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Gunslinger Girl Vol. 4
posted June 27, 2007


Creator: Yu Aida
Publishing Information: ADV Manga, softcover, 186 pages, July 2007, $9.95
Ordering Numbers: 1413903416 (ISBN10)

I'm not sure there's a lot of idiosyncratic literary substance to grasp onto in a way that would make a review of Yu Aida's Gunslinger Girl series, re-launched by ADV Manga after a poorly distributed third volume hit the market and then a two-year hiatus, a deeply nuanced and considered inquiry into theme and character. At its heart this is a sturdy but unimpressive collection of ideas bouncing around within a standard spy series set-up. A special program within a secret agency employs cybernetically enhanced little girls as ruthless, highly effective agents of espionage. They are paired with older men who serve as their handlers and, perhaps, as targets of what's left of the girls' ability to create and then nurture an emotional attachment. A standard plot features an external mission contrasted with some smaller issue such as the latest permutation on an individual girl's emotional state, like Triela's struggle to get over a recently failed mission. The resolution usually has an impact on both stories, or one will at least inform the other. Like most serial works, say a long-running TV show, stories build on the basic formula with various permutations each time out that deepen and inform without every managing to result in significant narrative progression.

The main strength of Gunslinger Girl, certainly on display in Volume 4, can be found in the accomplished, crystal clear action-adventure staging and the conceptual strength of the dualities it chooses to explore. It feels smart, put together. The number of contrasting elements which can be set against one another are impressive: the cuteness of the girls versus the violence they practice, the physical size of the girls compared to the world in which they operate, the distinction between the physical and mental state of the girls and their older handlers, the distinction between the physical competency and the recurring emotional shortcomings we see from the girls, the inside/outside of things like the physical plant and the clothing worn and the deceptions each provides, and so on. Throw in the age of the agents, and there's a potentially unsettling quality to many of the elements one can pair off that I think a lot of people find attractive, and certainly something that provides a kind of kick to what might be otherwise be standard, dull spy material.

The question becomes whether or not the book's familiarity indicates more of a generic quality underneath the slick art, story elements with hooks that may not be able to resolve themselves with the uniqueness that significant art demands. An episodic feel begins to seep into these stories by about 1/3 of the way through: the notion of Rico going to the opera feels like, "Oh, there's a 'Rico Going to Opera' plot line; that should bring out this element and this element" more than the event feels like a something that grew organically out of previous events. When every episode suggests something staged in that manner, the way a TV show about lawyers has trials where you go, "That lawyer will try that case because she has the applicable personal issues," the result may be a bit too artificial to sustain a reader's interest over the long-term. At least this reader's. I would call Gunslinger Girl a moderate guilty pleasure, but not in the sense that people scowl at as unfashionable, of liking something one knows is bad, but more in the way of something that has limited virtues, almost all of which are on the surface, few of which deepen over time.