Something tells me that a lot of western manga and anime fans are put off by the name of Gunslinger Girl. It sounds like another fanservice-intensive lolis-with-guns effort.
Before you make that assumption, remember that English titles for manga are often a little mangled in their meaning to native English speakers. How else do you end up with oddities like Yakitate!! Japan or Stroke Material?
So, what is it? It's bloody, gentle, subtle, gross, beautiful, ugly, loving and abusing. The themes and characters are complex, the setting is beautiful, and there's nothing resembling fanservice.
It's like Simoun in exactly one way: the creator is mostly a mystery. We know the author is named 相田 裕 (Aida Yutaka), and it's generally believed that said author is male, mostly because of a love of European cars and guns and great care taken in drawing them. There's a stated date of birth which would put him in his mid-20s. If so, I hope he keeps drawing manga for a long time to come...
Gunslinger Girl is also a little like Simoun and Ai Ren in that it's not hugely popular, but it has a base of enthusiastic fans who tirelessly promote it to anyone who'll listen. I'm one of those fans. If you're into Naruto or other shounen hack-and-slash, you probably won't like it. If you're ready for something more complex with simultaneous light and darkness and missing easy answers or simple problems, you might be interested in Gunslinger Girl.
Here's an art sample from the end of volume 5 (it's the mangaka helper credit page). Yes, that's typical of the art in the later volumes. These three people are all on the, uh, other side from the eponymous Gunslinger Girls (I won't call them 'bad guys' or 'villains' simply because, as is often the case in good stories, who is good and who is bad isn't always an easy question to answer). The car is a late-50s to mid-60s Alfa-Romeo Giulia Spider (the author identifies it as a Giulietta spyder, but the Giulietta series didn't come with the 1600 CC engine noted on the boot lid), and is carefully drawn, if mis-identified in text.
If you'd like to see just how good a job Aida-sensee has done, on this site may be found a photo of an almost-identical car identified as a 1965 Giulia Spider Veloce. Likewise, note the anatomy and posing of the people in the picture. It's typical of the art in the manga. Sometimes some characters (the two youngest Gunslinger Girls, Henrietta and Rico, in particular) are difficult to tell apart by their facial detail, but you're seldom left wondering who is who because Aida-sensee uses distinctive hairstyles, distinctive wardrobe (which sometimes is a plot point, as with Henrietta's overcoat) and good establishing shots to show you where something is happening.
Of course, if you know about guns, you'll seldom be confused about who is who if it's an action scene and weapons are drawn. Aida-sensee carefully pairs each character with a gun or three, and the guns are always meticulously drawn. Henrietta's SIG Sauer P239 Tu-Tone is so well drawn on the cover of volume one that you can make out the decocking lever and the logos on the grip and slide. There are a couple of loose rounds along with the ejected magazine beside her, so I can tell you that her pistol could be chambered for either 9 mm Parabellum (my guess, given that the story is set in Italy) or .40 Smith and Wesson, but it's definitely not .357 SIG (no bottleneck). Most of you could care less, I'm sure, but it's nice (and unfortunately rare) to see real technological objects drawn with accuracy and detail in manga. Likewise, the gun choices make sense. Henrietta may be a powerful cyborg assassin with amazing strength, agility, and reflexes, but her stature is still that of the 11 year-old girl she was before her upgrades. A small, lightweight, single-row semi-auto pistol like the P239 is a good choice for someone with small hands, especially if it must often be concealed on a small girl, as is the case here. So GSG wins on another point - the technology isn't just window dressing - it makes sense in context, and it propels the story.
And that brings us to the heart of Gunslinger Girl. Henrietta is introduced first in both manga and anime for a reason. She's the girliest of the girls, among the youngest, and sticks closest to the traditional Japanese school-girl roles (she wears a seifuku when not on assignment, for instance). Her 'handler' (Joze in the Japanese original, which is tweaked variously to Jose, Giuse (my favorite), or Giuseppe by translators) treats her as he would a little sister, buying her gifts and trying to educate her in the ways of a young lady of the world. He also orders her to kill people periodically, which she generally does very efficiently, be it with guns, knives, or her unaided body. She has been psychologically modified along with her cyborg modifications so that she has a creepily obsessive emotional attachment to Giuse and the same burning desire to protect him as a military or police dog has to protect its handler. Each of the girls is paired with such a handler (who usually has prior experience in police work, the military, or some intelligence service). Together, the handler-cyborg team is called a fratello (Italian for 'brother.' Why not fratelli (brothers)? Ask Aida-sensee). Your sample page here (remember, manga read right to left) illustrates Giuse's conundrum: Henrietta has just acted against orders in reaction to a perceived threat to Giuse. She very efficiently used the FN P90 submachine gun she's clutching in the bottom frame to protect him, and thereby made it harder for him to do his job. This is a good example of an early page from Gunslinger Girl. Comparing it to the other pages shows how far Aida-sensee has come as an artist during this manga's run. To be fair, this is also a pretty awful scan. I have no idea what the toning and detail looks like in the Japanese original.
The several fratellos are all part of the Italian Social Welfare Agency Section 2, which is a black-ops anti-terrorism unit primarily tasked with combating the extremist elements of the Northern Italian seperatist movement Padania Republic Faction, which seems to have many of the qualities of the Red Brigades of the 1980s.
If the handlers were all dimwitted, hardened killers and the girls mindless killing machines, then the story would be straightforward and not particularly interesting. They're not. They all are intelligent people with their own opinions, lives, motivations and misgivings about their work, and about their coworkers. The handlers vary in their approaches to their task, just as any group of real people would in the real world.
Similarly, none of the girls is particularly like the others in personality or temperament. Henrietta is more concerned with pleasing Giuse than anything else in the world. Here she is off duty in her trademark seifuku checking her hair in the side mirror of his ragtop Porsche 911 before meeting him upon his return from vacation.
By comparison, Triela is older, wiser, and more sure of herself and her place in the world. Because she's wiser, she's also more thoughtful about her strange dual life of being an adolescent schoolgirl and an assassin. She acts as 'wise older sister' to the younger members of her strange sorority. Also, among the cyborgs in Gunslinger Girl, Triela is unique in having some knowledge of the horrible near-death experience that resulted in her new, strange career. All the girls feel the strain of their unnatural occupation and their handlers try different techniques to help them cope, varying from a brusque all-business approach to brotherly affection.
The girls are, however, all aware to varying degrees that they would most likely be dead or bedridden if it were not for the Italian Government's desire for girl cyborg assassins. They understand that what they do isn't normal, and that they aren't normal. They also understand that, while there are distasteful aspects to their existence, it beats the alternatives.
About now, you're probably wondering if there's actually any action in this soap opera. Oh yes. Here's a two-page spread of Triela going mano-a-cyborg with one of the people from the PRF. She's just been thrown through a window from the second floor to the first, and while it doesn't seriously injure her, as it would a normal human, it definitely smarts. Unlike a lot of manga action work, Aida's is clear, concise, and gives a feel for the intensity of combat. And yes, that is, in fact, the SIG Sauer P230 SL of which she was disarmed the last time they met in Montalcino.
I won't go into the relative merits of Hillshire's choice of sidearm for Triela, other than to say that I think Giuse made a better choice. This is Triela dressed for battle. She carries a sharpened bayonet in a scabbard over her shoulder and an assortment of other dangerous things secreted about her person. The bayonet seems an odd choice until you remember that she can fling a man about as easily as one of her many teddy bears. With her strength of grip, the extra reach of a bayonet over a combat knife is a big advantage (she's about 13 years old, I think, so is a bit deficient in the reach department), and the leverage problem it would pose an un-augmented human isn't a problem.
The particular battle detailed above is the payoff at the end of volume 5, which points out the strength of Gunslinger Girl as a story: While violence is their job, it does not define the characters. It does, however, create complications for them when seeking self-definition. Triela has been training and hoping for this rematch for more than a volume of story, and she's perfectly willing to take a few hits if it means she can off this guy who shamed her last time. Since we the readers know her so well, we are definitely cheering for her.
...Except that her antagonist has a back story and quite a bit of ink behind him as well. I won't spoil anything except to repeat that this isn't mostly a story about good guys and bad guys. There are welcome (to the readers and the members of Section 2) exceptions, but most of the time what is good is determined by where you stand.
You're sold? You want to know where to get it? Well, I have good news, and bad news. The good news is that it's licensed and is partially available from ADV Manga. The bad news is that they licensed it, translated vol 1-3, then stopped for several years. Further, their translations, while OK, are not wonderful, and the graphic quality isn't what it might be - I'd classify it as MQ scanslation at best. This points to the old rule of fansubs versus commercial subs that I've covered elsewhere.
We went through an awful dry spell there for a while - fan scanslations disappeared after licensing, but ADV Manga dropped dead after three volumes and we were stuck in limbo for several years waiting for vol 4. Aria was left in the same lurch. Eventually, the fans got frustrated and started scanslating again. I have three different translations of volume 4 - none done by ADV, which finally released theirs this month. Of the three fan scanslations, I generally like Toukoubi's the best. I have compared it to the Japanese raws I found in an undisclosed location and found little to complain about.
ADV got an infusion of Cash from Japan, and now promise to mend their tardy ways by turning out a volume a month until they're caught up with complete Japanese volumes. As I pointed out, Vol 4 is out there, and I'll take a look at it when I get a chance. In the meantime, I have no compunction in recommending the Toukoubi translations of GSG. ADV blew it, and the burden of proof is on them to show that they can do a decent job scanslation and turnaround time before I'll recommend their product.
But Wait! There's More! That's right - there was a 13 episode anime done. And a very nice one it is, too. It's slice of life, with lovely art and backgrounds, and the story is canon to the manga. it goes through part of volume 2, so there's plenty more to read than there is to watch. Madhouse and Marvelous Entertainment did the anime for the winter 2003-2004 broadcast season in Japan, and it was licensed, subbed, and released by Funimation in the US in 2005. The Funimation subs are reasonably good (could use some culture notes and a little more care with politeness levels), and what little I've listened to of the dub track was OK. Funimation fluffed the stock with a box set released in late 2006 (possibly because they, too, were happy to hear about ADV manga coming back from the dead). Not a bad purchase, and worthy of your anime dollar.
The rumor mill has been humming with news of a second Gunslinger Girl series to be done by Marvelous again, (found on Moon Phase by way of Marvelous's financial report - line entry GUNSLINGER GIRL 続編) but it's still just a rumor. Well...we can hope.
The good news is that Aida-sensee is young, the story is going well, and interest keeps growing. It's all good. Enjoy.