally injured in the infiltration of the battlefield with Giacomo, but it is implied that he, too was killed by an enemy attack.

And now it falls to Claes, whose handler was killed years ago. The death of her handler rendered her unusable in the field, for she could not adapt to another handler, and her quiet existence in the SWA's compound is now endangered by political agendas. Claes is the one who reminds me most of myself, which is why I'm excited to see her in battle. I'm also wondering whether or not her glasses, a symbol of her 'quiet and passive' self (and not the killer cyborg) will come into play, but knowing the tricks (and heartstrings) that Aida has pulled lately, I'm guessing it will.

In the end, with fratello dropping off the radar conflict after conflict, it's reminding us that these kinds of beings, used for this purpose, have no place in our world. The 'desire' of those within the SWA to fight puts them at odds with the idea of 'peace', and we must also question an organisation who uses children as experiments in cybernetic technology as well as assassination...

Funnily enough, this is my first manga where the author has killed off the actual main characters. This feeling that 'no one is really safe' is really pushing the barriers of what I have experienced as a (light-moderate) manga reader of this genre, where usually the hero is safe until the end of the day and we get a happily ever after. But the end is drawing nearer and it feels like none of the fratello will make it through as a whole. Funnily enough, this is what has pushed it from the mediocre to the fantastic in my opinion -- taking these kinds of risks may lose readers but the tragedy makes it that much more dark and memorable as a series.

With its violence and darker themes, Gunslinger Girl is definitely a seinen series. I'd recommend it for love of drama, action, complex characters as well as a strong political overtone, for those who like it. The art is a little bit touch and go at times, with funny angles and sometimes the men look a little too rough in style for my liking (and a far cry from the somewhat ethereal and beautiful cyborg assassins), but the pacing is good and the story is incredibly emotional. It wasn't a favourite before but it definitely is now for some aforementioned reasons. I'll be on the lookout for translated tankobons.

In unrelated news, I have been crying non-stop all night.