Manga Review: Battle Angel Alita

And now, m’s to-do list for Monday:

1)    Go to gym

2)    Buy milk

3)    Abuse dreamgirl writer position to gush about manga

4)    Clean the computer room

Well, that’s one scratched off the list!

In all seriousness, I figure that a few reviews are in order, so here I am to share one of my favorite classic 90’s manga with you all… a little cyberpunk tale known as Battle Angel Alita. This one’s a two parter overview, so let’s settle in with the series that started it all.

Fallen Angel

Battle Angel Alita (or Gunnm as it’s called in Japanese) is set in a dystopian future Earth where cybernetics have become a way of life. The story begins in the Scrapyard, a grimy and dark cyberpunk city built on the castoffs of Tiphares, a mysterious and aloof floating city that stands apart from the Scrapyard’s denizens.

One day, a doctor named Ido discovers something amazing in the junkyard; the remains of a cyborg girl with a fully functioning brain. He finds she has no memory of her past life, so he names her Alita (Gally in the original Japanese) and reconstructs her in the hopes of creating a pure and unsullied daughter. But it seems fate has other things in mind; one day, Alita instinctively uses panzer kunst, an extremely powerful martial art for cyborgs. Hoping to unlock her own memories and learn more about herself, Alita throws herself into battle and becomes a Hunter Warrior, one of the elite bounty hunters of the Scrapyard.

While the series premise is reasonably strong and interesting, it is only the beginning of a decade-long tale filled with violence, heartache, revenge and happiness. Alita’s struggles lead her from the dirty alleyways of the Scrapyard to the adrenaline soaked tracks of motorball to the floating city of Tiphares itself. Along the way, she meets a host of quirky, dangerous and sometimes downright insane characters… and those are just the ones on her side!

Intelligent Cyberpunk

Battle Angel Alita is a success on almost every front. For starters, the artwork is absolutely gorgeous. The fight scenes are dynamic, the character designs are interesting, and the entire production just oozes high quality and detail. Luckily, beauty (and ugliness) is more than skin deep; the characters Yukito Kishiro draws are compelling and well-rounded, with strengths and flaws enough for everyone. The heroes are likeable without being overly perfect, and even the most monstrous enemies seem to have some traces of humanity to them. Naturally, Alita is the one who binds it all together. She’s a mass of fascinating contradictions – alternately ruthless and merciful, cold and caring, an almost unstoppable cyborg in the form of a slender waif of a girl. The tension between the different sides of her personality, and her evolution and growth, provide enormous emotional and narrative punch, and the story works with it every step of the way. The result is a plot that moves readers to anger, sadness, sympathy, hope and even a little laughter.

Great characters and plot are definitely awesome, but Battle Angel Alita goes one step beyond and deals with philosophy, technology and ethics with surprising thoughtfulness and intelligence. While there’s plenty of technical handwaving and even a supernatural element or two (some characters have psychometry or fortune telling abilities, for example), you really get the sense that the author has actually done his homework and figured out how some of this future tech works, or how our modern skills might evolve. Thus the manga is interspersed with footnotes and asides to explain how this bomb works, or how this cyborg body is designed, or why a certain martial arts is considered so deadly. Coupled with this are lots of thought-provoking philosophical questions, some of which are classic cyberpunk themes. What is the nature of humanity? What is the path to enlightenment? Do concepts such as fate and karma exist? Lastly, there are plenty of subtle mythological references and themes if you know where to look. This is especially true in the original Japanese series, where “Gally” is a shortened form of Galatea (what Ido wanted her to be) and Tiphares is named Zalem, to partner with the space city Jeru… in other words, Jeru + Zalem.

The End… or is it?

While the manga is exceptionally high quality, it does have its problems, and it may not be for everyone. For one thing, it is almost obscenely brutal, both in its depressing story and in its penchant for overblown gore. For another, although Alita is a very likeable and sympathetic character, she can tend to go in circles a bit too much… how many times does she have to have the, “What am I fighting for?” moment of self-doubt? Lastly, despite all the aforementioned intelligent tech and philosophy exploration, it can get a bit over the top at times and comes dangerously close to navel gazing and “Look, look, I’ve done my homework, ma!” While none of this is particularly annoying in the original series, it comes back to bite HARD later on…

The series ended in a bit of a rush due to the ill health of the author; while in many respects it was a moving and satisfying conclusion, there were several plot threads that were too hastily resolved (e.g. Alita’s entire past life gets resolved in about three pages, and the last image in the flashback just poses more questions). Still, it brought an appropriately bittersweet ending to the series, with a happy ending at last for our hero, and all looked to be well with the world.

And then it all went horribly, horribly wrong…

Stay tuned for my next post on the second series… Battle Angel Alita: Last Order!

Any Battle Angel Alita fans out there? What do you love about the series and who are your favorite characters?

Any other good dystopian cyberpunk titles you’d like to recommend?

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