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Gunslinger Girl, vol. 1-6 (Yu Aida)

In modern-day Italy, a shadowy but seemingly benevolent organization takes in young girls whose futures are hopeless: Henrietta, the only surviving member of a family that was slaughtered; Rico, who was born without limbs and whose parents were increasingly unable to care for her; Triela, a child of mixed race from Tunisia who had been kidnapped and spoiler and squick/trigger warning used as a victim in a snuff film; and so on.

In truth, the Agency for Social Welfare (excellent choice of name: so bland and boring, no?) "treats" these girls by surgically altering them and brainwashing them to forget their former lives, turning them into near-unstoppable assassins that the agency calls cyborgs. This process also shortens their overall lifespan considerably, although because the program is still pretty much experimental, good data on the life of a cyborg is not really available.

Each girl is paired with an adult male "handler." Given that this is manga, this set-up could have been skeevy as hell, but although the sexual element is not totally ignored (Triela, who seems to be around 13, is definitely grappling with romantic feelings toward her handler), it's mostly a very minor element in the relationships. The pairings are called "fratellos" – that is, basically, a set of siblings.

There's an ongoing plot involving a terrorist group, which provides opportunities for the agency to use the girls' powers (although they are also involved in some very cold-hearted murders for general political expediency). We are shown the terrorists' interactions with each other, during which they discuss their political philosophies, so that they are not just faceless targets. Personalities and relationships, in fact, are the focus of the series: the girls' relationships not only with their handlers, but with each other. We get lots of scenes of their training and their down time in their dorm, when they talk about life in general as well as what they have been doing.

Despite a persistent feeling that this is all going to end in tears, I'm fascinated by this series and am enjoying it. The attitude of the trainers toward their doomed charges makes me think a bit of CLAMP's Clover, while the brainwashing and training of the girls recalls similar scenes in the childhoods of the azi (programmed clones) Catlin II and Florian II in C.J. Cherryh's Cyteen, who are destined for security work.

The artwork is more utilitarian than striking, but it gets the work done. It's very detailed and provides a lot of gun porn: wikis detailing what weapons each girls uses can be found easily online. There's a certain amount of male gaze – this is a shounen series – but it's not quite voyeuristic. We see girls changing their clothes, stretching (in spandex exercise gear), and in hospital gowns for procedures, but the treatment of these scenes mostly seemed to me more expository than exploitative. (And I was surprised to find that this was not a seinen series. The relationships between the girls and their handlers seems like prime moe.)


Gunslinger Girl (review)

One of the most interesting characters, to me, is Claes, a cyborg who loses her handler early in the series. She's re-brainwashed and relegated to being an experimental blank model, a test subject for treatments that might be useful in the program. Because she doesn't have regular duties and training like the others, she has more time to ponder her situation and is frequently ambushed by stray memories. Her wistful questions to the others about what they have been doing provides an opportunity for all of them to explore their feelings about the nature of their lives now. Likewise, we are given her conversations with the doctors and counselors who are working with her, which provides another window on what the program is actually doing to the girls.

Not every fratello works very well. Rico's handler, Jean, is rather a jerk who treats the child as a tool. His brother, Jose, loves his cyborg, Henrietta, in whom he sees their dead younger sister. He becomes increasingly aware of his motivations, which makes the situation ever more awkward. Hilshire, Triela's handler, cares for her very much, but he's uneasy with her, giving her childish gifts in lieu of the feelings he can't show.

The most recent arc I've read, which started in vol. 6, introduces a new cyborg, Petrushka, who is older than the others: I believe she's said to be 16. That's not the only difference: it's likely that there are people back in Russia who would be really upset if they knew her fate, as she was sent to Italy supposedly for limb-saving cancer treatment (she was a promising ballet student). Petrushka's handler seems to be more immature than the others. The other fratellos usually pose as father and daughter (or perhaps younger sister and older brother) when they are out, but Petrushka is told on her first mission that they are pretending to be a couple. I'm uneasy with this development, but I believe I'm meant to be. It will be interesting to see that play out.

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