Saturday, March 1, 2008

Gunslinger Girl - Further Thoughts and Anime Series 1 and 2

I've been reading Gunslinger Girl again. This is prompted by having finally acquired all five volumes of GSG in print in the US (from ADV Manga).

Here's review of the recent ADV releases from a conversation on Mangaforums:

Read through the ADV release of Gunslinger Girl vol 5. My conclusion: it's just as good/bad as their vol 4.

In particular, the very last conversation in the volume between Hillshire and Triela is an excellent point of measure. Psygremlin and I had a conversation here on exactly how this should be translated which culminated in me translating it myself from the Japanese raws. In short, ADV fails. I wouldn't translate '褒める' as 'congratulate.' My dictionaries are rather clear that it's 'to praise,' which coming from Triela has a very different meaning than 'to congratulate.'

There's another place where they get it not quite right. Somebody else's translation of the Henrietta and Giuse in the former monastery scene looking at the portrait (I think it was Toukoubi?) included a nice cultural note explaining what is the deal with the monk, the cell, and the portrait. Nada from ADV.

If it were Naruto nobody would care. But here the mangaka has gone to significant trouble to put his fictional story in the real historical Italy with real buildings, artwork, cars, guns, etc. Because of the nature of Japanese college entrance exams, it's distinctly possible that many Japanese (at least the ones attracted to Gunslinger Girl) would recognize much of what is missed by less-well-educated English speakers...

Cultural notes, people. They don't take up any space, and they often add a lot of value...

My final grade for the ADV translation of Vol 5: C (adequate, but the fan scanslations are significantly better).
And that pretty much sums it up. The first place to look for a quality scanslation of Gunslinger Girl is Toukoubi. Sintendo also did a good job, but have disbanded. Sadly, I know of no fan scanslations circulating of any volume earlier than four, which means that I might just decide to adopt a darker cover and do it myself when I feel like spending an hour a page improving my Japanese reading comprehension someday. As I've said about Ai-Ren and Chobits, Gunslinger Girl deserves a best-possible scanslation and (with the exception of Toukoubi and Sintendo's work) hasn't had one.

Gunslinger Girl is thought-provoking. It's full of moral quandaries and no-win situations. Like Ai-Ren, I think it it some kind of emotional litmus test, possibly of one's ability to be compassionate.

Looking at the printed manga has been an interesting experience in itself. The eye catches different details on paper than on the screen. I was especially interested in the contents of Giuse's desk in vol 3 - he's building a ship in a bottle, and has an aquarium. A patient fellow, our Giuse.

Here's part of a long conversation between me and psygremlin at mangaforums about Gunslinger Girl, among other things. I'll edit to reduce spoiler content, but if you click through to the original, you'll be entering a spoiler minefield, so be warned. Here's Psygremlin, having just watched the original 13 episode anime (there's a sequel in production now).

Just finished watching the series, and although I have a lot to say about it, I'll keep it brief for now, because I don't know how far you are in watching it, plus there's probably going to be a raft of spoilers.

But salient points are:

- I love the artwork in the show, very nice and crisp. That caught my straight from the lovely opening sequence.

- Now that I'm finished I can see exactly why you bought it up in response to my comment about the brutality in Here & There. Except I feel that in many ways GSG is more 'horrific'. Here & There deals with war and people are brutalised during wartime. In GSG, it's about the indifference and almost contempt the girls are treated with. Most handlers treat them like the machines they've designed to be (despite clear traces of their inner humanity shining through - think Triela and her bears). Most of the handlers (apart from Jose) seem to see the girls' devotion towards them more like a dog's loyalty and obedience than "love" - for want of a better word.

- Although one scary part of their conditioning comes through in the interaction between Rico and the bellboy (as you mentioned). The soulless, mechanical way in which she says "sorry" literally sent a shiver up my spine. She wasn't sorry at all - she was doing her job and he got in the way.

- Strangely (and possibly highlighting the 'wrongness' of their situation) if I compare it to the last girls with guns anime I saw - Noir (altho this is more a lolis with guns) the main difference is that although Noir killed more people than your average Tarentino movie, not a drop of blood is ever shown on screen. Whereas in GSG, there's plenty of blood flying when bullets hit home (not to mention poor young Elsa). Add to this the fact the girls are running around in clothes more suited to the mall (and their ages) than say a military style jump suit highlights their youth, perceived innocnce (which could be more naievety - afterall, Henrietta no longer knew what Venus was), and wrongness of their situation. (a bit like the girls wearing their school unifoms in space in Voices of a Distant Star).

- Funnily enough, I found the OP (which I now love) became more and more poignant for me as the story progressed each episode. Especially the opening line "In truth, there is no better place to be" - when you consider the girls' situation before they ended up at Social Welfare (great pun too - they remove people that could affect the welfare of society), they are in a "better place".

And here is my reply:

You got what I hoped you would get out of the Rico/Bellboy scene. It's not what she does, but how she does it that makes it so horrible.

One of the ways that Aida really tweaks the reader/viewer's sensibilities is with the brutal, bloody reality of what the girls do versus their native personalities. Is innocence the same as naivete, or is it simply that they don't have vivid memories of what they did on missions because of the conditioning?

Something worth mentioning too is that children really are the ultimate pragmatists. Aida seems to understand this. Rico might be fully aware of what she's doing, but she knows it's the only because of what she does that she isn't stuck in a hospital bed anymore. Jean may beat her, and her missions may be horrible, but it's obvious that to her, at least, being able to walk and do things for the first time in her life is so good that it's worth all the bad.

One thing I find interesting is how the handlers are portrayed. They're generally not soulless bastards. Marco is detatched from Angelica precisely because he was emotionally hurt by her progressive amnesia due to the conditioning. I think Aida does a great job of making everybody (even the "villains") someone worth knowing and understanding - much like Miyazaki does in his best work.

Concur on the clothes - not only are they necessary for urban camouflage, but they point out that the cyborg assassins are girls who, left to their own devices, think as girls think, and wear what girls wear. Jose's gift of the expensive fashion over coat to Henrietta is very definitely a gift of human affection, and Henrietta treasures it as such.

Ultimately, GSG is not about lolis with guns. It's not about mind control. It's not about the ethics of terrorism and anti-terrorism. It's not about cyborgs. (although all of these things are touched on). GSG is about people and the consequences of actions, both anticipated and unexpected. That's why there's blood - it's a consequence of shooting people. GSG works as a story because it always follows through with the consequences.

It's art, and I'm surprised it's not more widely seen here, given that the anime is both accessible and commercially available. But then nobody has read Ai-Ren, either, which is as profound in its own way.

Which provoked this reply from psygremlin:

What's interesting is there are essentially 5 very different relationships (6 with Elsa) portrayed in the fratellos. And each seem to work on their own levels. Obviously we feel most for Jose and Henrietta, because he treats her more like a human - as Triela says "his kid sister" - than the others. Yet I got the feeling that even this approach - while humane in our eyes - wasn't right. There were a couple of moments when Henrietta does something - like the way she first holds the coat, or wants to keep the wrapping from the camera - that bordered on the obsessive. Add to that the fact she knew what happened with Elsa and her handler, and I'd have to say of all of them, she would be most likely to do the same.
To which I said:

The treatment of Elsa in the manga really brings it home - Jose/Henrietta is the literal fratello attatchment at its closest and most intimate. If the wheels come off this relationship, it turns into Lauro/Elsa. It's made quite obvious that Henrietta empathizes completely with Elsa, and that's why she's the only one who can answer the question of Elsa's fate of all those who have been asked. Her empathy is what I found so heartbreaking in the manga scene. She obviously isn't abstractly considering doing what Elsa did when considering Elsa's condition.

Yes, Henrietta is obsessed with protecting Jose (to both his worry and discomfort at times), and is obsessed with being the precise center of his attention. This is all creepily familiar with anybody who has seen the responses that military working dogs have toward their handlers (yes, same term). All it would take to upset this particular applecart would be for Henrietta to discover that Jose had a serious girlfriend...

Hillshire/Triela is presented as an alternate and (I agree) generally more functional relationship. The difference here isn't so much in the relationship itself, I think, as in the difference between the participants. Henrietta and Rico are the emotionally youngest of the girls, and from their stature I guess that they are the physically youngest as well. They're emotionally very different from Triela, who is enough older that she's dealing with menarche and the change of perception that comes along with it.

Since Triela's more emotionally mature, she needs a friend and partner much more than she needs a protective/loving big brother. Teddy bears are an amusing choice of gift for her because she, of all the girls least wants/has a use for stuffed animals. She seems to know that she ended up here because she was nearly killed in a snuff film, and it gives a certain edge to her perspective. Hillshire, accordingly, fills the friend/partner role. As much as anything, he humanizes her when she's prone to indiscriminately kill. The conditioning adds a certain creepy reverse-lolicon quality to their relationship, which Hillshire (being a both a wounded but still determined idealist and all-round decent guy) carefully ignores.

I thought that sending Triela off to train with the green-beret equivalents of the Carabinieri was a stroke of genius. It also thought it pointed out that they (section 2) had spent a lot of time training the girls to behave like perfect SWAT team members (policemen, basically), but had neglected several thousand years of experience in the basic rules of human strife that every good soldier (or good martial artist) knows. It's sort of a variation of the question asked by Neviril in Simoun - You send us on these missions and tell us to act like soldiers, and then you train us to be police. Which do you want us to be, and are you willing to accept what we will become if we do what we must to win?

It's worth mentioning that Giuseppe and Hillshire are alike in that they don't like to blunt their charges' awareness with heavy conditioning, preferring instead to teach their charges appropriate behaviors the old fashioned way. Giuseppe and Jean are brothers (actual fratelli), but couldn't be more different in their approaches to fratello management.
...which was true when written, but the more recently scanslated chapters of the manga have developed Jean and Giuse's relationship as brothers, and shown some complexity to Jean's treatment of his Cyborg charges (he's also responsible for Claes) that was not apparent before Vol 3. As in real life, people in GSG change, and their actions in the present are not always predictable from those of the past.

Gunslinger Girl: Il Teatrino Anime

In other Gunslinger Girl news, Gunslinger Girl II: Il Teatrino is running now in Japan. It's another 13 episode show, and it is, so far, very canon to the manga. Aida-sensei is supposed to be prominently involved in production and scriptwriting, and they're getting a lot of little things right.

Sadly, what they're not getting right is the animation, which is...acceptable at best. It's obvious that the animation is both rushed and done on the cheap. The first episode is the worst (crowd scenes had me cringing), but other than that, it's watchable. The first series was done by Madhouse, who do Kon Satoshi's movies now, so probably couldn't be bothered to do a TV show like GSG2 even if the budget had been big enough (it obviously wasn't).

Here's my take from having just watched the first episode:

I've also heard bad things about the AEN sub (from different sources) so I waited a whole day and pulled the torrent for the Triad release. When I added the torrent last night before bed there were 300+ seeds and 600+ peers. Completion time was limited by recipient bandwidth. It was sitting on the hard drive this AM when I woke up.

{edit - later}
Watched GSGII ep 1. My initial impressions: OP song indifferent. OP animation (partially - looked like some posterized photo capture there) OK, but not spectacular. Does get the point across, though.

I got really, really tired of the lame moving-block animation in the crowd sequences. Either animate the people or do snap cuts between stills. Don't bother with Hanna-Barbera-style moving cutouts. OTOH, Backgrounds were great. They were playing with a watercolor wash look (probably to hide that they'd ripped some scenery out of photos) but it worked OK.

Something that didn't work quite as well was the character animation. Henrietta's face wasn't as mobile as in the manga, which is something of a trick given that the manga is still pictures. Likewise, they didn't show the payoff scene in the walking-on-the-curb sequence (I suspect it was cut for time). Things improved after Hillshire and Joze returned from France, although the animation was still rather clunky. The vehicles aren't generic (thankfully) but haven't gained the stature of the manga yet. I suspect they will - writing the Alfas out of the plot would probably not please Aida-sensei. Likewise, nice to see that the Vespa is yellow...

The cyborgs' eyes seem to be intentionally creepy. Fine. I can cope with that, and it does fit, especially when 'Etta does her trick on the scooter. I don't think I'll ever get used to Joze's hair, though...

All of the scenes are canon from the manga, though they are rearranged in chronological order to provide a good introduction episode before starting on the Pinnochio arc. I didn't much like how Henrietta came off looking robotic, reverse-lolicon and incompetent while Triela looked thoughtful, mature and capable, though this may be dramatic setup for the first Pinnochio encounter - 'pride goeth,' etc. They did get the feel of the dynamic between Joze and Henrietta fairly well. They touched on that between Hillshire and Triela, and showed very little of Jean/Rico, but nothing out-of character happened.

I liked how they introduced all the Section 2 supporting cast. We only know a couple of names, but we have seen all the faces and characteristic mannerisms. Nice touch. I was also amused by Beatrice's cameo...

ED song and animation - not bad at all. As evocative as 'The Light Before We Land,' if with a rather different text. Gets the point across well, I think. I wonder if they'll sub in different animation vignettes as we go along.

I have to say I wanted a higher-res encode from Triad. Lots of artifacts, etc. I'm guessing their raws weren't wonderful, but ugh. Since the filesize of the AEN sub is about the same, I suspect they're both from the same raw. Oh well. I'm sure it'll go to DVD sooner or later.

Conclusion: Animation nowhere near as good as Madhouse's work in the first series. Right now it gets an A for backgrounds, a B for character animation, and a C for misc. animation. Music: OK but nothing wonderful - isn't as evocative as that of the first series. Character development and plotting: A. If it stays at this standard I'll grumble at the animation gaffes, but will enjoy watching. If they're saving up cash for later eps, all might be forgiven, though I'd say they were stupid to short-budget the first show.

And here from a little later on:
Re GSG2: to be fair, the bar was set very high by Madhouse. They are a cinematic-quality shop, so naturally their work looks very good indeed (and I think that GSG II is a victim of their success - I'm sure they're working fulltime on Kon Satoshi's next movie right now). That said, it looks like Artland wasn't really trying. I don't know about the budget, but so far this falls in the category of 'cheap TV animation.' Which is fine for something like Hidamari Sketch, but not so good for something as immersive as GSG. Re 'shiny' I think that's both a stylistic choice and a way to hide a lot of the splice work holding the backgrounds together. That's fine - it is sunny Italy after all. I didn't like that cars on the street are mostly matte polygons with dropover textures. Quick, cheap wireframe CGI work.

They definitely got a lot of the important stuff right, which is why it's watchable with such marginal animation. Yes, Henrietta with Joze's shirt was done very well (but I was a little annoyed at them getting the surfaces of his desk right - there's a bottle, a tank, and a computer, but not showing any detail - you don't know what's in the bottle or the tank. Joze's character remains more opaque than it might to the viewer because of that). My reaction - and Hillshire's - to the the way Triela looked after the big shootout was well done. Likewise Triela and the manhole cover. In both cases, it does a good job of setting up the essential tension between the characters and their job.

And here, I talk a little more about it after having seen episode three:

It's becoming apparent to me that, while there's no budget (and this is a great pity), they're trying very hard to tell a good story. The placing shots of Montalcino at the beginning of the ep were reminiscent (in a somewhat low-res, fuzzy way) of the trip to Sicily footage from the first series. They got the feel right, which indicates that somebody in this overworked and obviously underpaid art department is trying hard to get it as right as they can. Likewise, pacing and direction are quite good. Even the spots that should be draggy aren't too draggy. The only places I feel like the art quality hurts is in facial expressions- Aida's art style gives a lot of expressiveness in a face, and we don't always see those subtleties carried across to the animated character.

Yes the framing rate could be higher - the jerky motion does bother me, and is reminiscent of a lot of mediocre TV animation of the last two decades. But if they had to sacrifice plot, backgrounds, or frame rate, I'm glad they chose frame rate. On the upside, there was actually good BG music in this ep. It was distinctly reminiscent of the happy Italian town BGM from the first series, which is no bad thing. The OP continues to leave me cold (cheap drum machines usually do), although I sorta like the still montage. The ED works better for me, and I still like the inset vignette. Stark works well with GSG, so the stark titles and credits are good. I suspect that when we see a higher-res picture, they'll suffer significantly less than the animation will.

My conclusion, as of ep 3 at least: ArtLand doesn't suck. They're just underpaid. And if they had to scrimp on something, I'm glad it was the opening episode, which was barely canon to the manga and mostly existed to establish characters. I just hope it didn't hurt the ratings for the rest of the series too much - after all, Aida's still writing, and if this show does badly we'll never see a GSG season 3.

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