Battle Angel Alita

My anime binge has expanded somewhat into a manga binge. A while back, I posted about the movie Alita: Battle Angel. I enjoyed it a great deal and was intrigued by the world that was presented, of a bifurcated society, with an elite living in the floating city of Zalem, and a hardscrabble lower class living in a city below it, called “Iron City” in the movie. The movie was moderately successful so I hoped for one or more sequels so we could learn more. The director, Robert Rodriguez, has stated that he wants to do a sequel, but the more time that passes without work starting on it, the less likely it seems to be.

The movie is an adaptation of a long running manga series: Battle Angel Alita, by artist Yukito Kishiro. It actually loosely adapts the storyline in the first three volumes of the manga, although the sequence of events as well as the reasons for them are altered a bit. But these are just the earliest parts of the story. The original BAA series runs for nine volumes. It’s followed by another series, Battle Angel Alita: Last Order, which in turn is followed by Battle Angel Alita: Mars Chronicle, which is actually still running. In other words, there’s about three decades of story material here, with the movie only covering the earliest stages. Although I do recall the movie dropping some foreshadowing of the broader story.

As in the movie, the story in the manga begins with Doctor Daisuke Ido, an outcast from Zalem, discovering the head and upper body torso of a cyborg girl in the scrapheap below Zalem. Realizing that somehow she’s still alive, he outfits her with a new body and names her Alita. (Interestingly, her name in the Japanese version is Gally, but apparently the original translators thought it needed to be a more western sounding name.) Alita has no memory of her past life. Initially Ido tries to treat her like a little girl. However, Alita quickly displays an acumen for fighting and becomes a bounty hunter.

The city in which they live, Scrapyard, sits below Zalem, furnishing it with supplies. But no one in Scrapyard has ever been to Zalem. And the few outcasts from Zalem, like Ido, can never return. This makes Zalem something of an enigma in the early parts of the story. As in the movie, Alita falls in love with a boy named Hugo, who desperately yearns to reach Zalem, and discovers that there was never really any chance of him doing so.

As the story moves beyond the movie, the scope broadens into the countryside, with a network of farms and other communities supplying materials to Scrapyard and Zalem. Alita eventually is conscripted into being an agent of Zalem and fighting against a rebellion against the city. The result is a setting similar to Mad Max, but with cyborgs and artillery.

Alita’s chief antagonist here is another outcast from Zalem, an insane but brilliant scientist named Desty Nova. Nova is interested in advancing the science of cybernetics and bioengineering, but he has zero ethical constraint, conducting horrible experiments on large numbers of unwilling subjects. But although just about everyone recognizes how dangerous he is, his brilliance makes him useful for a lot of people in the story. This includes, at times, Alita, who is often forced into alliances with him despite the danger.

The original series had a rushed ending due to an illness Kishiro had at the time, which is no longer considered canonical, and clearly marked that way in contemporary editions. The story continues in the second series, Last Order, where the setting expands onto an interplanetary scale. This is the part of the series where we learn what Zalem really is, how it came about, and the history of the world leading up the situation at the beginning of the story.

Last Order also gives us some insights into Alita’s past, but it’s with the current series, Mars Chronicle, particularly with the most recently published volumes, that we really find out who she is and her ultimate origin.

There’s a lot of exploration in this series on what it means to be human. In the earliest parts of the story, the takeaway seems to be that what makes us human is our brain. Seemingly anything else can be swapped out and the person remains. But destroy the brain and the person is gone. Many of the cyborg scenarios, particularly during the Mad Max like settings, end up being pretty disturbing. Some of this might reflect early 1990s thought and the influence of Robocop and other franchises. (Although Robocop itself might have been influenced by other Japanese cyberpunk.)

But toward the end of the original run, we learn that a lot of characters have had their brain replaced with “bio-chips”. And we increasingly see characters restored from backups, often backups reconstructed after their original brain (natural or artificial) was destroyed. As we get into Last Order, we start seeing a number of characters with multiple instances running around. Kishiro is understandably coy on the technical details, but he throws in implications that the bio-chips may be doing something exotic, perhaps leaving enough room for anti-computationalists not to be alienated by these developments.

Finally, we also see the development of some straight out AI characters, such as androids who, although modeled on a human, have no memory of ever being a biological human and develop their own desires and agendas.

Kishiro seems noticeably looser with the science in the second and third series. Some of that may just reflect the broader scope of the story, but some of it seems to reveal a slightly different attitude. So in the second series, the long time existence of vampires is revealed. (They’re described as mutants.) And it seems like there is a lot more invoking of eastern mythology around different martial art sects. It’s also implied that we’re looking at an alternate timeline rather than a future of our own world. Some of it probably results from time catching up with story outlines originally developed in the early 1990s, but other aspects seem intentionally revisionist.

I’ve enjoyed the overall series immensely so far, and highly recommend it to anyone who finds this description interesting, with one important caveat. There’s a lot of fighting in this series, which I personally had limited interest in. I generally didn’t find it problematic when it made sense within the overall story, but particularly in Last Order, the plot setup for many of the fights seemed contrived, and I often found myself quickly paging through them to get to the next part of the story.

There’s also the usual caution that manga is not for everyone. Aside from all the gore and violence, manga publishers are much more about just getting the content out cheapy, so they often don’t provide the Guided View that most western publishers provide in online editions. Westerners also have to remember to read the panels and captions from right to left, rather than left to right. And it’s all in black and white, which many anime fans, used to colorful animation, often find a turnoff. Still, talented artists like Kishiro actually use the medium to maximum effect, and his gorgeous artwork is a major part of the appeal.

I find it surprising that this series hasn’t been adapted into an anime series, at least other than the couple of OVAs that were released in the early 90s. It seems like something that would be as popular as Ghost in the Shell.

Anyway, have you read any part of the series? If so, what did you think about it? I’d also be grateful for any recommendations on similar material.

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