By Yu Aida. Released in Japan by ASCII Media Works, serialization ongoing in the magazine Dengeki Daioh. Released in North America by Seven Seas.
So a while back we had a Manga Movable Feast which discussed the Dengeki Daioh title Yotsuba&! At the time, I decided to compare and contrast it with another Dengeki Daioh title that skewed a bit more obviously towards the otaku, Strawberry Marshmallow. Gunslinger Girl runs in the same magazine, and it has to be said, aims for the same readership. The Dengeki Daioh reader, who likes his young girls perhaps a bit too much, says "Look at the cute girl doing everyday things!", or "Look at the cute girls acting strange!". And yes, they say "Look at the cute girls killing people!" But as creepy as it may sound, it all stems from 'Look, cute young girls."
The basic premise of this title (which began as a hentai doujinshi that was far more explicit, something that should surprise no one who reads this) is that in the near future, the Italian government has a secret agency that finds young 10-14 year old girls that have been in a serious, life-threatening accident, and saves their lives. Well, that's the outward premise. In reality, the girls are drugged and brainwashed into becoming assassins for hire, and they choose young girls as they take the drugs and conditioning the best. We follow several of these girls and their adult male 'handlers' as they go about their day of killing people, and compare and contrast the various methods, as the girls are different from each other despite everything.
I'm pretty sure that the mangaka had the combination of 'lolicon yet creepy' in his head as he was writing this, and he succeeds admirably. The relationship between the children and their handlers is the driving force behind the title. Some handlers, such as Jose, have a close, almost parental bond with their charge - something which is more of a liability than a strength, as we find that Henrietta's feelings for Jose are quite strong, and that she's not above emotional blackmail, even if we're not sure she's consciously doing it. Another handler, Jean, treats his charge Rico with far less familiarity, secure in the knowledge that she's so grateful to have working arms and legs (all the children are cybernetic in some way, but Rico never walked before the Agency kidnapped her) that she doesn't really need affection; and Triela and Hilshire have the most natural, assured relationship (a given, as she's the oldest and most mature of the girls) and yet still get caught up in their own tumultuous feelings.
The politics are some of the best parts. We not only get to see a world slowly get built up (future Italy has several political factions, many devoted to splitting the North and South into two countries - and yes, it's hard not to think of Hetalia when I see that, even though I know it's historically valid), and see that our 'heroes' are not necessarily on the side of the angels. Indeed, there really isn't a side of the angels, as part of the point of this series is seeing that which we always associate with innocence - young adorable children - corrupted and used for base killing. There's not even any attempt to say they have a better life now - even when it's true, we know that the drugs and implants they're getting drastically reduce their lifespan, and the first 'recruit', Angelica, is already at the point where her memories are almost gone. Even if we want to see a happy ending for these girls, it's unlikely to ever happen. Happiness here is in the tiny little day-to-day things that they do in between being hired killers.
In summary, this is a very interesting manga, and you're swept along by the writing, but there is a huge issue to get past with the basic premise. This is, after all, a manga about an Agency that plays on people's love of cute young girls as killers... and so does the manga, which hits the moe button throughout. "Aw, she may be in a firefight, but she's so adorable!" In other words, this is (in Japan) the exact same audience as Yotsuba&!. Keep that in mind before picking this up.