Among the fundamental facts that are essential to deciphering who I am, along with why a person would write fifty-plus paragraphs on a single topic, is this: I spend way too much time thinking about Gunslinger Girl.

I made my acquaintance with it nearly four years ago, thanks to a “five good anime that aren’t typical anime” or ”five anime that might be interesting to outsiders” list that I have tragically never been able to find again. On the surface, its placement on such a list, sharing billing status with far more understandable picks like Planetes, sounds counterintuitive. Little girls! With guns!! Paired with male adults!!! How is that not thoroughly anime to the bone?!

However, the blurb vouched for it with a pitch that got me mighty interested, as a series that played out its very anime-typical concept in a more grounded and realistic manner, including not shying away from its more disturbing ramifications. Eventually, during a summer when the series was available on Netflix, I dove in once and for all. You may then ask, what did I think of it?

Roll the tape!

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Safe to say, I loved it.

Naturally, upon seeing that there was a second season/series, subtitled Il Teatrino, I decided “Why not continue?” So I did.

That lasted about three episodes before I gave up.

Anyone who knows GunslingerGirl -Il Teatrino- or has at least heard about it before this point would have known that may not have been the brightest idea! It is different—extremelydifferent—from the first anime series, and not in a way that endeared itself to returning fans. It is, in effect, the shunned black sheep of the whole Gunslinger Girl fold.

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A couple of years past that moment, however, I ended up reading a substantial amount of the original manga and also eventually learned more about the production background behind it, and decided to try watching it again with a more open mind. I watched it to completion. The experience, especially through the lens of exposure to the original manga and the creative team behind the second anime, was highly illuminating.

Henrietta and the sleeve of her handler, Jose

Yes, it is still extremely different from the first series. Let’s also not get it twisted, either; it absolutely pales in comparison to not just the first series, but the manga as well. However, Gunslinger Girl -Il Teatrino- is not nearly as clear-cut of a case of seasonal decay as I had originally assumed.

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Said original assumption, based off seeing the first three episodes of the second series for the first time and applying the well-proven conventions of anime adaptations to it would have been as follows.

“Il Teatrino is the belated 2008 sequel to the original 2003 Gunslinger Girl anime, but the reins have been taken from Studio Madhouse and given to some other studio called Artland.”

“Bafflingly, rather than be a sequel outright, it tries passing itself off as a soft reboot of the series that clearly intends to divorce itself from the original anime, from major tonal and art style shifts to going as far as retreading the monologues that explain the girl-handler pairings and the deal with the Social Welfare Agency in the first episode…while still having everything TAKE PLACE after the first anime, and even CALLING BACK to said prior events to make sense of what’s happening NOW.”

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“In other words, this is a soft reboot in spirit, but still an outright sequel in practice. You can see em, right? All the red flags! Red flags galore! Shying away from what made the first anime work, while still being a direct continuation of the story! How it CLEARLY SO OBVIOUSLY deviates from the source! This is CLEARLY going to FAIL!!!”

Rico and her handler, Jean

Seeing it for the second time in full, however, with the benefit of reading Yu Aida’s source manga up to where Il Teatrino ended and being aware that he was essentially given sweeping creative control of that second series? Surprise! Matters are far from that obvious!

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It turns out that Gunslinger Girl is an extraordinarily weird case where its two anime adaptations are concerned. The first anime is indeed excellent, while the second anime is indeed a flop, but why they are those ways—particularly how much of a role that each anime’s faithfulness to the original manga plays in their successes—is far from conventional.

I believe these circumstances are so weird, in fact, that in order to truly and completely get to the bottom of why Il Teatrino falls flat, we need to thoroughly discuss how Gunslinger Girl the manga and its two anime series relate to each other, compare to each other, and stack up against each other. To wit, I will be spelling out a series of four observations and beliefs about Gunslinger Girl as a whole, which I believe together fully illuminate the second anime’s awkward position. At least half of these will be total surprises in the face of conventional anime wisdom.

Let’s get right into it.

Triela

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The story arc that Il Teatrino adapts is one of the high points of the original manga.

This point is the first time where Gunslinger Girl takes on an extended story arc, as opposed to the litany of standalone vignettes introducing Henrietta, Rico, Triela, Claes, Angelica, their handlers, and the Social Welfare Agency’s pedigree. This is when everything starts kicking into high gear, and it is really good!

It spans a single long-running mission starring one of the girls, Triela, who had been relegated to supporting character status behind Henrietta up to now. During her mission, she comes across an adversary who poses an actual challenge to her in combat. She comes down with the feeling that she must improve to defeat her foe. It is a turning point for the series, in that it introduces a pair of concepts—a legitimate rival, personal stakes in the profession—that are both entirely alien to a deadly cyborg assassin.

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The adversary in question is a man named Pinocchio, adopted as a boy by a mob boss, trained VERY young at the boss’ behest to become an assassin…all of which sounds awfully familiar to the circumstances of a certain set of young girls, doesn’t it?

Young Pinocchio

He is, indeed, another side of the Gunslinger Girl coin. His presence brings with him some intriguing commentary on the girls’ place in life—he shares a name with the most well-known fictional puppet there is, for Christ’s sake—and he partially serves as a possible answer to a major hypothetical: What if any of these girls got to fully grow up as an adult? What kind of people would they even turn out to be?

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Present-day Pinocchio

Pinocchio has a character arc that plays out in parallel to Triela’s, through an evolving relationship with a pair of bomb makers, Franca and Franco, who were previously introduced as recurring supporting antagonists but now fully enter the plot as major characters. There are some side vignettes thrown into the mix as well, but the dual threads of Triela and Pinocchio and the ways in which they intertwine with each other drive most of the action.

It also takes a dive into Triela’s past, which was totally unexplored in the first anime, and it is righteously fucked up.

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Franca and Franco

Il Teatrino, in other words, has a stellar narrative setup to work with. The anime performs due diligence in thereby following the story closely, and it does not saw off or otherwise dilute how it all played out in the original. Those are all highly encouraging signs; as the conventional principles of entertainment decree, a good plot can do wonders to compensate for a world of technical shortcomings, such as an evidently limited budget. Thus, all indications here point towards the series having the makings of something good. Yet in practice, that does not happen.

Whatever anyone could point to as reasons for its shortcomings, however, story and adherence to said story most assuredly do not account for any of them.

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It gets even crazier from there. The next point might really be shocking to a lot of you; it certainly shocked me.

Angelica and Rico

Il Teatrino is a more faithful anime adaptation of Gunslinger Girl than the first anime series.

I had not read the manga before watching Gunslinger Girl a few years ago, so ignorant little me was under the impression that Il Teatrino’s failings were going to do with how they were OBVIOUSLY diverging from the spirit of the original. Having now read more than two-thirds of the manga, however? Turns out, the true major departure from the source material happened in the first series.

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The manga was apparently rather popular in Japan in its day, whereas the anime received significantly less local acclaim. Having read and seen both, I cannot say that I am surprised. Madhouse took what was a shonen manga—published in Dengeki Daioh, a shonen publication that might sound familiar to anime fans primarily because it’s where Azumanga Daioh gets part of its name—adapted it in a way that might be the exact antithesis of what young teenage boys would want out of an anime, and came up with something that practically resembled a seinen. Not even one of those ultra-violent ones like Gantz or Tokyo Ghoul, either!

Il Teatrino, on the other hand, is markedly more consistent with the tone that Gunslinger Girl originally presented. For one, it squarely plants its foot right back into shonen territory. Plus, unlike with the first anime, Gunslinger Girl’s mangaka, Yu Aida, had a direct hand in writing the adaptation, and in fact commanded total supervision over Artland’s entire production—something prominently showcased in the opening credits—and that is all evident in how things play out. For anyone hoping for an anime adaptation of significant faithfulness, weird as it may be to say given its reputation, Gunslinger Girl -Il Teatrino- is inarguably the definitive version of the two.

None of these are inherently bad things, either. If the intent was to resurrect a series from five years ago which had commercially underperformed, but whose manga was still a wellspring of potential, then approaching things this way is a perfectly sensible plan. On its face, everything about this approach ought to excite fans of the manga!

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This all holds water from a purely creative standpoint as well. If the manga was fully done justice, chances are a good show could have come from it. “Good” being the operable word here. This leads into my next point, one that will be stated as if it is an immutable fact for dramatic effect, but really is just my opinion.

It also flies defiantly in the face of the conventional wisdom of anime adaptations.

Henrietta, from the first anime series

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The first Gunslinger Girl anime is better than the manga.

Here’s the thing. Gunslinger Girl, the manga, is at its heart a shonen pulp thriller. It takes the underpinning sci-fi childsploitation concept and drives it in a practically B-movie direction, complete with a tinge of skeeziness around the entire affair, though not to utterly tasteless extremes. That is all not to suggest it goes full camp, however, because those tendencies get tempered with more serious instincts.

The manga’s underlying tone reminds me of what I would find in a Western comic book flashing a bit of an edge. That is notably different from the ambiance given off by the typical shonen action manga. It is easily apparent how Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional—a similarly odd combo of batshit insanity and the serious—was one of its formative influences, even beyond the adult-child mentorship relationships at the center, and I am pretty sure there are few other shonens that could credibly claim such a thing.

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Importantly, is does all of this while also being a good read. It has its flaws, but I quite like the manga! Much of that especially has to do with that Western comic book vibe. An anime adaptation which preserved such an ambiance would be a solid piece of work.

There is even a glimpse of what that may have been like: A Funimation-made trailer for Gunslinger Girl -Il Teatrino- that manages to lay on the atmosphere thick courtesy of some good editing. Notably, this makes it seem far pulpier and violent than what the series actually is…but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The first anime adaptation from Madhouse does not go in the manga’s direction, however. Here is what it does instead: Take the underpinning sci-fi childsploitation concept and treat it with a healthier degree of seriousness as science fiction, which includes draining away much of the camp present in the source. The end product, in turn, is a cerebral, understated, contemplative, unnerving character study. Radically different though that may be, however, it totally works.

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Much of what I loved about the series to the extent of mentioning in the above video review? Like the unusually layered exploration of the yandere archetype, the moral quandaries it made me think upon, or how frequently disturbing it is? That is all anime-specific! Sure, the text for all of that is all in the manga, but its presence is simply a matter of “coming with the territory” in genre fiction, so it didn’t warrant much thought in my reading experience. On the other hand, the anime’s contemplative angle of approach to adapting the source material, which more or less boils down to the phrase “evocative as hell,” positions the text within a quietly, melancholically atmospheric tone where the implications of said text truly get to stand out and take root in the mind.

Had there been a second season where the Pinocchio story was adapted in this style—where the jagged inner workings of Triela and Pinocchio could be not just present, but truly observed in messy disquieting detail—I am positive that it would have been fucking incredible.

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However, let it not be unnoted: Such an approach is fundamentally different from how things take shape in the manga. I also believe that such an approach is not the only way to come up with a solid Gunslinger Girl anime. Going even further, the desire of anyone who would rather have an anime which is closer to the spirit of the original is totally understandable. Such is the niche that Il Teatrino was meant to fulfill, and I completely respect those goals.

That said, let it also not be unnoted that, when measured against the yardstick of how well it adapts the manga according to the manga’s parameters, Il Teatrino is an unsatisfactory effort. It might be more faithful than before, but make no mistake, this is the weakest Gunslinger Girl entry by far.

It surely does not help matters that the second anime tries to have things both ways, narratively speaking. As mentioned before, it is a soft reboot of the series, yet several of its narrative beats—Triela’s backstory included—still lean on past developments that would have been last seen in the first damn anime. It is pretty awkward.

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That, however, is not the fundamental issue plaguing the second anime. Which means that, yes, after establishing all of this background, it is time to delve right into why it underperforms.

My fourth and final point about the Gunslinger Girl pantheon.

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Gunslinger Girl -Il Teatrino- has no discernable atmosphere.

Look again at prior versions of the series. The manga is a pulpy Western comic book. The first anime is quietly unnerving science fiction. But Il Teatrino? Is the anime equivalent of under-acting, a hodgepodge of un-textured, generic anime vibes that do congeal into an experience, but only barely so. That is right; it commits to neither of the approaches of its forebears; hell, it hardly ever commits to anything! It is aesthetically sterile.

That is perhaps most evident in how it depicts Triela’s backstory. It ought to be astronomically disturbing, considering how (minor spoiler alert) it fucking involves SNUFF FILMS, yet with Il Teatrino’s touch, this Elfen Lied-level event barely registers as minorly unsettling. The moments of it that flicker by in the Funimation trailer from above are at least ten times more disturbing than how the series itself portrays the whole flashback, for goodness’ sake, and all it took to achieve that was some editing pizzazz!

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This shows up in nearly every aspect of the production. The soundtrack? I usually do not notice soundtracks all that much, but I sure noticed this one, and not for the right reasons. Part of it is that plenty of it just simply sucks, and especially stands out as the two-bit P.O.S. it is when compared to the more classical-utilizing first anime. There is one recurring action track that is appallingly bad. There is a cloying attempt at a rousing emotional track that always makes me eye roll. And both play all the goddamn time, particularly that rousing emotional theme.

In fairness, that is the only component which is actively bad. Everything else is not nearly as shoddy. The switch in art style? I am no fan of it. However, my issue with it is not from being fundamentally weak. On a technical level, it is decent enough, and still clearly communicates the Italian setting. I can even understand being more colorful than the muted appearance of the first anime. With large chunks of it taking place in sweeping rural pastures instead of the more urban locales of its predecessor, upping the number of bright colors makes perfect sense.

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My real problem with the art is that, though technically competent, it is also thoroughly undistinctive. There is not a whole lot of the “direction” part of art direction beyond the bare minimum needed to make the story make sense.

Character designs from the 2003 anime series

It affects the girls’ character designs the worst. For comparison’s sake, the first anime draws the girls out in slightly wonky proportions that especially stick out when compared to the adults. Their faces, the baggy look of clothes, how most of them look un-sleek. The end result of those choices is that the children distinctly look like children instead of miniaturized adults—and not action hero children either!—so the violence hits that much harder when they start pumping lead into fellow human beings. It is a remarkably effective little touch that enriches the equally split disorienting yet tender tone of the first series.

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Il Teatrino’s children, on the other hand, look like this.

A bit more stylized and poster-friendly than a series screenshot, but nonetheless an accurate representation of character design for Il Teatrino

With none of the touches or significant distinctions from the adults that enriched their designs in the series prior, and hardly any distinctive touches at all beyond the most cookie-cutter of interpretations. Feast your eyes on generic action girls! Especially on how Henrietta got short-changed the worst!! Whoop-dee-doo!!!

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The only character who doesn’t look weird through the art style change, and to its credit arguably benefitted from it, is Triela, which is quite fitting considering her prominence. Figuratively, at least, she is a teenager, so the in-between-child-and-adult appearance makes sense, and I am a big fan of how her eyes look in her Il Teatrino design.

That said, I am not convinced that these things were no happy accident. Additionally, it is the exception that proves why everything else falls flat: The change in character designs for Il Teatrino loses the meaning that they had in the first anime, and does not aim to replace any of it. It is a net loss that deflates how well the series could have presented itself.

The directing is painfully inert, too. Sure, the first anime is no sakuga showcase by any means, but it uses its slow and still moments in ways that build up atmosphere and tension while also avoiding looking hokey. Il Teatrino, on the other hand, is static in a “Jesus Christ, why is nothing moving WHY IS THIS SO BORING” manner, including too many panning-across-a-single-drawing shots and crowds that are completely immobile except for the main characters.

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Additionally, though there are more action scenes here, they are not that well-done. They contain far less tension and intensity than the first anime series, for one, but to be fair, they don’t have to be the same as the first anime to fit this anime’s decidedly different tone. However, the action does not even rise to the level of being purely entertaining and rousing, which could have otherwise been a way through which Il Teatrino might have gained some of the manga’s pulpy pedigree.

The degree of commitment here is, once again, the bare minimum, and the action suffers for it in turn. Most galling (maybe a spoiler, but COME ON you must have known it would eventually build to this) is the final peak of the climactic battle between Triela and Pinocchio. Whatever sense of poetic outcome it tries to achieve gets completely undone by how utterly confusing and overdramatic its presentation is, making what could have been climactic utterly anticlimactic instead.

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Finally, faithful though Il Teatrino may be to the plot of the original, it is starved of thematic heft, and when it does try to have any of it, it SEVERELY fucks up because its first instinct is to always be on the most blatant forms of “tell, not show” bullshit. Here is the general level of nuance and gravitas that it flexes: How does it get across how messed up the girls’ situation is? Just one isolated moment where a side character literally blurts out that what these girls go through is wrong! WRONG, I tell ya!!!!

Let’s try again: How to allude to the story of Pinocchio, because naming a major character in the story arc fucking Pinocchio apparently is not sufficient? Get Triela to spend a whole minute reading a SparkNotes-style summary of the entire story, one that just so happens to be included in a briefcase full of clues! And afterward angrily proclaim “What a stupid story” after angrily tossing the book aside!

On that note, I would like to circle back to the soundtrack, because its worst sin is that on top of being largely bad, it is also thoroughly unimaginative. It makes the Marvel Symphonic Universe sound like a complex use of music!

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For comparisons’ sake, the original anime used its soundtrack in far more interesting ways. Henrietta’s violent freak-out in the very first episode, for example, was not accompanied by something intense or driving or ominous. It was paired with a soft piano elegy, and the whole scene drew much power from that juxtaposition of sonic tranquility with the infliction of brutality. Conflicting impulses that—holy gheez—support the show’s thematic underpinnings.

But fear not! Il Teatrino does not bother with such concerns for being interesting! Shitty hi-tempo action theme is some of the most blatantly obvious action music possible. The recurring emotional theme practically SCREAMS OUT that it’s meant for all the emotional high-points, and lo and behold! It is used during every intended emotional high point! And feels more and more deflated every time it happens.

Hell, when Il Teatrino puts in one of those character-establishing scenes where Pinocchio is at home tenderly playing his piano during the second episode, the song that gets played even sounds like something that would have come right out of the cliche handbook for that kind of moment.

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The opening and ending themes, though not bad by any means—hell, Lia performs the ending—regardless suffer from a similar lack of imagination. In place of a sweeping, gorgeous scene setter from The Delgados is…angst. Just angst and brooding, mugging real hard and trying to be cool. In place of an Italian operatic closer is…okay, it’s a pretty ballad, one that I prefer over the first anime’s ending on the musical level at that. That said, the opera shit does way more as an identity-affirming move, and it is also not scoring a white background with a tiny window recapping snippets from the episode that just literally happened.

What pisses me off the most, though, is how this tendency goes so deep as to even be character-ruining. Henrietta? No more showing all the weird and unsettling ways in which conditioning affects a sweet girl at heart, no more desperate approval-seeking promises that she’ll on average kill more bad guys to make Jose happy! Strip all of that away, and what is the substitute? To make her two emotional hardships about 1) wanting to hold Jose’s fucking hand, and 2) the drama surrounding a goddamn gift. They then just have her act as totally generic hero girl who’s totally generically smitten with Jose the rest of the time.

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How about Rico, a.k.a. my favorite? She gets flattened to the smiling-girl-with-a-creepy-laugh trope. That is it. There is nothing else to her. No layers necessary, apparently!

Handler-girl relationships? No, they do not get a fair shake, either. It gets especially cringe-worthy with a scene like a lunch conversation between Triela and her handler, Hillshire, where Hillshire is all like “I can’t trust ANYBODY out here, but I know that I can always trust you” and “I am never going to betray you, Triela” because I shit you not, that clunkiness is only barely paraphrased. Is there really no way to do anything in a haphazard manner?! Is it genuinely impossible to avoid spelling out and signposting every goddamn thing in large capital letters?!

Hillshire

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Yet given all this complaining, thinking back on the series, I honestly do not actively dislike Gunslinger Girl: Il Teatrino as much as it may seem up to this point. I know firsthand what that feels like, and that ain’t this. Indifference is more like it. Part of it comes down to its base-level competency, as well as how the story at its center is still solid despite not being done much justice.

Most of it, however, is that although this series is meh for twelve of its thirteen episodes, there is one time—episode 8, “A Day in the Life of Claes”—when it becomes something fantastic. It is not just the sole great episode of Il Teatrino; it holds its own admirably against everything in the first season, too. It is a side story totally removed from the main plot that focuses on a character rarely in the spotlight, and essentially a follow-up to her spotlight episode from the first anime at that.

That all would theoretically work against the show’s pacing, yet for some reason, in this single instance, Artland does everything right that it does wrong the rest of the time, ending up being evocative as hell in the process. It caps off by ending on a tragic note that lands so well thanks to some good ol’ show-don’t-tell.

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This episode made me feel things. Claes, in turn, with just 20 minutes, comes out as the best and most well-realized character of the whole show. As the subject of the one episode where all of the pieces came together in sweet harmony. Out of thirteen total. The exception that, yet again, proves the rule.

Claes

That brings us to the conclusion. Gunslinger Girl -Il Teatrino- is a weaksauce adaptation of the original manga, whose unremarkable depths have the misfortune of getting put in severely stark relief against a prior anime adaptation that exceeded its source material. It gets the particulars of the story right, and does accomplish being more faithful to the manga than the first anime series, but does both in far too generic and ham-handed of a way to make much of an impact.

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Had it actually committed to either the pulp-and-circumstance aesthetic of the manga or the disquieting undertones of the first anime—had it committed at all, really—perhaps things would be different.