Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Battle Angel Alita
by Jason Thompson, Dec 9th 2010
Episode XXXII: Battle Angel Alita
"It's kind of an experimental work for me…It is my first serial, after all. In many ways, it's still an immature work that I'm making up as I go along. If I had my way, I might have waited until my skill was a bit more polished, until I'd earned the reputation of someone like Frank Miller. That way, people would come to me from overseas with the attitude, 'Let's go get that great manga artist, Yukito Kishiro!"
—Yukito Kishiro on Battle Angel Alita (interview in Animerica magazine, 1993)
Somewhere in the future, a floating city hangs from a tower in the sky, suspended over a vast mountain of trash. As metal garbage and broken bits of machinery rain down from above, a scruffy but gentle-looking scientist in a trenchcoat searches the junk heaps, and finds the cybernetic head and upper torso of a girl. Discerning that the doll-like head contains a still-living brain, he holds it high against the sunset, thrilled by his find. Then, he returns to the ramshackle city which spreads out from the trash pile, the city where most of Earth's remaining inhabitants dwell, in the shadow of the heavenly city, surrounded by vast desert wastes…
Yukito Kishiro's Battle Angel Alita is one of my favorite science fiction/adventure manga, almost certainly the best manga ever published in Business Jump magazine, whose most famous and longest-running manga is about a man whose passion is women's underwear. Amid a junk heap of lame, poorly-thought-out cyberpunk manga ripping off Katsuhiro Otomo and Masamune Shirow, Kishiro created an original futuristic world which gets deeper and deeper as the series progresses. His incredibly detailed artwork brings to life rusting cities, intense battle scenes and cyborgs in all kinds of strange tinker-toy shapes. (Although you can't tell from his art most of the time, Kishiro is also a huge fan of Frank Miller, and his one-volume Alita spinoff Ashen Victor is drawn in an imitation of Miller's high-contrast Sin City style. He also swiped some ninja poses from Miller in one volume, a small exception to his mostly high level of originality.) His storytelling never feels condensed or awkward, but his story spans years and years, and tells in one volume what some mangaka tell in ten. And most of all, his characters are incredible. Battle Angel Alita is more than just a '90s series—it reads as well today as when it was written.
The title character, Alita, is the disembodied head rescued from the junk heap by Doc Ido, a doctor specializing in fixing cyborgs. Ido runs a small shop in the Scrapyard, the messy sprawl of a city which processes raw materials for Tiphares, the orbital city floating above. (In the original Japanese, the orbital cities were called "Jeru" and "Salem," so that the joined cities are called Jeru-salem. VIZ rewriter Fred Burke changed these to Tiphares and Ketheres, a reference to the Cabbala.) To the unseen and unknown inhabitants of Tiphares, the Scrapyard is just a factory town, a slum wallowing in filth and crime kept (barely) in check by bounty hunters. Even Ido, who is basically a nice guy and wants to take care of Alita, has a dark side, and makes a side living as a "hunter-warrior" killing perps with his rocket-powered hammer. (For that extra oomph when hitting someone in the head with a hammer just won't break through their metal skull.)
Alita has amnesia, and even "Alita" is just a name Ido gives her. She is just an innocent in this threatening world, but the danger around her awakens her own combat instincts, and she soon discovers that she is a natural warrior. Gradually, she regains dim memories of her past as a combat cyborg, trained in the powerful Panzer Kunst cyborg martial arts. In order to discover who she is, Alita becomes a hunter-warrior herself—over Ido's objections - pursuing maniacs, brain-eaters, organ thieves and occasionally, an innocent person who has made an enemy of the all-powerful Factory. It's a harsh world.
But a bounty hunter is just one phase in Alita's life. In the first nine volumes of Battle Angel Alita, she changes her identity almost as often as she changes her cyborg body. She soon becomes burnt out working for the Factory, and starts a new life as a champion in Motorball, a no-holds-barred sport in which cyborgs compete on the racetrack. Next she has a brief stint as a musician (although the "Yes" song she sings in the original Japanese version was altered in the VIZ version), and then tragedy strikes. When next she resurfaces, she's an assassin working directly for Tiphares, tracking down the most wanted of wanted criminals, and roaming the desert wasteland of what was once the United States. Finally, she realizes that the key to her memories can't be found on Earth. But they can be found in space… past the orbital ladder of Tiphares-Ketheres, on Mars, where her life began.
The original Japanese title of Battle Angel Alita was GUNNM ("Gun Dream"), but VIZ thought the title was dull and changed it. Fred Burke, the series rewriter, changed Gally into the Viking-esque "Alita" and gave the series - and the heroine - its new name. (Kishiro probably wasn't that offended, as he referred to the name-change in the final volume of the original Battle Angel Alita, in which an alternate-world Gally is given the name "Alita." This is reversed in the VIZ edition, of course.) The title change takes the focus away from the world of the series and towards the main character, but it's not inappropriate, since Battle Angel Alita is really a character-driven manga. It's Alita's show.
The original character of Alita was loosely based on a cyborg named Gally from one of Kishiro's old one-shots Reimeka, later published in his collection Hito. Whether her physical form is an ordinary cyborg body, a berserker nanotech war-machine body, or just a partially dismembered head on a conveyor belt, Alita is always herself, the beautiful dark-haired cyborg with the "octopus lips." (Thank you, Yukito Kishiro, for fighting the '80s fashion of lipless manga characters!) In the furnace of the Scrapyard, she is forged from a young girl to a powerful fighter, willing to confront danger head on. Ito is alarmed by the change in Alita; he means the best for her, but he wants to shelter her, to treat her as a child. ("You grow more beautiful every day! But fighting—fighting is an ugly thing!") But Alita wants to become strong, and also, fighting is the best way to discover who she is, and so she travels down the path of battle.
Hard on the outside, semi-soft on the inside, Alita is one of those archetypal sexy badass female characters created by men, like Kazuo Koike's Lady Snowblood or the heroines of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. (And as a cyborg, she's literally, not just figuratively, an action figure; one character even jokes that Ido just wants her to be a living dress-up doll.) She kills - in the storyline where she works as an assassin she kills almost indiscriminately - but her kills and victories often bring a moment of salvation to her twisted enemies, as if they realize their flaws and embrace their death in their last instants, or as if it's just an honor to be killed by a really hot woman. ("Despise me! Smash me to pieces! Burn my soul to a cinder!" one of her early opponents shouts.) But Alita isn't your typical scantily-clad female superheroine like you find in American comic books and Comic Valkyrie. First, her body is made of non-anatomically-correct solid metal so she can never be truly naked. Second, she feels and thinks like a real person, not a cartoon hitman who kills people in a glib, cheesy manner. Alita goes through phases of innocence and disillusionment, but mostly, Battle Angel Alita is the story of her (re)growing to adulthood, of finding her way and maintaining (or losing and regaining) her moral center.
And perhaps of finding love. "Even in someone like me, there's a fragile heart down deep," she thinks in a quiet moment during her first major fight in volume one. "Perhaps Battle Angel Alita is more like shojo manga than I'd like to admit," joked Kishiro. Alita never lets her feelings weaken her, but in her warrior's path, she runs into several male characters who like her, or for whom (it's suggested) she might have feelings. There's Hugo the thief, a dashing boy who dreams of escaping the Scrapyard and living in Tiphares one day. There's Emperor Jashugan, the Motorball champion, whose incredible fighting technique inspires and inflames Alita the way a rival in shonen manga might… or maybe more. There's Figure Four, another one of the few men tough enough to compete with Alita, thanks to his hertza haeon martial arts skills which allow him, a full-flesh man, to fight cyborgs by delivering deadly vibrations into their brains. And there's Kaos, the bishonen leader of an anti-Tiphares resistance movement, who is blind and deaf by normal human standards but can see infrared and hear radio waves. "You should be careful," Alita tells one of her potential suitors at a particularly low point. "If you get too involved with me, you'll find yourself in an early grave. Happens to everyone…" In the end, Battle Angel Alita isn't a soap opera, so these crushes and flirtations don't come to much. Is there any man she truly loves? Perhaps the most obvious answer is Doc Ido, the man who "raised" her and gave her a body, who cared for her so much. It's pretty clear that Ido has feelings for Alita, and maybe the other way around, although their diverging life paths take them apart. The sexiest point in the series may be in volume 7, when a badly injured Alita is repaired by another cyber-physician who has a technique similar to Ido's. From the depths of unconsciousness, she thinks she identifies the warm, sensitive hands massaging her internal machinery. "Who is that reaching into my body? Is it Ido? You've come back! I'm so happy…! Please, Ido! Take me apart some more!"
The warm human (and cyborg) characters of Battle Angel Alita are a counterweight to the series' eager science fiction imagination and its occasionally sick sense of humor. There are splattering brains right from the get-go, but as the series goes on, Kishiro indulges more and more in gore and black humor similar to the works of Tony Takezaki (Dr. Kishiwada's Scientific Affection) and Frank Miller's sci-fi comics (Hard Boiled and the Martha Washington series, which, now that I think about it, seems like a very likely influence on Last Order). This is a world where it's possible to lose your flesh body at the drop of a hat; at one point in Last Order, we see someone get in a car accident in the Scrapyard, and dubious-looking surgeons swarm out of the manholes and alleyways offering to turn the injured person into a cyborg, for a fee of course. Since cyborgs are just brains in jars, they can basically look like anything, and Kishiro continually outdoes himself coming up with weird and monstrous designs. Human beings are imprisoned in grotesque and revolting forms; one of the very first bad guys is Makaku, a wretched individual whose brain was put into a giant "cyber-maggot" capable of eating other cyborgs' brains and taking over their bodies by worming into the spine. (And this is in the first volume. Kishiro seems to understand the creative truth that it's best to do your best, craziest ideas first, instead of saving them for some theoretical "later.")
Fittingly for a manga about super-science, the second best character in Battle Angel Alita, after Alita herself, isn't a fighter: it's a scientist. Desty Nova, a laughing, manic mad scientist, created the cyborg body of Makaku, but that's only the beginning of the ways he interferes with Alita's life. A genius exile from Tiphares, Nova's passion (apart from eating his favorite dessert, flan) is to cause disorder and chaos. Or perhaps to bring purpose out of chaos…but he's mad, so how can you tell? All human beings are his guinea pigs; most of them suffer a fate worse than death on the operating room table, but a lucky few are unique enough to be worthy of his full attention, and to them he gives the artificial bodies of their dreams. His true purpose is suitably Faustian, the ultimate mad scientist's manifesto: "You want to know my true purpose, my ultimate goal? The conquest of karma! Unless we can find a way to defeat the cycles of time, there is no future for mankind!" Physically, he's weak, but his creations are strong, and he plans ahead; his regeneration nanomachines repeatedly bring him back to life after Alita has killed him and splattered his head to a pulp. By the beginning of Battle Angel Alita: Last Order he has figured out how to write his genetic information into air molecules, allowing his body to regenerate from nothing, making him effectively immortal. If anyone can think of a mad scientist in manga who's more awesome than this, I'd love to hear about it.
Battle Angel Alita is divided into two series. The original ended in nine volumes, with Alita reaching Tiphares. I feel that it is a solid ending, but Kishiro maintains that he was rushed into ending it due to an illness, and years later, after the not-very-successful series Aqua Knight and a few other short projects, he retconned the original ending and started a new manga, his new continuation, Battle Angel Alita: Last Order in Ultra Jump magazine. In Battle Angel Alita: Last Order the characters climb the orbital ladder from Tiphares to Ketheres and head to outer space, where the unbelievably high-tech, posthuman inhabitants of the other planets makes the cyborgs of Earth look like hillbillies. In the process, we learn a lot about Alita's origin, and about the war-torn solar system, in which the colonial powers of Venus, Earth and Jupiter fight a proxy war on the impoverished deserts of Mars.
In an effort to rescue a lost friend, Alita's path takes her to the Z.O.T. ("Zenith of Things") Tournament, a cyborg fighting tournament in which teams from all the decadent planets compete in battle…and it's here that things get a little silly, as Battle Angel Alita: Last Order becomes a "who is stronger?" fighting manga. The characters' sci-fi-fueled powers are so weird that they're hard to get a grasp on. On earth we only have to deal with the destructive power of damascus steel and monofilaments, but in a world where cyborgs have chi and punches can generate electromagnetic effects, nanoclouds and deadly plasma, anything goes, so you never know whether you're going to turn the page and see a shapeless robot, a thirty foot cyborg in a karate gi, or a monster cyborg who crushes foes with its giant cyber-penis. Kishiro draws great action, but the most memorable parts in Battle Angel Alita (at least to me) are the characters and the ideas, not the rush of battle. In addition, the story slows down a lot, like in any tournament-based manga. I'd never accuse Kishiro of dragging things out, shonen manga style, but it's difficult not to here. In any case, as the postapocalyptic simplicity of the old Alita gives way to anything-goes "what can Alita's nano-cyborg body do next?" interstellar chaos, it becomes a very different manga.And now for the nostalgia. Battle Angel Alita was one of the first manga I read, back in the early '90s. I read the VIZ version first, then later some tankôbon borrowed from a friend in the college anime club, but since I couldn't read Japanese, my information was mostly based on the VIZ monthly comic releases. Today, it seems insanely slow to only get a new graphic novel every 6 to 8 months, but as long as it came out, I wasn't complaining. And at the time, compared to other manga that was out in English, a nine-volume series seemed epic. (Of course, since then, Battle Angel Alita: Last Order is up to 15 volumes and counting.) The VIZ edition, like many old VIZ books, often resized the graphic novels by a chapter or two in an attempt to make each volume conclude at the end of a story or another good cut-off point… an excellent idea to bring in new readers, frankly, but can you imagine trying to do this with a really slow-paced series like most popular manga? Would you buy 1,000-page omnibuses of One Piece?
A short Battle Angel OAV was released in 1993, and a Japanese PlayStation game in 1998, but Battle Angel Alita never became a big franchise. However, James Cameron has been talking about making a Battle Angel Alita movie on and off for more than ten years, and while it now has a hopeful-sounding IMDB entry for 2013, Cameron's commitment to two more Avatar sequels makes it seem less and less likely to happen anytime in the forseeable future. (When asked by Animerica magazine what director should do the Battle Angel movie, Kishiro answered "Paul Verhoeven," but anyway.) I can't escape thinking that the 2000 TV series Dark Angel, starring the rather Alita-like Jessica Alba as a badass bioengineered girl, might have been another attempt by Cameron to do something vaguely Battle Angel-like.
Presently, the story of Alita is in limbo; this summer, Kishiro got in an argument with his editors at Shueisha's Ultra Jump when they wanted to censor some text in a reprint of the old editions of Alita. The last time I checked, it was all up in the air whether Shueisha would meet Kishiro's demands or whether Kishiro would take Battle Angel Alita: Last Order to a new publisher. Kishiro is a perfectionist, an artist who creates complicated worlds with complicated art—but in an accessible way—and who takes his manga seriously. Perhaps, like noted free speech activist Frank Miller, he's more willing to stand up for his artistic rights than the average mangaka, and I wish him luck sticking to his guns. Twenty years after it began, Battle Angel Alita is as bizarre as ever. Madness takes its toll, like they say in the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and if the manga is becoming increasingly like one of Desty Nova's mad science fantasies filtered through shonen manga, at least there's always one constant: Alita. At the center of the storm of chaos, she stands like her prized damascus blade, a heroine forged from the toughest steel.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.
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