It’s rare for an author to be able to enjoy success overnight, even in the demanding manga world where it can quite often be a case of sink-or-swim and you sometimes have to start out with a hit. The ‘Big Three’ of One Piece, Bleach and Naruto may now bestride the world like colossi, but Eiichiro Oda spent several years as an assistant before his dabbling around pirate stories grew into One Piece; Tite Kubo’s early Zombie Powder sputtered to an ignominious cancellation (compare its 27 chapters to Bleach’s 446 and counting); and when Masashi Kishimoto discarded his Naruto pilot and tried to draw a series of Karakushi, the story that won him the Hot Step Award in 1996, readers hated it!
Yu Aida is a mangaka who may not have shifted, in terms of sheer volume, as much as the Big Three, but in contrast to their inauspicious beginnings he has enjoyed much more consistent and continuous success. Gunslinger Girl began as Yu Aida’s first professional manga – his only other commission at the time being character art for the obscure visual novel Bittersweet Fools – but he sped out of the gate at a lightning blur. Gunslinger Girl has been continuously published in its parent magazine, Dengeki Daioh, for close to a decade and is still ongoing; translated in multiple languages, it earns respectable positions in both foreign and domestic bestseller lists, and has accrued clutches of figurines, a trio of videogames and a pair of anime adaptations along the way... not bad for something that had its genesis as a cleaned-up general-audience version of a lolicon doujinshi. The boy done good!
Yu Aida can be understandably and rightfully pleased with his achievement, but he must forgive us if we don’t immediately recognise it – while Gunslinger Girl has appeared in languages as diverse as French, Italian and Russian, despite its international popularity the English version has for years now languished in "Licensing Hell". Gunslinger Girl was one of the properties originally acquired by ADV’s troubled manga division; with a glut of seventy-nine titles released in one year ADV made the classic mistake of too much, too soon and despite Gunslinger Girl’s considerable popularity alongside gems like Yotsuba&!, Azumanga Daioh and Chrono Crusade, they were buried under the avalanche of other unsustainable titles when the company's bubble burst; while Gunslinger Girl was one of the flagship titles when the SS ADV Manga tentatively nosed out of port again in 2007, it went down with the ship when the division finally foundered. All in all six volumes of Gunslinger Girl were released to a highly erratic schedule before publication lapsed into abeyance. The title lay dormant until ADV itself was laid to rest, whereupon the license was unearthed by Seven Seas Entertainment. There’s quite a lot of catching up to do – over the intervening years Japan has reached volume thirteen – and Seven Seas has opened up at a sprint by re-releasing the first six volumes in two omnibus compilations; cheap enough to tempt old fans into indulging in a second round of a title they have already bought, and convenient enough to let new readers get up to speed without breaking a sweat before Seven Seas continues the publication of single volumes with number seven later in the year.
It’s a testament to Gunslinger Girl’s appeal that despite its convoluted publication history it has always been warmed by a committed core of enthusiasts fanning its flame – but now that it is finally commercially available again, is it all just so much smoke, or will it set the wider manga community alight?
Anyway, on to the manga itself - Italy has a deserved reputation for the high quality of her healthcare system, and the Social Welfare Agency is one of the pillars bearing up that pedestal. A medical research quango forging new ground in trauma recovery and physical reconstruction, it offers solace and new opportunities to the despoiled innocence of young girls most poorly served by an unfortunate life and an inimical world – the dying, crippled, rejected and abused alike. Bleeding-edge prosthetic technology replaces organs ravaged by terminal disease and repairs bodies broken by years of brutal maltreatment; hypnosis and memory-wiping cleanly scrubs away the scars of heinous mental traumas that would have cut down to the very soul.
With the loss of their flesh, though, these girls – cyborgs – may be severed from such metaphysical qualities. More mundane and material concerns come to the fore; the procedures worked on them aren’t cheap. The girls have been given the incredible, impossible gift of a second chance at life... and they balance it out by ending others, repaying their debt to society by serving as the Italian government’s assassination squad. Erased minds are blank slates clean for ingraining tactics, programming skills, conditioning personalities and indoctrinating loyalty; new limbs bestow on the girls enhanced strength, dexterity and agility, enough to leap a wall, crush a skull and handle heavy guns.
There is plenty of opportunity to use them, as well. From the fall of Rome to Garibaldi’s nineteenth-century Risorgimento, Italy was a threadbare patchwork of shifting city-states, principalities, republics and foreign dominions, and the country’s tenuous modern national unity is threatening to unravel completely with the emergence of Padania, a vicious terrorist group determined to wrench north from south and, like the Roman, see the River Tiber foaming with much blood. In their struggle against Padania, the Social Welfare Agency wallows in that glozing stream, and it leaves a deep stain; is childhood necessarily so pure to allow it to slide off their innocence?
At first, the theme of child soldiers – given a grotesque mutation away from due solemnity with science-fiction cybernetics – might seem to be cheap shock tactics, a clumsy effort at substituting lurid melodrama for actual profundity. However, what becomes immediately evident when actually reading Gunslinger Girl is that this is simply not the case. It handles the topic with maturity, intelligence and restraint – it is not exploitative as a simple gimmicky ‘high concept’ that makes for a smart tagline, but rather reflective in a genuine and quietly thoughtful exploration of how the girls operate in their environment and how it affects their relationships with each other and the other staff of the Agency. It would have been incredibly, seductively easy for Aida to have spent long maudlin diatribes lamenting ad nauseam about the horror of the situation, or to have the cyborgs rebel against their masters for freedom and a phoned-in cheaply expectable action plot that’s been used a hundred times before. Aida’s genius is visible in how he avoids predictable cynicism or mawkishness and instead paints the cyborgs’ lives with an optimistic tinge, as the girls find new worth and purpose and gather the quanta of solace like the stars that dust the firmament under which they sing the “Ode to Joy”. By accepting the concept as it stands and spending time to build it up, rather than immediately seeking to undermine and knock down what he has laid out, Aida elevates his work to a height above an also-ran and burnishes it with greater depth, scope and texture.
One of the ways this is achieved is juxtaposition. The girls of the Agency are not robots: as much as they are programmed to be ruthless and compunctionless killers when the call to war comes, they’re also raised to be proper young ladies who can be a credit to their elders when not. Claes is twelve years old but has an advanced knowledge of Balzac; while Rico cleans her pistol, Henrietta practises her needlework; Angelica has to stand up on tippy-toes in her polished shoes so that she can set up her rifle over the firing step; Triela can discourse on medieval philosophy but she’s acutely embarrassed about how she’s not been educated in who’s hot in modern pop; Henrietta doesn’t want to distress her handler by appearing injured so she tries to hide her mangled hand behind her back; and her music case sometimes actually does have a violin in it - astonishing, I know! These comparisons can be bizarre but are no less fascinating.
The cast of Gunslinger Girl are also excellently characterised, with time and care spent in developing complete personalities. The key to achieving this is the inspired “fratello” concept – rather than the girls receiving their orders from an inimically faceless capital-O Organisation, there is a human link as each cyborg has an adult handler who she must support, and who in turn is responsible for her training and welfare and direction in battle. The cyborgs are conditioned to be unfailingly loyal to their handlers, but that driving compulsion stirs up a frothing, foaming wake of those anxious and fretful confusions that are adolescent emotions; the handlers themselves struggle with how to relate with these unnatural haemonculi and their intimidatingly ardent devotion. Some try to neutralise and rationalise their relationship merely as that of officer and soldier, and others strive for a kindly, compassionate, fraternal comfort for their wards – but being hard military types, they’re still trying to find out exactly what that entails themselves. Throughout all this, we understand that fratello – ‘siblings’ is more than a mere name, and if feelings are imprinted firmly that just leaves a more profound and affecting emotional depth in their tread.
Aida enhances and accentuates these relationships with complementary subtleties in his art. Despite the name of this series, action and gunfights are actually relatively brief. This may be an annoyance to readers looking for a conflagration of action, but I do not dislike it – it makes for a denser, fuller read as you don’t have shonen fights spread thinly over multiple chapters, and when a report does crack out is has the sudden, vehement, whiplash-snap of violence that strikes you with a tangible smarting slap. In quieter scenes, a character’s attitudes are communicated by their bearing, expression and gesture as much as in their actual dialogue, whether it be a bubbly girl stopping to adjust her hair in a car’s wing-mirror while skipping along; a discomfited one trying to balance on a kerb with a flat expression, struggling to see the simple, guileless pleasure that other children get from play; or a fretful one staringly at a bloodied shirt clenched in her hands, frightened that she’s going to be scolded.
This range of art, though, does take a little time to push out its horizons. I did say that Gunslinger Girl was Yu Aida’s first manga – and to be perfectly honest, in the early chapters, it shows quite badly. Walls and furniture can be just flat planes, backgrounds can be absent entirely, and characters at some times stray off-model with sausage arms and oddly-flexible elbows, while others remain painfully ramrod-straight and rigidly square to the camera. Still, even in the early chapters there’s a germ of future potential – firearms are rendered with high fidelity and individual key panels (such as one of the cyborgs on an operating table) are drawn with deliberate care and detail – and it’s actually fascinating to watch that seed take root and start to grow. As the chapters progress characters become less stiff in their movements, shading becomes more refined, backgrounds fill out, architecture becomes less boxy and develops texture, there is greater experimentation with the camera, and the environment becomes more scenic and authentic (photo-reference has been used for some backgrounds, but it’s pardonable when it’s used to recreate visible landmarks, and the backgrounds are redrawn not pasted so it’s not a cop-out). The art for the first eight chapters or so may be uninspired, but it is never less than competent and thereafter becomes steadily more assured, realising a complete world and its inhabitants, and by the end of the second omnibus figures are shown twisting with (literal!) balletic precision. Unlike television shows which show you some archive footage of a tracking shot over a city and then doggedly insist that the dank concrete alleyway behind the BBC Television Centre is actually Prague, Aida takes full advantage of the Italian setting for both scene and story, infusing the fabric of the pages with a rich cultural colour and resonant sense of place.
Seven Seas are conscious of this quality themselves, and indicate a similarly layered understanding with a splendid cover design. Transferring images that neatly encapsulate the character of the series onto glossy black backgrounds, writing the title in a delicately-edged doeskin cream, and with spines draped in deep and absorbing colours of succulent royal blue and ducal burgundy, from the moment you pick up each book the atmosphere is redolent in a cultured richness – classy, like dark chocolate.
The production quality of the books maintains this impression. A problem common across many of ADV’s mangas were blotchy pages with oversaturated contrast, an unavoidable consequence of being limited to physically scanning the pages from Japanese tankobons, but the modern edition of Gunslinger Girl is much cleaner and sharper with a greater range and depth of tone, benefiting from Seven Seas’ access to digital masters. The cover art and frontispieces that graced the original single volumes that the omnibii incorporate are included in the back of each book, which is a pleasing nod to completion, although it’s unfortunate that they are only replicated in black and white with no colour plates. Gunslinger Girl’s close observation of Italy is such that each chapter of the manga in Dengeki Daioh comes with a reference page introducing readers to the wider environment in which the story is set – these don’t survive, although in compensation each omnibus volume does offer relatively detailed translation notes; I also suppose that ultimately the original reference pages wouldn’t tell you much more than what you could find in a Lonely Planet guide anyway. The first volume pads itself out with a preview of Venus Versus Virus and the second with an excerpt from Toradora! – both stories have radically different tones to Gunslinger Girl, but this is not necessarily a bad thing as they can be dipped into to cleanse the palette after reading.
While ADV has already translated these six volumes Adrienne Beck’s translation is a complete rewrite from the ground-up that does not make any reference to previous work on the subject. Seven Seas’ effort compares favourably with the old editions and is greatly appreciated; when ADV split its translation between multiple staff with jarring and distractingly different styles, Beck’s consistent voice is a great asset. ADV’s work, particularly in the early volumes, could also be quite flat, halting and stilted, perhaps betraying a fledgling department’s lack of confidence in its abilities. Beck – an established industry veteran whose credits cover eighteen titles for both Seven Seas and Tokyopop – has no such hang-up and approaches dialogue in a free and fluid manner. Established Gunslinger Girl fans may find some niggles in stylistic choices – ADV did develop a firmer grip on language towards the end of their run and Beck commits to a few changes in tone in the latter half of the second omnibus, when we enter Petrushka’s story arc, which I’m not sure are improvements. Some individual lines become a little too hard-edged – for instance, “Smile for me, my little kitty cat” becomes the uneven “C’mon, show me that smile, kitten! Smile!” – and in Alessandro’s first meeting with Elisabeta, Beck’s translation may be too fluid, as what was the suitably halting, hesitant, wary probing of two strangers instead becomes too easily familiar. Still, this is not so much an error of mistranslation as a question of taste, so it could well be six of one or half a dozen of the other, and should be no more than a nitpick. This is also really just a relatively esoteric point of discussion for people who read the old versions exhaustively – new readers can rest assured that they are not losing anything, and Beck’s translation is coherent, literate and engaging throughout.
Much the same could be said of Gunslinger Girl as a whole. Intelligently written, authentically drawn, strongly characterised and artfully understated, it is not purely an action-adventure, nor a forbidden romance, but a fascinating and believable portrait of exceptional lives; a sophisticated piece that justifies the seinen genre as not merely ‘adult’ but genuinely mature. Seven Seas have done it justice with a capable localisation, and as the series progresses I look forward to adding more pieces to an artistic collection.