WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR SEASON 1 OF GUNSLINGER GIRL.
So this is an article I’ve been wanting to write for a while mostly because for like the last… 10 years I’ve wanted to rewatch Gunslinger Girl. More on that in a second. Another reason I wanted to get to this show/article is because I truly believed the characters were well developed throughout the course of the series and the rewatch confirmed that for me. Note that this is going to focus majorly on the first season; I haven’t seen the second one and I do not have many plans to. I’ve already been spoiled on some manga endings, so I might or might not read that in the future. But season 1 has plenty to focus on for the time being.
So Gunslinger Girl holds a pretty special place in my heart as an anime fan; when I was 13 or 14 years old, I went to my first “anime club” in a nearby library with a bunch of people I didn’t know since it wasn’t in my school area. On the screen, as I walked in, was the home page for the Gunslinger Girl DVD. And of course after episode 1, I was hooked as a young teenager. Girls with guns? That’s incredible! That’s awesome! Up until that point I had been experiencing shonen action shows like Inuyasha on Adult Swim, and Naruto, and Bleach on things like Toonami. It was the first time I had ever seen something… really different.
Now, Gunslinger Girl could also be considered a shonen but it was of course vastly different from other fantasy action shows. It was sci-fi mixed with military and drama, with the occasional politically motivated assassination of some high value target(s). And that was all on top of the underlying theme of whether the girls in the show were simply tools used by the Social Welfare Agency, or whether they were actually normal little girls who just so happened to have jobs that required politically motivated killing. After growing up a bit, I began to really think about Gunslinger Girl – what had interested me initially was the girls wielding guns. But when I thought about it again I was amazed at the conflict they had seemed to sneak past the 13 year old me.
The way this “little girl assassin” practice is justified is through the government organization saving their lives – they take girls who have had traumatic experiences, or who were close to dying, and conditions them, replacing their human body with a cyborg-style body, making them stronger and mentally readying them for the tasks they would need to carry out. The ethics of this practice are in question from time to time throughout the series, with even the handlers not be able to deal with the reality of what they were doing from time to time. But that is a topic for another time and indeed takes a backseat to how the girls are treated within the series. So let’s look at some of the girls now as well as their handlers.
I’ll be looking at each girl and their handler together, mostly, due to the influence the handler had on each girl throughout the course of the series. I will also be talking about briefly their relationships with each other, within their sections, if it is relevant to how the character developed.
Handler: Giuse Croce
The ‘main character’ of the show, Henrietta is the first girl we’re introduced to and the one we follow most closely. Of course, given that we follow her so much as the main character, we also follow Giuse because the two are hardly ever separated throughout the course of the series. We also see Giuse start to influence Henrietta’s hobbies – she takes up violin to impress him and she enjoys stargazing because he taught her so many things about it.
Henrietta – a girl who experienced having her family killed in front of her and being assaulted for an entire night – was a quiet girl at the beginning of the show. She wasn’t really sure of anything that was going on, and only did what Giuse told her as she was conditioned to. Of course she appears to have natural affection for Giuse as well, to a fault. She goes berserk whenever anyone appears to be harming Giuse, even if that is not necessarily the case.
Even with these faults Giuse refuses to give her the conditioning that would make her more obedient. He knows it would shorten her lifespan and from the beginning of the series it’s clear that Giuse views the girls as human, within reason. He doesn’t object to them being used as weapons like they are but he refuses to give his ‘sister’ (Henrietta) anything that would make her more of a tool. This is seen as odd by some others at the agency, but in later episodes we notice that outsiders view them as girls too.
Henrietta and Giuse are the first fratello we see and therefore the first one we understand. Henrietta does have affection for Giuse, whether it be due to her own feelings or the conditioning. Yet since he’s so nice to her she doesn’t feel upset knowing that she might not have her feelings returned or live long enough to be able to develop a relationship with him. They’ve reached a happy medium although doubts arise from time to time, such as Henrietta thinking that she can only be useful to Giuse as a tool and not as a normal girl. She does change her way of thinking eventually to a more positive outlook, however.
She also becomes more assertive throughout the course of the series and somewhat more outgoing. In the beginning, she appeared aloof and unfamiliar with Triela but by the end Triela was her confidant when she felt like things weren’t going well with Giuse. Triela served as something of a big sister to Henrietta because of her more mature nature. Henrietta was eventually able to do things like confronting Marco about going to see Angelica, pushing the point when he refused initially. She also admits her love for Giuse when she’s talking to Elsa, which is something she wouldn’t have done initially.
Henrietta appears happy with her life by the end of the series, knowing that she will die young and knowing that her feelings may have been influenced by conditioning. She’s happy right now so that’s kind of all that matters to her.
Handler: Jean Croce
Rico is the second girl we’re introduced to and her relationship with Jean is a stark contrast to Henrietta and Giuse. It’s made very clear by Jean that he sees Rico as nothing but a tool to accomplish the tasks at hand, at no point showing anything more of a relationship with her than as colleagues. Yet their relationship seems to work out just fine; Rico knows what she is and doesn’t deem herself as anything more or less than the tool she is seen as by Jean. She doesn’t really harbor any romantic feelings for him either, that we see.
Rico does this because she’s grateful to the agency for saving her life. During her establishing episode, where she speaks about her life, she mentions her parents used to fight all the time and she couldn’t move her body the way she wanted to. And now, thanks to the implants, she’s able to move freely. Her worst fear is waking up and seeing that she’s no longer able to move her hands or that her body doesn’t function correctly anymore. But every day she’s able to wake up and she sees that she’s still okay and that makes her not care for the complications of being a tool or a girl.
She gets along with the others well enough. Upon meeting a target to protect she states that she doesn’t lie well; she doesn’t seem to interact with strangers unless she is directly addressed. Not out of shyness, but probably out of orders from Jean himself. Her interests lie in most things; she takes great interest with the art and sculptures of Italia but she also mentions that she likes all the subjects they learn about at school, when asked by Triela.
Meeting Emilio does strike up an interest in her to play the violin. She doesn’t really understand what “crushes” are or how liking someone works but she does want to play for him. But showing the cruel nature of how the agency operates, Jean ordered her to kill anyone she met in her mission and she does end up killing Emilio. Her desire to be useful to the agency outweighed any of her own personal feelings.
She leads a happy existence solely because she is able to be used by Jean and because she has full control of her body back. She doesn’t worry about dying as she would do so happily to protect Jean. She sees the body as a new lease on life, which makes it easy for her to willingly carry out her tasks.
Handler: Victor Hilshire
Triela is the most sociable and outgoing of all the girls as well as being a confidant to most of them; Henrietta and her have some of a sister relationship and even Claes is able to confide in her from time to time. She’s able to speak with strangers and adults outside the agency with ease; she seems to resent adults though as she has a minor outburst when speaking wih Mario on the rescue mission.
She was a good candidate to have after Rico and Henrietta; her episode showed her handler didn’t know how to treat Triela. Hilshire tried to do things like buy her presents and talk to her idly but it never meshed well; he was missing something about the relationship and thus Triela as upset with him because she didn’t know whether he wanted her to be a “girl” or just a tool to him. She wouldn’t have minded being either. But after the Mario mission she’s able to realize that he’s trying to get through to her and she warms up to him after that.
We learn about Triela’s background through Mario; she was victim of snuff films which Mario helped in carrying out. She is nice enough to forgive him as she remains extremely level headed throughout the course of the series; she does her job well but also is able to socialize well with the other girls. Being the second oldest behind Angelica, but also being able to go out on most field missions, it seems she is also the best candidate to be the “older sister” to the rest of the girls.
It’s hard to say what kinds of hobbies Triela has. We don’t really see her doing much throughout the course of the series besides missions. She does like collecting the bears that Hilshire has gotten for her, having named them all after the seven dwarves (and naming the eighth one from Mario). She seems to take more kindly to this hobby once she understands Hilshire a bit better. She also seems to enjoy talking with those who she doesn’t like, in order to understand what makes them tick. It’s a game to her as we see with Elsa.
She joins the others for the meteor shower and starts off the vocals for Beethoven’s 9th, giving more credence to her being a “leader” type figure among the rest of the girls. Being the second oldest it is likely that she will follow in Angelica’s footsteps soon with memory loss but she decides to not focus on the inevitably and instead focus on the happy times she’s having.
Claes is the first example of a cyborg who doesn’t really take part in missions that we see. Due to her past she simply provides data for the lab at the agency by exerting her body so that the scientists there may take data from her. Raballo influenced much of her behavior in more ways than one.
Originally Claes was like Henrietta; shy and timid when it came to the agency. The exact cause of her coming to the SWA is unknown but the point remains that Raballo chose her above anyone else. She was able to bond with him, although it was clear their relationship remained professional during work and more social during off hours. She was able to speak openly to him while they were fishing and he instilled in her the idea of “enjoying passing the time idly” that carried with her even after his death.
Claes is another example of the handler influencing the girl’s hobbies; Claes didn’t remember she liked to read after the conditioning so Raballo let her access his library. He also taught her about vegetable gardening and fishing, and she starts a vegetable garden after his death. She performs tasks like drawing and reading in her free time in order to feel like she isn’t wasting her time since she can’t take part in the missions any longer.
Somewhat antisocial, she still bonds with the other girls and indeed shows anger and concern and the like for other members of the agency. She became that way after Raballo died. Losing her handler was an extreme shock but conditioning was able to remove the memory of him from her mind although they didn’t dare assign her another handler due to what it might do.
Claes and Raballo are a good example of what happens when an outsider comes into the agency with motivations different than joining the agency; Raballo joins under the promise that he’ll get his old job back yet ends up mentoring Claes regardless. He treats her as a tool during work and as a girl during their fishing trips although he does tell her he doesn’t care for her. It was nice to see an outsider brought in too, to see how they would react given the situation in the SWA. Unfortunately he was killed in a hit and run.
Claes is able to continue living on without a handler, showing that the girls aren’t completely reliant on them above all else. She finds meaning in providing data and is able to become friendly with the girls and be one of them, essentially.
Elsa de Sica
Handler: Lauro de-Sica
We also have the unfortunate case of Elsa in Gunslinger Girl. Her two episodes give us the picture of exactly how dangerous the agency can be and how the handler and the girl need to understand each other. Elsa is the extreme of Henrietta. She loves her handler to the ultimate length, with Lauro being the only thing on her mind seemingly all the time. She has no hobbies or interests as they would not help Lauro be proud of her.
She is able to execute her missions with great success as she just wants Lauro to praise her. Her level of conditioning combined with her lovesick mentality turned out to be a problem though. Upon seeing how Giuse treats Henrietta and how well they get along, Elsa goofs up some vitally simple tasks and is called “useless” by Lauro which completely destroys her.
When she was walking with Lauro in the forest and mentions that he gave her the name “Elsa de-Sica” there, Lauro shows he doesn’t even remember it nor care about it. This was most likely the last straw and she took him and herself out in order to be with him forever, showing the danger of having a little sister that can kill you at any time.
Elsa had no decorations in her room nor did she get along well with any of the girls only talking with Triela when Triela approached her. Henrietta tries to get to know her but Elsa completely disregards her. She dies before the end of the show but it does not appear that she would have become friends with the others anyway.
Handler: Marco Toni
The first cyborg in the agency, Angelica was also the first one to suffer the consequences of being given a new lease on life. Having had so many replacements, her injury, and just due to her general age she deteriorated to the point of not remembering things that happened seconds ago. It was hard for Marco to see her become this way as well. Being the first handler he didn’t have any experience from the others to go off of. He approached Angelica as a girl and told her the story of the Pasta Prince which became a recurring story.
Seeing her lose memory of the story was heartbreaking for Marco as he had spent so much time teaching her about it and teaching her other things. He acted cold towards her after she began to make simple mistakes in training and began to injure herself yet Angelica kept wanting to make him proud by participating in missions although she almost jeopardized the mission to save Claes.
It was tough for Angelica as well to remember her family and her dog but eventually she forgot them, only remembering her dog on the day of her death. Her relationship with Marco was important as it was the initial handler/cyborg relationship and showed the agency what the side effects of the implants were.
She was able to pass away peacefully watching the meteor shower and listening to Marco tell her the story of the Pasta Prince one last time.
All of these characters had their important moments within the course of the show and all of them showed off different aspects of how the handlers and the girls interacted with one another. Running throughout the course of the show, even into the tagline, was the idea that even though these girls were physically modified and mentally conditioned to be training machines, they were still adolescent girls. They had hobbies and interests, they had crushes and heartbreaks. They just also happened to kill for a living.
Each girl and handler showed off some unique aspect. From the warm and comforting relationship of Henrietta and Giuse, to the cold yet understanding relationship of Rico and Jean, to the confused relationship of Triela and Hilshire, to what happens when a handler dies with Claes and Raballo, to the extreme single mindedness Elsa had for Lauro, and finally the first relationship between a handler and a cyborg with Angelica and Marco. Given the thirteen episodes we had, the show did a wonderful job of presenting these ideas in a straightforward and simple manner without necessarily shoving the ideas present down the viewer’s throat.
Upon viewing it from the outside, the show seems to lean a little in favor of how Henrietta and Giuse act towards each other but makes it a point to show that the other girls are happy with how they have decided to form a relationship with their handlers. In life all relationships are different and there is not necessarily a “correct” way to have one and in this show it seems to be the same way.
I’m glad I rewatched the show. I have been wanting to do it for… years, actually. The 10 year thing wasn’t really an exaggeration. I managed to set aside this weekend and just go for it and I was not disappointed. The show lived up to the memory I had in my head of it. I will always be thankful for Gunslinger Girl as it truly was the show that opened up my view of anime and how many different ideas it has the ability to express. And I believe that Gunslinger Girl did a great job at presenting “girls with guns” in a way that was down to earth and believable. The relationships felt real, the girls had their own unique traits and personalities, and the conflicts were all understandable. I’m truly happy that I was able to experience this show ten years ago and again this weekend.
And that’s it. No more to say, no more to type. I’m not sure what my next article will be on – I think I really like writing about characters though, between my biweekly Character Focus articles, my Toradora article, and this article. I’m sure inspiration will strike again, perhaps for a show I hold as close to my heart as this one. As always, thank you for reading.