I’ve been waiting a long time for the Alita:Battle Angel movie, which is based on the Gunnm manga series by Yukito Kishiro. I fell in love with the nine-volume epic, which was called Battle Angel Alita in its English versions, when I first discovered the series in high school. I’m going through the books again, and though I wasn’t be able to catch the Alita film over its opening weekend, it’s been incredible reading Alita’s adventure all over again.
Battle Angel Alita takes place in the Scrap Yard, a world of junk and trash where violence is rampant due to a non-existent police force. Crime has to be regulated by a group of bounty hunters. Above the city floats a huge aerial metropolis called Tiphares, where no ground dweller is allowed to visit.
We meet Alita first as a damaged cyborg who only has her brain and face intact. Dr. Ido, a cybernetics specialist, is the one who rescues her, becoming a paternal figure in the process. He has a mysterious circular mark on his forehead, signifying his connection to Tiphares.
Due to Alita’s memory loss, she is learning all about life again, and her youthful curiosity is part of the first volume’s charm. At the same time, she possesses lethal martial arts skills that only a soldier from Earth’s dark past can possess. That clash between the soldier in her and what remains of her humanity is part of what makes her arc so compelling. Alita handles her post-apocalyptic enemies with a violence that makes poetry out of her fighting skills, punctuated by bursts of calming “cuteness.” Here I refer to the cuddly smiles and youthful ripostes in the middle of all-out fighting and viciously gory mutilations, which add levity to offset the seriousness of the material.
The opening volume details Alita’s origin story and her path to becoming a hunter-warrior. The main conflict revolves around Alita’s fight against Makaku, a mutated goliath that devours human brains for the endorphin stimulants they provide. He’s the first villain to put Alita to the test after she easily disposes of an earlier slew of criminals. Makaku literally crushes Alita’s body, forcing Dr. Ido to flee with her remains.
As they trudge through the streets, gushing blood from their wounds, the crowd is completely apathetic, an indifference that is heartbreaking. Even if the bystanders have become hardened by decades of suffering and violence, it’s hard not to be upset at their refusal to help.
The two are saved by Ido’s assistant, and Ido determines that Alita needs an upgraded suit to defend herself. He digs up a biological beast, the bio-organic armor of a Berserker, designed to maximize killing efficiency in some forgotten war centuries ago. While Ido waxes on the madness of humanity for building such armor, Alita prepares for a rematch that takes her and Makaku through the underbelly of the city of junk.
What’s most interesting about the climax isn’t just the tactical strategy (and magnetohydrodynamics) she uses to defeat the enemy, but Makaku’s origin story, which is surprisingly tragic. It turns out Makaku isn’t just a villain, but a pawn in a bigger scheme of events triggered by the mysterious presence of another fallen Tiphares citizen, Dr. Nova.
All throughout, the drawings are dynamically vibrant, even in grayscale. It’s like Alita is leaping out of the page with her power kicks. The costumes and environments are bold in their design choices and perfectly integrated with the hyper-charged grandness of the architecture. The future of Earth is a technological chimera layered in a mix of grime and decadence. Both the Scrap Yard and Tiphares become characters in their own right.
Alita’s expressions are wonderfully vivid throughout; she’ll go from furious determination to funny surprise and humorous modesty in one frame to the next. The battles are a visual splurge that feel like they’re in frenetic motion, and almost every fighting stance demands attention. There’s a lot of visceral combat and the brutal killings add to the savagely despondent milieu.
As much as I enjoyed the first volume, it was her first love in the second book, Tears of an Angel, that seared the story into my mind (one small note is that the recent re-release seems to have different parts in different volumes). Rather than following up the first book with an even crazier nemesis, Kishiro took a step back and focused on Alita’s relationship with a young dreamer named Hugo.
Hugo is a mechanic who fixes windmills during the day and aspires to escape the hopelessness of the Scrap Yards by reaching the heavenly city of Tiphares. Orphaned at an early age, the dream first conceived by his deceased elder brother is all he has left.
Shortly after the first time Hugo and Alita meet, Alita is under attack by a dangerous bounty. When the hunted beast bursts upon the scene, Alita is ready to spring, but Hugo, unaware of her abilities, does his best to protect her despite his vulnerability. She’s impressed and even pretends to be afraid to give Hugo face. She’s attracted to Hugo and when he tells her there’s a way he can buy his passage up, she agrees to help him by capturing even more bounties.
Her affection blinds her to the fact that Hugo, despite being kind-hearted, is a criminal harvesting spines from unwilling victims and selling them on the black market—vertebral column theft, as it’s called. He’s doing this because he’s struck a deal with a trader, Vector, who’s promised him passage to the celestial metropolis in exchange for a whole lot of chips.
I’m not one for cheesy romances, but it’s done so well here, I couldn’t help but root for them. Cybernetic love has never been so palpable. Hugo is completely oblivious to her affections until Alita, in a moment of rage, demands to know his intentions towards her. Her robotic bluntness is followed by their first kiss, which Hugo describes as tasting “like electricity.”
Unfortunately, things don’t turn out so well for either of them. Hugo’s past catches up to him and, as the title suggests, Alita is left with nothing but tears at the end. The final sequence in the book haunted me when I first read it in high school, and still haunts me to this day.
I was introduced to the comic by a friend and at the time, those first two volumes were all he had. So for almost 15 years, I didn’t know the story continued—that Alita, hardened by her loss, goes out and reshapes the destiny of the whole world. Along the way, she becomes a motorball player (think Running Man meets American Gladiators) and even joins the ranks of the TUNED, an elite Tipharean investigation bureau on the ground. We find out about an army bent on destroying Tiphares, discover more about Ido and Alita’s background, and finally visit the city of Tiphares to uncover the burning ‘secret’ which is at the heart of the entire story. Events and characters that are mentioned only in passing come back in full force later. Seemingly innocuous decisions by Alita in earlier books cause her much grief later. When she arrives at Tiphares many years later, she wistfully recollects Hugo and how this is the city he gave up everything to try and reach.
My favorite works of science fiction in any medium tell stories that present slanted and disturbing insights into humanity. Battle Angel was one of the first works of science fiction alongside Phantasy Star II, Robocop, and Metal Gear that really drew me into a universe and gave me characters I cared about. References to Solar battles, karma engineering, mind-controlling biochips, and psychometric powers, fascinated me. It also provoked questions about humanity, the direction of our future, as well as a society stratified into discrete, unchangeable, segments. In retrospect, I realize Alita borrowed some elements from other great works of sci-fi. But none had incorporated and melded all the pieces so masterfully into one series and given us a compelling heroine through which we could experience that world.