Gunslinger Girl (ガンスリンガー・ガール) is a 15-volume manga series originally published in Japan from 2002-2012 by Yu Aida. Volumes 1-6 were released in the US by ADV manga from 2004-2007 shortly before they went defunct and then all 15 volumes were released in a series of omnibuses by Seven Seas from 2011-2013.
In an alternate modern reality where Italy has become a leader in medical and especially medicinal cybernetics they have established a new program called the Social Welfare Agency to take in kids with terminal conditions or whose parents can’t handle their medical issues and treat them with experimental cybernetics.
And also use them as assassins in a shadow war against separatist terrorists. What, you thought Italy was doing this out of altruism? While Gunslinger Girl is inspired by a mix of La Femme Nikita and The Professional it ends up as a cross of a 70s spy thriller and psychological drama- no one is a black or white characters as everyone, government agent and terrorist alike, is in a murky grey more alike then they’d like to admit and everyone knows what they’re doing is wrong but doesn’t care. In fact far more pages are spent with people musing over their own sins or describing themselves as ‘bad guys’ then on the action which is often very quick and sudden.
Do you like old school thrillers like Day of the Jackal or the French Connection or even more modern ones like Captain America: Winter Soldier? Well this is the series for you. Its heavy on the politics without being overbearing so you can follow who’s on what side and why making for one of the most mature manga as it doesn’t coddle to the normal tropes. The Italian setting is unique and fits in well with the overall plot as the Padania separatists are based on real groups in Italy lending everything an air of realism which extends down to the details on the weapons and the gunfights.
The plot is really a backdrop though for a large cast of diverse characters and how they wrestle with the kinds of actions they do and their own prior issues. At its heart this is a series about how revenge and violence only begets more enemies seeking revenge against you creating an endless cycle as everyone (agent and terrorist alike) carries some kind of vendetta against the other and its only when that cycle of violence is broken can people move forward. The cast muses over this point repeatedly, usually using The Human Comedy, Tosca, or the Lays of Ancient Rome and other texts as references to each other about their current situation while admitting that its a lot easier to say you want to forgive someone for murdering your family than it is to actually do so.
Lets get the major one out of the way first- the series has long courted accusations of being “loli” or overly sexualizing the underage girls. This strikes me as a surface accusation as the way the girls are used in the actual series is anything but sexual, and in fact is almost anti-sexual with the way they are viewed by their handlers or doctors often as tools instead of people but is prevalent enough that even the crackpot director of the second anime season leaned into it.
If you want to read something with a gripping plot, well this is going to be an investment as the first 3-4 volumes are mostly independent stories only slightly connected, its a very slow burn until the main plot starts to reveal itself over a third of the way through. Then when it does kick it up, subtlety is not its strong suit as the themes can literally be spelled out sometimes and on at least a few occasions engages in some of the most hamfisted foreshadowing possible.
The series doesn’t want to hold your hand in the usual ways manga does, characters will appear and unless someone else happens to say their name they don’t get much in the way of introduction. As such people might show up briefly in one chapter, then reappear 3 volumes later and its easy to completely miss the connection if you’re not reading them in short order. On a personal grudge this extends to two characters who die in the last volume and its not clear how they die, the fact they’re two of the best characters in the series and deserved a better exit is just annoying.
Yes. Theres a 13-episode series from 2003 covering the first 2 volumes which is amazing and a good introduction to the series. A second season, subtitled Il Teatrino and covering volumes 3-5 was released in 2008 and I cannot stress enough how goddamn awful that one is and it should be avoided at all costs.
Weeb Level: 0.5/10- outside of the young-ish girls as assassins this takes place entirely in Italy and Europe and has none of the usual tropes involved in manga.
Fanservice: 2/10- There are one or two quick shots of the girls naked but blurred out by steam, otherwise every shot of them even in their underwear is usually when they’re being operated on in surgery. And if you’re the kind of person who looks to surgical photos for your kicks, well A) theres actually an entire subplot about what the series thinks of you and B) never talk to me.
Quality: 10/10- I own this series in both English and Japanese and have read it multiple times and its never lost any of its luster. Even in its less focused early chapters you can see it laying the character building blocks as everything builds up for later.
Where to get it: The Seven Seas edition is still readily available in most bookstores and via some digital platforms such as Comixology and Nook, while the ADV edition is long out of print. If you have a choice between the two, go for the Seven Seas version- ADVs is kinda rough in the first 2 volumes with some really bad typesetting errors and a stiffer translation.