The Social Welfare Agency is the benevolently named front for a sinister government black ops: one in which fatally ill or injured children are revived using cybernetic implants, and then “conditioned” through drug therapy and brainwashing so that they lose all memory of their past and become pliantly obedient “puppets”. Assigned to a Handler who is given the euphemistic title “fratello” – sibling – each child is trained to become a lethally efficient government assassin. Henrietta is one such “puppet”: she not only witnessed the brutal murder of her family, but was herself the subject of a vicious assault that left her in a trauma-induced coma before her “rescue” by the Agency. Assigned to a Handler named Jose, Henrietta becomes a killer who eliminates her assigned targets without compunction. But her single-minded devotion to Jose and the emotions which it elicits creates an inner conflict for which Henrietta has neither the life experience nor the emotional maturity – and which, if left unchecked, threatens both her reliability as an assassin, and the Agency’s continued existence.
Based on the manga by Yu Aida and originally airing in Japan from late 2003 to early 2004, at first glance, the central premise of “Gunslinger Girl” appears grotesque – afterall, who would use children in such a heinous way? But when we consider the horrific reality of child soldiers, and the ways in which children are exploited by both terror organisations and crime syndicates, “Gunslinger Girl” suddenly feels not so far removed from reality. Rendered in a classic animation style that not only recalls the “first wave” anime of the 70s and 80s, but which also embodies the existential voids experienced by the main characters, “Gunslinger Girl” is a stark depiction of the abuse of power, the exploitation of trauma, and the objectification of humans that can taint even “noble” enterprises like counter-terrorism. This latter reality is highlighted by the story’s setting in 1980’s Italy: it both evokes the corruption and terrorism that arose from Operation Gladio during the Cold War, as well as the appalling inhumanities that emerged during the “War on Terror”. “Gunslinger Girl” spawned a sequel, “Gunslinger Girl: Il Teatrino”, which aired in Japan in 2008.
© Text Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2020. All rights reserved.