Manga Review: Battle Angel Alita Last Order

Welcome back to Part 2 of my Battle Angel Alita overview! As you probably picked up from my last post, I love me some Battle Angel Alita. Maybe it’s the cool cyberpunk feel, maybe it’s the excellent artwork, or maybe it’s just the fact that Alita looks like my favorite anime character in the universe (Sailor Saturn, for those who are wondering). I wolfed down each graphic novel and bayed for more until, finally, the series came to an end. A reasonably satisfying end, but an end nonetheless. A part of me always wanted a bit more… wanted to know more about Alita’s past, wanted to see her further development as a character after the ending, wanted to explore this world just a bit more.

Well, all I can say is… be careful what you wish for…

Back From the Dead

As mentioned in my previous review, Yukito Kishiro, the artist and writer of Battle Angel Alita, had to finish the series prematurely due to ill health. After recovering, he decided to take another crack at it. In 2000, Kishiro began a new series known as Battle Angel Alita: Last Order (usually just referred to as Last Order). It disregarded the last 150 pages of the finale of the original series, choosing instead to spin off of a certain explosive event prior to the ending. Alita wakes up in an abandoned lab on the floating city of Tiphares to find that years have passed, that the secret of Tiphares has been uncovered, and that most of the city’s population is dead, with only scattered pockets of children and adults surviving. As usual, Alita steps in to protect the weak and helpless, hoping also to find out the fate of her friend Lou Collins.

And then things get very, very weird.

Soon the plot meanders away from its original setting and goals and becomes ALITA IN SPACE!! taking her from the space city of Ketheres to the red sands of Mars. Between exhaustive details of space exploration, cyborg combat and background stories for secondary characters, Alita must fight to… for…. well, a lot of things, really, but after 12+ issues, I confess I’ve sort of lost track.

In case you hadn’t guessed, this is not a good sign.

Fallen Angel

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still stuff to like here. The artwork is still top notch, and the fight sequences are visually and technically stunning. The translation is excellent, and there’s plenty of intelligent content to go around. Perhaps the problem is that there’s a bit TOO much of it…

You know how, after a movie becomes really popular, the studio execs sit around in a circle and say, “Wow, we should make a sequel! Why don’t we just take all the things that people loved in the first movie and ramp them up to 11!” Which would seem like a good idea, except that now they’ve blown everything out of proportion and the things you once liked are now gratingly annoying? Last Order suffers from this in a big way. There’s a lot of things about it that drive me up the wall, and almost all of them are an echo of what I used to love in the original.

Take the main character, for example. Part of Alita’s strength as a character was her vulnerability, her moments of self-doubt. In the original, these moments never felt particularly forced, and in time, she overcame them and grew as a character. In Last Order, however, Alita’s “weaker” side seems blown out of all proportion. Not an issue goes by where she isn’t having some existential crisis over this or that; it gets a bit boring, really. Worse yet, she ends up feeling very static and repetitive, with moments of growth forgotten by the next issue. It’s all very well to have the, “Why am I fighting?” angst once or twice, but five times? Didn’t she resolve this question already? Does she just keep formatting the part of her robot brain that deals with self-realizations, epiphanies and determination?

It’s not helped by the fact that our main character gets surprisingly little screen time. Yes, Battle Angel Alita always had a diverse and interesting batch of characters, and it never shied away from putting the spotlight on them instead of Alita from time to time. But Last Order takes it to almost ridiculous extremes. The characters are reasonably interesting, to be sure, but they also tend to dominate whatever scene they’re in, to the detriment of, oh I dunno, THE MAIN CHARACTER. Alita often disappears for entire issues at a time so we can instead focus on her male-bodied clone, or the crazy karate fighter, or the yoga-addicted leader of Ketheres. I think the biggest wall banger for me was the female vampire’s backstory… that lasted an entire volume and a half! I’ve read novels that are shorter than this flashback!

Adding insult to injury is the over-emphasis on technical and historical exposition. Again, I admit that I liked the way the original series actually demonstrated ideas of working tech, martial arts, social constructs and so on. It knew when to get out of the way and let the story keep going. In Last Order, it has a very nasty habit of bringing the action to a screeching halt. Entire pages are dedicated to explanations of interplanetary politics and cyborg construction, and no fight scene is complete without a full explanation of every move and weapon down to the tiniest cog. It’s like an episode of Yu-Gi-Oh, only instead of a children’s card game it’s a plasma based technique that incinerates your skull.

The Dude Fighting a Dude Who’s Trying to Fight Another Dude to Save the Dude. Dude?

In the end, I think all of these are symptoms of a larger problem; lack of narrative focus. Battle Angel Alita was always, at its core, about Alita and her quest to find herself and be with those she loves; new plots and goals would arise, but one would flow naturally into the other, and it still stayed faithful to the heart of the matter. Last Order just… wanders, frankly. There are too many plots, too many background stories, and just too much disjointed material. New goals are introduced before old ones are resolved, with the result that it’s very easy to lose track of what the original quest was. Alita wants to save Lou! Now she has to fight in a tournament! Now she’s going to Mars! Now she’s fighting for a band of orphans! Now she wants independence for some planet or other! Now she’s fighting in a tournament again! Now she’s in a computer! To save… wait, who’s Lou again? Perhaps this confusion is a result of me reading the manga as it comes out as opposed to all at once, but it’s still not the best story structure I’ve ever seen.

In the end, Last Order is like a D&D campaign run by an incredibly intelligent and creative DM who has tons of ideas… and is dead set on stuffing each and every single one of them into the mission. You know how it goes. Loving pseudo-historical detail of how your Weapon of +9 Ogre Slaying is forged. A host of quirky and compelling NPCs that somehow manage to be the star of every scene while the PCs mill helplessly in the background. A ton of sidequests that distract you from your original mission (“Time to go to the cave to get the key that opens the castle that has the sword that can kill… can kill… wait, what were we trying to kill again?”)

And yet, you keep playing, because goshdarnit, the DM’s first campaign was mind-meltingly awesome, and there are brief flashes of that same brilliance. And goshdarnit, you love your PC – a vulnerable waif of a girl with the instincts of a warrior – and despite a lot of manufactured angst and woe, deep down you can’t bear to say goodbye to her. No matter how bad the campaign gets, you just want one more session… to find out if she ever really does find true happiness.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to stop ranting and go pick up the next issue of Last Order.

Have you been burned by sequels before? Do you think there can be too much of a good thing?

How do you strike a balance between a detailed world and a streamlined narrative?

If you’ve read Last Order, what do you think about it?

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