Italy. A place filled with rich culture, great art, and phenomenal food. Also a land of great unrest. Political and economic conflicts aren’t just confined to words and debates, but are also expressed in violent terrorist attacks.
From the outside, the Social Welfare Agency looks like a government charity, designed to help children who had experienced severe mental and physical traumas. On the inside, the SWA is taking many of these children, mostly young girls, and creating soldiers to fight the terrorists. These children have their bodies enhanced with cybernetics, and their minds are reshaped through a conditioning process involving drugs and hypnotherapy.
For two brothers, Jean and Jose Croce, the SWA offers an avenue for a more personal goal. Years before, their parents had been targeted and killed in a massive car bombing, an attack that also killed their beloved little sister and Jean’s fiance. They now want to find the man who planned and carried out the attack, and when the do, they intend to use the cyborg soldiers as tools to get their revenge on him.
This is one of those times when I think that whoever came up with the English name for this series didn’t really do it much of a favor, as it’s a rather cartoonish name for a story that has very few cartoonish elements.
The connotation for “gunslinger” is usually the old US west, where two men face each other on the dusty street of a small town of clapboard buildings, their hands hovering over their holstered six-shooters, while townsfolk hide behind doorways and windows while peeking out to see which of the gun fighters will outdraw the other. Applying this word to this story feels awkward.
And even the singular “girl” is not very accurate. Six of the cyborg girls are at various times the main focus of the story, and overall probably three of them could be considered the story’s main character. If I understand it right, the Japanese language does not have plural nouns in the same way that English does, so maybe the problem was with someone not understanding the story all that well before they had to come up with a translation of the name.
Who Are The Good Guys?
It’s easy, and not unjustified, to paint the Social Welfare Agency as bad guys. At the least, the idea of using children as assassins and murderers is well beyond questionable. But while the story does critique the SWA, it offers if anything an even sharper critique of the “real world” through the SWA.
Two of the girls came to SWA after being brutalized and tortured almost to death. Another was a girl who had been paralyzed from birth and was little more than abandoned by her family. For another, her own parents had tried to stage an accident so they could collect life insurance money from her death. The one main character whose back story is most normal is a Russian/Ukrainian girl who is close to fulfilling her dream of becoming a ballet dancer, but who tries to take her own life when bone cancer means she’ll need to have one of her legs amputated, and even her cancer is linked to the events of Chernobyl.
And in the SWA, outside of paramilitary training and killing bad guys, their lives are almost disturbingly normal. One girl grows a garden, another has a teddy bear collection. They go out one night to see a meteor shower and end up singing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
Even most of their handlers try to treat them well. I mentioned Jose earlier, one of the Croce brothers. For most of the story, he seems to see his cyborg charge, Henrietta, almost as if she were his little sister, perhaps as a replacement for the sister killed in the car bombing. He takes her star gazing, encourages her interest in photography, and even takes her to a performance of The Nutcracker. When she’s not in take-down-bad-guys mode, he seems to want her to have as normal a life as possible. Yet what she really is to him is revealed when the SWA learns information about the man who killed his family, and he has to decide whether he wants to go into battle with a reliable weapon or an increasingly unreliable person.
Then there’s Hilshire and Triela. Their story goes back to even before they are a part of the SWA, and it shows humanity at its worst and most fallen. Hilshire is one of the people who rescued a young girl, already a victim of child trafficking, from being murdered in a form of entertainment that is vile and depraved, but not before she had greatly suffered in mind and body. The SWA saved her life and restored her body with their cybernetics, but at the cost of dragging them both into their crusade.
Tell, Don’t Show
A few months ago, the internet was on fire over the movie Cuties. By some things I read about it, the movie set out with a good goal, a message against one way in which young girls are exploited. But the movie failed in its message, because it ended up engaging in the same kinds of exploitation of its child actors that it was trying to condemn.
Gunslinger Girl looks at some very dark corners of humanity, but how it goes about looking into these corners may be worth noting and learning from. Being a manga, the story is told in a visual format, but even considering that, the artist doesn’t try to shock us with explicit details. For example, when Hilshire, as a Europol officer before he becomes a part of the SWA, wants to hunt down people involved in child trafficking, he is shown what happens to these children and what he may encounter. He is shown it, but the reader is only told what he sees, and being told is quite disturbing enough.
By and large, the author does well in showing only enough, and not reveling or even wallowing in the details like some shock-fest horror movie.
Early on, a reader can get the impression that this is not a “happily ever after” type of story. Perhaps it’s some references to Italian tragic opera, or the jarring way childhood innocence is combined with ruthless violence, or just knowing that man cannot play God with people like this, reprogramming their minds and removing their memories, without it coming back to harm them. And at the risk of spoiling things a little, that’s largely how it plays out, either in loud and discordant ways or in quieter and bittersweet tones.
To take a step away from this story for a moment, I want to ask: Is there a place for tragedy in Christian stories?
A couple of years ago, I started getting interested in what was for me a new form of story telling: screenplays. As that interest continued and I started trying my hand at it, I looked at some of my shorter stories and wondered if those might work for screenplays.
Btw this exercise gave me some sympathy for screenwriters who have to try to modify a book’s story for the screen, because I can see a bit better how writing a story to be performed on screen is very different from writing a story to be read. If nothing else, the roughly 90 minutes most films run is a very limiting factor, compared to a novel that can go as long as the author wishes.
One story I worked on for a screenplay was a kind of Pilgrim’s Regress story called Rigor. In the written story, the young man has a fall and wanders around a bit, but at the end he is like the prodigal who comes to his senses.
For whatever reason, that kind of ending just wasn’t working for the screenplay. Finally, it seemed better to not make him have a change of heart; instead, he decides to embrace the hypocrisy he had seen in others and knew was in himself, to put on a show of keeping God’s laws in public while breaking those same laws when no one who cared was looking.
I kinda see this as a tragic ending, as least for a Christian story.
Now, would a story that ends like this be something many watchers of Christian movies would want to see? Perhaps I’m being unfair, but I have my doubts. In my view, it seems like Christians viewers and readers want their stories to be positive and encouraging.
But why would tragedy be rejected by Christians? Because a conversion scene is necessary for a Christian movie? Because Christian movies, and Christian stories in general, have to be positive and encouraging? Because tragic stories aren’t family-friendly?
Because of Christ and his sacrificial death for our sins, the Christian has no reason to fear tragedy, even if their life on earth is filled with hardships, rejections, and even martyrdom. But mankind is still a sinful mess, people still not only struggle with but embrace hubris, revenge, pride, and all other sins, and there can be no end for embracing sin but tragedy.
Tragedy isn’t just about the guy not getting the girl, it’s about the guy being arrogant and driving her off, or wanting revenge more than justice and forgiveness, or being greedy and getting in debt to the wrong people and paying the price for it. It’s about sin and consequences. It’s King Saul starting out fine but then disobeying God again and again until he’s plotting murder and consulting a necromancer. It’s Samson using his great strength against his people’s enemies but then unwisely telling his secret to someone untrustworthy and ending up captive and blinded. It’s even a rich young man who walks away because he thinks that Jesus requires too much of him. Tragedy can be very Christian.
I’ve written all that, and there’s so much more I could write about. For example, there’s the story line involving the Prince of Pasta, which is emotionally gut-wrenching. There’s Pinocchio, who is a kind of mirror image or photo negative of the cyborgs. It’s even noteworthy that an action/drama story set in Italy doesn’t focus on that country’s two most famous (or infamous) institutions: the Catholic Church and the Mafia.
This is not a light, fun read, nor is it typical comic or manga fare; rather, I’d say it shows that this story form is capable of far more than another round of caped heroes bashing dastardly villains, that it can take a pinch of sci-fi and give us a story that may rival classical literature in how it looks at the good and the bad in humanity.
It’s not an easy read, but it’s a good read. I recommend it.