Battle Angel Alita (Gunnm) January 22, 2012Posted by ayasawada in Manga, Rave.
Tags: Battle Angel Alita, Gunnm, Manga, Yukito Kishiro
In the early days of my otakudom, Battle Angel Alita was one of the most well-known titles. The anime adaptation epitomised the new wave of Japanimation that the then Manga Video was pushing: sexy heroines, gory violence, cyborgs and post-apocalyptic desolation. Over the years, I read more about the manga Gunnm, praised by sci-fi and manga fans as a classic and attracting further attention when James Cameron acquired up the movie rights. I picked up the first few volumes in thrift stores, eBay and (most recently) local libraries. This month I finished the whole of the original series. And it blew my mind.
I was always a little dismissive of Alita. As enjoyable as that OAV was to the teenage me, it didn’t offer anything deeper than the cheap thrills of most quick win titles of the time, and though I enjoyed each of the first five volumes of the manga, it was still with the eye of a teenage boy seeking action, nudity and techno-plots too complicated to make sense. Most of the early stuff was fun, but cliched: friendly scientist finds doll in post-apocalyptic scrapyard and rebuilds/raises her, whereupon she rediscovers her deadly martial arts skills. Later she falls in love, only for tragedy to strike, the trauma of which (mis)guides her to seek solace in the violent sport of the lower classes. So far, so what. But it’s from here on that things start to get interesting.
Alita meets new, challenging foes on the field, the motorball arc asking new questions of her identity, who she was and who she is becoming. Just as she’s starting to think about what’s important, the reappearance of an old foe, and the rise of the main villain of the series, changes everything. By the end of volume 5 it’s all gone to hell, with everything that mattered snatched away. And it’s only at this point that she (and we) have a chance to realise it.
Looking back, it’s hard to say if this is what manga-ka Yukito Kishiro had planned all along. No doubt he was just drawing an exciting comic book, layering action upon action before the sheer length of the series allowed for development into something deeper. But the strength of the universe he created (or rather the mysteries of it) meant that intrigue over the big questions always stuck in the mind: who is Alita? What is Tiphares?
The last four volumes raise the series into its place as a masterpiece. After five volumes and a few short years spent in the claustrophobic scrapyard, Kishiro sends Alita into the big bad world. Years pass faster than before and we get a real sense of Alita’s aimlessness and loneliness in a new role as an agent (or rather slave) of Tiphares. Exposed to both the desolation of the larger, post-apocalyptic Earth, and the relative sanity (compared to the scrapyard folk) of the Tipharean characters she and we can put everything in perspective.
What happens over those last four volumes is epic in the extreme. Alita gets caught up in the biggest of class wars, discovers new romance and sees old, cherished characters take new paths fraught with danger. And she meets new characters, some weirder, some wiser, but all teaching the sheltered cyborg something of what it means to live.
That’s what’s brilliant about these arcs. Throughout the series, Alita is painted as a merciless killer, whose ‘Panzer Kunst’ awakens a terrifying bloodlust of the type that’s borderline justifiable for a soldier. Yet no matter how many years pass or what situation she’s thrown into, she still knows little about her world or why she goes on doing any of it. Epitomising this struggle is the climax, which is not so much against Desty Nova, as with her own psyche. As the answers are finally revealed and plot twists executed at a dizzying pace, Alita realises, piece-by-piece, what matters to her and what she wants to do in this world, with her life.
It’s a beautiful ending (though I’m still ambivalent as to whether the epilogue adds to or slightly ruins it). Sure, along the way there are the typical sci-fi lessons about war, economics, science, technology and where it leaves us all as a society. But at the heart of it is the very human struggle to come to terms with loneliness and isolation, and just what the point of this all is when everyone seems to make everyone else miserable. And that’s a lot considering the protagonist isn’t even human.
As the scale of the story grew, so too, I feel, did Kishiro’s ambition and skill as both an artist and a writer. Many of his later panels are downright breathtaking and the level of detail over weaponry and war-strategies shows his level of nerdishness, as well as an awareness of how to push otaku buttons. But there’s also the poetry of his dialogue, shining through despite the sometimes juddery pacing of the story. And you can’t help but admire the sheer breadth of mad, mad, yet incredibly charismatic characters he’s populated it with. That and the sudden injections of humour, also show that this isn’t a writer taking his work too seriously.
Battle Angel Alita is an outstanding manga, a genuine classic that deserves to be praised to the heavens and read by as many people as possible. And it’s not over of course – Kishiro went back and undid the ending with the ongoing ‘continuation’ Last Order, which I’m about to start. If it’s half as good as the original is, I’m going to thoroughly enjoy it, though I do feel a bit like Alita: 15 years since the beginning and looking back, how little I knew about how deep the universe runs and what it all means.