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 na´ve 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 and Gunslinger Girl 2 so it was with mixed blessings that I watched the third, and final, volume in the series Gunslinger Girl 3: The Silence of the Stars. I thought there'd be a fourth volume of the series and with it ending here, part of me was seriously disappointed (even though it was again a great set of episodes):
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.
Gunslinger Girl 3: The Silence of the Stars picked up from the last two volumes with a different twist but managed to show that the potential to go in various directions was not limited to what had taken place before. The four episodes this time were 10) Amare (To Love), 11) Febbre Alta (High Fever), 12) Simbiosi (Symbiosis), and 13) Stella Cadente (Falling Star). The general theme this time was not on the near invincibility of the girls as in the first volume, the cracks at the seams as in volume two, but the full fledged limitations of the girls in relation to the enemy and their precarious position as young, expendable, girls in a business known for cutting off loose ends. Further, the biological limitations of the girls against their conditioning came into full play this time as their programming came up against their own desires (and puberty). If ever there was a series in need of continuation, this was it since there is so much potential left to explore with the characters, the concept, and the scenario as a whole. Here's what the box cover said about this excellent concluding volume in the three part series:
"The grizzly murder of a fratello gets Section One involved, with an investigator sent in to get to the bottom of the "cyborg problem." As the Agency scrambles to protect their girls, Henrietta and Jose find themselves on an impromptu vacation, having been sent away "for their own safety." What are they hiding? And what does Henrietta know about the deadly truth?
Then the Agency uncovers a plot which could be used to wipe out the terrorists' stronghold once and for all. Things go terribly wrong, and in an all-or-nothing attack the girls find their lives on the line. Could this be the end of the girls and the Agency? Could their lives be over before they've really begun?"
I know that there are a lot of fans out there looking for something outside of the mainstream anime series they've come across. If you're one of them, this should definitely be on your list of titles to pick up, earning another Highly Recommended from me. I favor series that cause you to think about larger issues and this was one that used elements of La Femme Nikita and Noir to full advantage so if you've enjoyed those releases, this will shine like a bright star in the sky for you. I hope for a full season follow up series in the future but even with the bittersweet ending of this series, there is a lot more territory to be looked at, especially in a day and age when we are collectively faced with the dilemma of using any means necessary to protect that which we hold dear against those who would silence us forever.
Picture: Gunslinger Girl 3: The Silence of the Stars 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 best extra this time was the director commentary and Production commentary for two of the episodes. Each had several people in production capacities and voice acting roles commenting on the series as a whole, offering up some interesting insights from various aspects. I know some of you don't listen to these but I highly recommend doing so here since each added some replay value (after listening to them, go back and watch the whole series to see what they were talking about in some instances). If anyone from FUNimation is reading this, please include such extras in the future. There was also the clean opening and closing songs, a short on "Building Triela", the usual dossiers on the girls and some trailers with a double sided DVD cover and paper catalog for other FUNimation releases too.
Final Thoughts: Gunslinger Girl 3: The Silence of the Stars brought one of best series of 2005 to a close. Built as much on understatement as the usual factors that contribute to a fantastic series, this one was far too short for my tastes since it offered up a nice contrast to the multitude of lesser efforts on the market these days. I know some of you prefer seeing highly colorful robots and fighters bashing it out or just the same old stuff by the same old crews but give this one a chance if you want to expand your personal boundaries. In all, the production qualities, the extras, and the interesting story managed to keep me watching (repeatedly at that) so I can't stress enough that FUNimation hit the jackpot this time.
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