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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Anime Review: Gunslinger Girl - Il Teatrino

Gunslinger Girl: Il Teatrino: The Complete Series
Studio: Artland
FUNimation Entertainment
325 minutes/2 discs

Spoiler warning: For both seasons of Gunslinger Girl.

The girls of the Social Welfare Agency are no ordinary children. They are the grizzly remains of human wreckage pieced back together with cybernetic implants and trained to kill by the government. The oldest, Triela, pursues her targets with a ferocious enthusiasm - unwilling to settle for less than total annihilation. Her mirror in this bloody stalemate is Pinocchio, a shell of a boy raised as an assassin by the FRF - a terrorist faction at war with the SWA. Cold and cruelly efficient, he wields sharpened steel as though it were his own hand. Once human, these shattered souls have become murderous machines with only vague recollections of what it meant to be real - and a brutal compulsion to be the last killer standing.

When, for whatever reason, the control of the series shifted from Madhouse to Artland studio, it should have been a major clue that this series was in for one hell of a bumpy ride quality-rise. Madhouse did everything perfectly: the score, the animation, the voices, and so on. Yet Artland saw everything Madhouse did and decided to turn Gunslinger Girl’s second season into a generic-looking shoot-em-up that abandoned its original purpose and became more about the Agency then about the gunslinging girls that are in the title. They turned the girls into moe blushing school girls with guns, turned the focus onto a new assassin not even associated with the Agency who had about as much charm as a plank of wood, and gave it the most cookie cutter ‘action’ score I’ve heard in recent years.

In short, Il Teatrino is a hot mess. It should have never been made – or at least, never handed over to a different studio.  But it being Gunslinger Girl week, I will manage to explain why it is so terrible point by point and why it just doesn’t stack up against its Madhouse-created predecessor.

The story has certainly switched up since last season, and not in a good way. The series has become more about story arcs and less about characters, which wouldn’t be so bothersome if the arcs weren’t so mediocre. We are introduced to Pinocchio, a trained assassin like those in the Agency and whose adopted uncle is crafting into a tool of the terrorists. The problem with this, of course, is that Pinocchio is boring; he has no personality and no motivations beyond making his uncle happy and succeeding on missions. Someone might argue “but isn’t that Henrietta/the girls and their handlers in a nutshell?” except that the girls have lives. They play music and plant gardens and collect bears and have interests and beliefs outside of the Agency’s set goals. They are developed characters that can carry a series; Pinocchio is not – and yet many of this season’s scenes follow his boring self through his day-to-day and try to prop him up as a proper rival of Triela. None of these things work.

What also doesn’t work is the character design and overall characterization of the Agency’s girls. Yes, they are young girls turned into weapons; the subtitle of the series itself emphasizes that even though they have mechanical bodies, they are still adolescents. What Il Teatrino has done is to over-emphasize the adolescent over the mechanical to a point where it becomes almost uncomfortable to watch. As if the fratello relationship wasn’t precarious enough, this season turns that relationship into something bordering on romantic and something that should be approved, therefore making void all the progress of the first season concerning the girls and their handlers.  It’s as if the multi-episode arc concerning Elsa and her handler Lauro, and the investigation into it, never happened. Or did they conveniently forget what happens when one of the girls falls in love with her handler and realizes it can never be reciprocated? It’s a shame that all the subtleties of the fratello relationship could have been expanded upon, examined – but Il Teatrino decided to treat it like any typical troubled star-crossed shoujo romance.

The art is painfully paint by the numbers boring and truly underscores the studio switch between the two seasons. All the action scenes have been turned into overly dramatic and painfully dull scenes that could have come from any typical action anime series, and the overuse of speed lines and slo-mo quickly kill any sense of dramatic tension that comes from seeing this highly-efficient young killers in action. That was the beauty of the first season; they didn’t overly enunciate their actions through the art, they just showed it how it was – but none of this subtlety is present in these episodes. The only thing that remains intact art-wise is the gorgeous architecture and sights of the Italian landscape, but given that Italy is naturally gorgeous, it’s probably due to having a quality main setting than any efforts on Artland’s parts.

The score and voice acting is . . . well, more of the same, really. The score lacks subtlety and is (wait for it) generic, especially during the more action-orientated scenes. The only good music would be the opening and ending themes, but it helps that they are sung by super talents and vocal goddesses KOKIA and Lia (seriously, Lia’s cover of Scarborough Fair is amazing).  As for the voice acting, talk about a major switch up. Henrietta’s quite cuteness has turned into an irritating genki genki girl voice that doesn’t match her character at all. The rest of the cast is just there, so it’s hard to point out any others beyond that – except for Pinocchio and his VA’s overacting during all the emotional scenes. No wonder his character came off as wooden and uninteresting!

Overall, in the words of Adele, we could have had it all. But we got this – and this sucks. There were rarely any true morally challenging or emotionally charged episodes or moments, and the conflict within the Agency regarding the fratellos’ true nature got shortchanged severely. The decision to take the main focus of the series away from Henrietta and her fellow girls to the handlers and the terrorists, who for the most part aren’t interesting enough to carry the bulk of the story, greatly deflated my interest in the series with each episode. Of all the directions the second season of Gunslinger Girl could have gone in, it went in one of the worst possible directions; I hold no hope for a third proper season after this. I almost wish I had just kept with the first season – the beautiful, well-crafted first season – and left Il Teatrino alone; it brought me nothing but grief.