Movie: When I was much younger, my favorite television show was The Six Million Dollar Man, a series that followed the exploits of Steve Austin (Lee Majors), a man who was brought back from a tragic accident by a secret government agency that restored him to health using cybernetic implants to make him "better than he was, stronger, faster", instilling the word "bionics" into general use back in the mid 1970's. While the price tag of $6 million dollars was a bargain for what they got, his bosses made it quite clear that they'd pull the plug if he didn't serve his obligations of fighting foreign governments, enemy spies, and all sorts of bad guys that had all sorts of schemes of mischief to enrich their own pockets at the expense of the USA's best interests. Steve was a pure hero with unselfish motives; the kind of guy we all wished was working to protect us for those who'd do us harm. Such were the naïve 1970's, with the original story written before the Watergate scandal that proved a turning point in our cultural identity of trusting our leaders to "do the right thing". More recently, a television show about spies of a less enhanced nature, La Femme Nikita, finished it's 4+ year run, showcasing a similar government agency that used it's employees as cannon fodder against terrorists, never expecting them to last very long given the dangerous nature of the work involved. The contrast between the two shows in how they expected the audience to identify with the government, the intelligence community, and the need to sometimes weigh the greater good versus the means by which we collectively agree to allow our "agents" to operate says more about how jaded we've all become than anything else but they raise important questions too. Combining a lot of same concepts employed by those two shows, I relished my viewing experience of Gunslinger Girl 1 recently for the many fine qualities it had. Now, with Gunslinger Girl 2: Life, Happiness, and the Gun, I got to see if the series lived up to the initial potential or if it fell into the common sophomore slump too many other anime series have done in the past.
The show is described by the FUNimation website as: "Officially, the Social Welfare Agency is a government sponsored corporation that's in the business of saving lives. At least, that's the ruse. In reality, it's an agency on the fringe of technology. They give terminal patients another shot at life using cybernetic implants. This conditioning process then shapes the patient into an efficient machine for handling all of the government's dirty work."
While this overview gives a general idea of the show, it also falls far short of the mark since the series had a lot more complexity to it as well. The Social Welfare Agency (SWA) is set in Italy, a homeland for terrorists of all types over the years, and operates in the fringes of the intelligence community. Having only recently been established, it takes young girls that are either victims of accidents, disease, or other problems that would lead to death and gives them another shot at life (much like the two television series mentioned above). The gals are fitted with advanced cybernetic mechanisms that give them great strength, endurance, and other capabilities but at the cost of their past. They must undergo a process called "conditioning" that essentially wipes their memories clear of their past lives and they are then considered something less by the people in charge of them (called "handlers"). Each gal is assigned a handler that is in charge of them, responsible only to the missions they are assigned and the chain of command with all the latitude they need to prepare the girls for their work.
Their work, in case you haven't guessed by now, is typically centered on doing anything the agency considers in the best interests of the country, usually involving killing terrorists (or suspected terrorists) without the benefit of the usual due process most countries have towards suspected criminals. If something goes wrong, the girls are traceable back to the agency and the government has plausible deniability to deny they had any involvement in whatever sorted affair took place. The girls have as little social or outside life as their handlers see fit to provide them, with all of them staying on the campus of the SWA in between missions. They live to serve the needs of their handler and nothing else.
When I first watched Gunslinger Girl 1 my impression was that the series was going to focus solely on the girls of the agency, the main characters being the five leads and their handlers, but in Gunslinger Girl 2: Life, Happiness, and the Gun, I saw the series was going to be even more interesting than that, showing the handlers as they faced problems or emotional conflicts as well. Each of them has a different personality (much like the gals) and deals with their employment situation differently as a result. Some are there for the paycheck, others to fight against terrorists and preserve their way of life, and still others seem to be a mystery by the time the second volume was finished; all of which made for some replay and depth missing in far too many anime releases.
The four episodes this time were 6) Gelato (Frozen), 7) Protezione (Protection), 8) Il Principe del Regno Della Pasta (The Prince of the Kingdom of Pasta), and 9) Lycoris Radiata Herb (Be Struck Off Herb). In them, the series continued to showcase individual girls, this time with Triela and Angelica as the primary girls, all in relation to Henrietta, the star of the show (or at least the lead protagonist). I'm not going to ruin the show for you as other review websites seem intent on doing but suffice it to say, the developing complexities of the manner in which some of the handlers deal with the girls by emotionally distancing themselves as well as some of the drawbacks to the process used to condition the girls come to light. Further, as the girls age, it appears that some of them start developing past their programming, causing issues that will likely cause problems for them in the future. While never exactly stated, much like the agents recruited in the LFN series (although their criminals convicted with death sentences and not just afflicted with illnesses as here), the girls seem to be quite expendable to the SWA if need be with no rights or protections if they are seen as unfit for any duty (this is an arguable point due to Angelica's situation but she was a prototype the agency can still learn from).
I'm not exactly known as an easy grader but I found the second volume to uphold my initial impressions, even adding another level of complexity in the interrelationships shown so I'm going to rate it as Highly Recommended as I did the first volume. There were only four episodes this time but the corresponding extras were much better too so I think they evened each other out in most ways. For me, this is THE kick ass series of the summer and I only wish it was going to last more than one more volume. My opinion of FUNimation is elevating with each release of theirs I watch so be sure to keep an eye on them along with me to see if they can continue to provide this level of quality in the coming months.
Picture: Gunslinger Girl 2 was presented in an anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1 aspect ratio as it was originally made in Japan. I thought it looked slightly muted but this worked well with the thematic considerations and the colors, use of textures, and well composed shots made it a show you could look at repeatedly and find new things to marvel at each time. If you're looking for a brightly colored kiddy show to entertain your children, you'll want to look elsewhere but this one appeared to be a solid balance between the material and technical values for more mature audiences.
Sound: The audio was presented with the usual choices of a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround English dub, a 2.0 version, or the original Japanese in the 2.0 track as originally aired, all with optional subtitles in English. The separation between the channels was one of those rare breed that actually sounded exceptionally solid with the music and sound effects displaying some very good separation as well as dynamic range. I listened to both the dub and original tracks with each offering some value to me although I recognize that some of the subtitle snobs will refuse to check out the dubs. For the most part, they were slightly different flavors of the same material so check them out (the 5.1 track was sonically superior in terms of bass and placement of soundstage elements but I liked hearing the original Japanese track too).
Extras: The extras on the first volume of Gunslinger Girl weren't that great unless you got the cool special edition with the great banner but Gunslinger Girl 2 changed that by offering up some decent new material worth checking out. My favorite was a series of interviews by the female leads of the series; Laura Bailey (Henrietta), Luci Christian (Rico), Caitlin Glass (Triela), Alese Johnson (Claes), and the infamous and lovely Monica Rial (Angelica) all getting to provide an audio interview of their work in general as well as on the series. This is the kind of extra that I truly appreciate since it provides something special and gives the fan something they can enjoy more than once. There was also the clean opening and closing songs, a character dossier on the lead gals with artwork and their choice of weapon with some personal background on most of them, a short on "Building Rico" and some trailers with a double sided DVD cover and paper catalog for other FUNimation releases too.
Final Thoughts: Gunslinger Girl 2 was very entertaining to me and added to my already high opinion of FUNimation. While they didn't make the original show, their adaptation of it via the English language dub was at least as good for me as the original and I thought each of the female leads (listed above) fit their character very nicely. The themes of the show all addressed some fundamental issues our society faces in regards to how we operate and by what standards, and there was a lot more going on then a cursory glance would lead you to believe. Check out this great series for some of the best fusion of visuals and sound that you'll find in a recently released anime series.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVDTalk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003 and Best Of Anime 2004 article or regular column Anime Talk