16 May 2011
With its cultured Italian setting and consciousness of high art in its costume and characters, Gunslinger Girl has a reputation as one of the sophisticates of anime and manga society. Still, in light of that social consciousness it must be said that Il Teatrino has behaved a little gauche. Manga Entertainment unveils this sequel to the original Gunslinger Girl anime four years after the first series (incidentally, an exquisite thing of beauty and well worth tracking down) was released in the UK by Revelation Films, and almost two years after Funimation brought Il Teatrino out in America... it is certainly stretching the definition of “fashionably late”!
Manga has consequently taken a bit of a gamble with Il Teatrino – after such a long gap there’s a significant risk that memory of the original has faded, or that even its most patient fans have since buckled and bought Region One imports. However, even if one audience might be shrinking, through some intelligent and farsighted scheduling Manga has successfully opened Gunslinger Girl up to another group, as Il Teatrino arrives after being heralded by Seven Seas Entertainment’s recent re-release of the Gunslinger Girl manga. Maybe it is late to the party... but it still knows how to make an entrance!
Italy enjoys a balmy Mediterranean climate... but tempers will be seared in the blistering summer heat. The Social Welfare Agency – a government institution that masquerades as a medical research quango but whose idiosyncratic notion of ‘care in the community’ involves killing those seen as a threat to it – is continuing its struggle unabated against Padania and the Five Republics, sectarian and nationalist terrorists seeking to tear apart the unity of the Italian state. As every bloody attack only drives the cycle of recrimination and retaliation on to another wretched round, fighters on both sides are only becoming ever more bitterly entrenched, sinking into the sucking morass of the vendetta.
With entrenchment comes escalation, and Padania is seeking to bring down ever more grand targets. Arrayed against them are the cyborgs of the Social Welfare Agency – young girls rescued from terminal illness, mortal injury and traumatic abuse and restored to health and happiness with top-quality prosthetics and advanced mental conditioning which also leaves them stronger, faster, and tougher than humans, needing to repay the government for their second chance at life by fighting for it. Each of these girls is superhuman, but as Padania is upping the stakes and increasing their effort, are they powerful enough – in body and mind – to resist the massed hatred of nations?
Manga’s release of Il Teatrino includes all thirteen television episodes crammed on to two DVDs, but omits the two OVA episodes that provided an epilogue. These DVD collections have proved to be a format that anime licensing companies have become increasingly reliant on in an endeavour to offer value for money to a viewership that is skittish about digging its hand into its pocket. In Il Teatrino’s case, however, this trend is doubly useful as a defence mechanism... because the opening of this series is awful.
Il Teatrino as a whole recounts the manga’s ‘Pinnochio’ arc (between volumes three to five), but the first episode tells an original story to reintroduce new viewers to the Social Welfare Agency and the fratello partnerships of the cyborgs and their handlers – the only problem being that it makes an absolute hash of it. The show still assumes familiarity with Gunslinger Girl, with only a couple of voice-overs being offered to explain the situation, which is a clumsy and flat attempt at blunt exposition. The art holds little appeal to engage the eye, either. Backgrounds are too clean and straight, lacking in texture and depth, which might be what’s natural for an animation studio used to drawing geometric concrete jungles like modern Tokyo but fails to evoke the saturated history of medieval stone invested in a place like Rome. It feels like a dime-store Italy, a Chinese knock-off – superficially bright and colourful but blotchy and undetailed. The animation is little short of dreadful, as characters almost stutter across the screen, the camera cuts away to background images rather than animating impacts and explosions, and embarrassingly a riot is depicted by panning a camera over a static image and filtering speed-lines around the edges for a minute... good grief, I could probably direct something more dynamic in Windows Movie Maker. The follow-up episode is also badly-paced, abruptly changing perspective to the Agency’s Padanian antagonists – there’s nothing wrong with this as such, but it’s the wrong time to do it when we’re still barely introduced to the heroines.
In short, these opening episodes get everything wrong and it’s an entirely underwhelming experience. It’s just as well that this is a Complete Collection, because I doubt anyone would stick around for the second instalment of a traditional volume-based release. As it is, though, there are seven episodes on disc one and as the DVD plays on it gives Il Teatrino an opportunity to recover from its stumble at the starting block and catch up – happily, it puts on a sprint. The story does become engaging once it gets up to speed, and there is a palpable stirring sense of characters wrestling with the heavy weight of the inexorable wheel of revenge that is grinding a scar along the length of the country, whether they are trying to strain against and halt it or spin it further and speed it. The terrorists of the Five Republics are more than just foils and we see what lies on both sides of the firing line without it feeling as though either faction has been overexposed; the sibling relationships – close and estranged – between the fratelli of cyborgs and handlers are also ably realised. Two different opening sequences are used in the anime – the second is a fairly conventional montage sequence fast-cutting through the cast, but the first, intercutting misted photographs of Italian streets with weapons and musical instruments, is an off-beat, intriguing presentation. Weapons are rendered authentically and when background art is relaxing on vistas of Italian cities and landscapes it can be quite arrestingly beautiful. When the scene is static, everything feels beguiling, genuinely artistic – but when the characters move, the illusion breaks.
The cheapness of the production indicated by the lamentably misfired confrontations of the first episode cannot be dodged. Il Teatrino takes its name from Italian puppet theatre, but it’s not quite a metaphorical point and more a literal one – these characters can move as jerkily as puppets. A little more effort is put in for the climatic confrontations at the end of the series but for the most part battles are flaccid affairs as characters remain oddly rigid even as bullets are flying about, and cutting away from the "money shot" happens more than once. Filtering speed-lines as a substitute for movement is infuriating, and a badly-misjudged attempt at providing cut-price visual depth recurs too many times – the edges of the frame will be saturated with a bloom or a shadow. This is incredibly annoying and distracting, making me feel as though I was blinking through a fog more than a few times. The art direction also makes some fundamental mistakes. Juxtaposition, generating disquiet by placing the charmingly cute alongside the chillingly cruel, has always been one of Gunslinger Girl’s strengths but Studio Artland pushes it too far – by giving all of the cyborgs ‘kawaii’ dinner-plate eyes the effect is undermined by being exaggerated to the point of parody. The palette is too bright – it may be colourful, but like dried enamel paint it lacks texture and warmth. Even though the original mangaka Yu Aida is credited as the series’ “Total Supervisor” some script changes are a detriment to the characters – it’s only small things, but some endearing and characterful scenes from the manga, such as an injured Henrietta hiding her hand behind her back so as not to worry her handler, are cut. Some additions, though, do work out – the boar pendant is an effective motif for Triela and Pinnochio’s rivalry.
Il Teatrino’s audio is generally positive. Immediately striking is FUNimation’s reformation of most of the original dubbing cast from the first series – this has a wonderful, warmly welcoming and familiar effect, and provides a great sense of continuity for fans of the original while letting new viewers enjoy superior performances from some capable actors and actresses. They provide nuanced delivery from Angelica’s insecure timorousness to Franca’s knowing smiles that are not condescending but gently-joshing; nothing’s phoned-in, the minor characters are also well-realised such as with Nino’s disconsolate ashen resignation, and even bit-parts put in reliably professional turns. Sound effects are strong, as weapon reports reverberate and car engines – surely a subject dear to any Italian! – purr contentedly and roar throatily. The music is a bit of a mixed bag – songs are emotive themes which complement the atmosphere of the anime, from KOKIA’s driven opening which suits the pacy raising of tension in the anime’s central conflict, to the serene, reflective rendition of “Scarborough Fair” that accompanies Claes’s languid life on the Agency compound and the cuttingly accurate lyrics of the ending theme’s “Doll”. Incidental music is more variable, basically competent in their composition but sounding tinny and too-obviously sequenced, like a last-generation video-game soundtrack.
The presentation of the DVDs themselves is simple but effective. The menus are static and use excerpts from the Japanese DVD cases – they’re appealing, soothing portraits and an encouraging introduction when first booting up, although it’s a pity we couldn’t have seen the complete images. All extras are placed on the second disc - the textless openings and endings are a satisfactory necessity and the commercials are a curio, but the cast interview, featuring the actor and actress for Marco and Angelica respectively, is oddly fascinating; it’s all silly promotional fluff but it’s still something that we rarely get to see and it feels like opening a window into a wider culture. Unfortunately, we are only given one interview out of a series of five – I suppose that DVD space ran out, but paraphernalia like this is unlikely to appear on YouTube so I would have given up the commercials to include one or two more interviews.
That lack of fulfilment, the potential to have offered more which is not realised, is something which I think can be attributed to Il Teatrino in general. It is a good show, but with a bit more refinement it could have been a great one; Manga Entertainment won’t thank me for saying this as it’s a criticism that’s been oft-repeated since this anime was first broadcast, but Artland’s cheap production inescapably does scuff the shine. Unfortunate as it is, I think that the key problem might be the “Total Supervisor” Yu Aida himself – even though they are both visual, comics and film are two different media, and as we found when Watchmen finally reached cinemas painstakingly trying to line up everything so that you’ve recreated a comic panel exactly feels self-consciously artificial and off-putting – with Il Teatrino’s static images I see the eye of an artist but not the perspective of a director; Aida should have had the confidence to let someone else hold his baby, as all this fumbling between hands instead risks dropping it altogether.
I would say that Il Teatrino is worth a purchase. As a Complete Collection it is quite affordable, and as much as the anime’s production problems obscure it Gunslinger Girl is an important work whose strength and vitality is still visible and can still stir emotion in your breast. Il Teatrino may not have been bestowed with the enchanting magic to lift you up and carry you away across the clouds, but it conjures a decent performance under the theatre lights.