A few years ago I was a deployed solider in Afghanistan desperate for entertainment. Anime DVDs had become the primary source of such entertainment. They were easily purchased, easily shipped, and easily packed away in the very limited kit I could port from FOB to base to who knows where.
One of the series that I got into at the time was Gunslinger Girl. This grim series fitted my mood of the time. Young girls, turned into cyborgs and used as living weapons, drugged into remorselessness? Daaaaaark. It suited.
So why am I talking about such a grimdark series that I was introduced to years ago as part of this year’s 12 Days of Anime? Because the English translation of the manga released the final volume this year (thanks to Seven Seas). Throughout the series the sheer inhumanity of turning young girls, often the victims of horrific crimes themselves, into unquestioning killing machines humanity prevails, and it is at Christmas that this comes out clearest.
One of the focal “fratellos” (partnerships, from the Italian for "sibling") of the series is that of Hillshire and Triela. Hillshire is a former Europol investigator. He is cold, calculating, and haunted by his past. Triela, his cyborg, was nearly murdered in a snuff film. She’s acerbic, sharp witted, and very aware of who and what she is. It is very clear that Hillshire views Triela as his weapon, and that Triela chafes under this.
But it is at Christmas that we begin to see under that abrasive shell. The initial impression, as is often the case, isn’t the fill story, or even the majority of it. The relationship within their fratello goes far deeper, and is far more caring than that of a tool and the one using it.
As Christmas approaches for the first time in the series we find Triela and one of the other cyborg girls, Henrietta, discussing Triela’s collection of teddy bears. Hillshire, it seems, has been buying them for her as rewards for good work. Henrietta express a little bit of light-hearted envy, but Triella, it seems, isn’t so fond of Hillshire’s rewards.
The fratello receive an assignment that has them out and about for Christmas. Throughout the chapter we get to see the continued friction. After capturing a mobster who knew Hillshire from the past, Triela gets into a conversation with the man about Hillshire. The mobster asks if she is getting along with him. Triela admits to their struggling. “Siblings don’t necessarily get along.”
After Triela is injured during an escape attempt by the mobster, things change though. We get a look at the human side of the fratello, particularly the almost robot-like Hillshire. He confesses that he isn’t really sure what he is supposed to do for Triela, and then shows an interest in trying to learn her interests.
In that moment, the relationship has a subtle, but fundamental shift. It hadn’t been the teddy bears that annoyed Triela. It had been the uncertainty in the relationship. She wasn’t sure what Hillshire really thought of her, and was certain that the friction was because he didn't care about her or what she thought. His confession helped her to realize that he was just as confused as she, and through that a small bit of understanding, of humanity creeps through.
Certainly the next Christmas that comes is not one where all of the problems are gone. If anything, things are even more intense, and full of even more conflict. I won’t talk about it because of the spoilers involved, but the humanity of both Hillshire and Triela comes to a boiling point as each is filled with regret and sorrow for the harm they think they have done to one another. But it is these points, these Christmas tales where we truly get a feel not just for the horror and tragedy of the series of Gunslinger Girl, but the triumph and basic goodness that can come even inside of darkness.
Thinking back on that first introduction: in Afghanistan, where I was in a kill or be killed environment, it strikes me that a series that seemed to touch my own dark mood was, in its own way, the one that helped prove to me that humanity is always there. Even in an ugly world of violence and a need to shut off one’s humanity to get the mission done it is still there, still making us vulnerable, still making us weak. Yet it still gives us the strength to put one foot ahead of the other, relying on the other people around us. We are Hillshire. We are Triela. And together, no matter how tough it can get, we’ll make it.
You can also watch the animation of Gunslinger Girl through Hulu or Funimation.