I’m not much of a manga reader. For some reason, I find it difficult to focus on digest-sized pages printed in black and white, and sometimes it’s difficult to follow the action if there’s too much going on in a single panel. So at first, I was a bit apprehensive about reading Yukito Kishiro‘s cult-classic manga Gunnm (literally translated into “gun dream”, aka Battle Angel Alita for western audiences). Fortunately, my fears were soon quelled as I began delving into the series, unraveling the tale of a battle-hardened cyborg with a new lease on life in a grotesque, unforgiving vision of the future.
Battle Angel Alita started publication in 1990 and ran through 1995, chronicling the life of the comic’s namesake as she pursues the greatest challengers of her combat skills, first as a bounty hunter, then as a combatant in a violent future-sport, then as a superpowered government agent. Since the original run, Gunnm has spawned two sequel series continuing Alita’s adventures, an excellent-if-corny OVA, a video game subtitled Martian Memory (unfortunately never released outside of Japan), and of course, the newly-released live-action film.
However, the Alita franchise prior to the film’s development seems to have been polished into a hidden gem among the cyberpunk community, not nearly as often-referenced as the works of William Gibson, Masamune Shirow, Blade Runner, and many more. I could see why that may be; the worlds of Tiphares, the Scrapyard, and everything between can carry a zaniness to the point of being cartoonish, and the manga’s dusty, dirty environments sometimes leans more into post-apocalyptic tropes as opposed to more comfortable, artificially-lit ones. But Gunnm is definitely worth its salt as a cyberpunk epic–the powerful emotion behind Kishiro’s writing beautifully blends cyberpunk with shonen and coming-of-age stories, a combination rarely seen in cyberpunk material, featuring Alita as one of the most badass female protagonists to be found in the genre to date.
It’s the 26th century. After salvaging what remains of a cyborg among a massive pile of refuse shat out by society’s privileged living in the floating city of Tiphares, cyber-surgeon Daisuke Ido discovers that the brain encased within still functions–it seems to have been comatose for some time, and all of its memories have been lost. After giving this cyborg a new body, Ido names her Alita and begins to show her a new life in the crime-filled streets of the Scrapyard, a city that is eating itself alive while those in Tiphares enjoy placid complacency in a floating utopia, literally casting a shadow over those it has left behind.
Alita soon discovers that Ido, who acts as a surrogate father to Alita as she rediscovers the world around her, was exiled from Tiphares and moonlights as a hunter-warrior to supplement a fairly meager income as a back-alley cyborg doctor. Many, if not most, of the city’s inhabitants are cyborgs, crudely grafting inelegant limbs to their bodies, inserting their brains into non-humanoid drone bodies in a life of servitude to Tiphares, or otherwise making enhancements to themselves that warp their appearances and dive straight into the uncanny valley. Unfortunately, this combined with the city’s cycle of endless violence sometimes results in sociopathic criminals, who have bounties posted on their heads once the authorities catch wind of their monstrous acts, which falls to the hunter-warriors to collect. Upon making her discovery, Alita knows that she wants to follow in Ido’s footsteps and become a hunter-warrior as well.
Her first test is against Makaku, a cannibalistic cyborg whose brain was harvested from the body of a vengeful but weak child by a mysterious scientist and placed into a massive, nearly-unstoppable cyborg body. Upon first contact with him, Alita’s decorative mechanical body is shredded. After being rebuilt, Alita develops her first crush on Hugo, an orphaned street worker with ambitions to someday reach Tiphares, which is a legal impossibility for surface dwellers. Unbeknownst to Alita, Hugo has been working with criminal underlord Vector, exchanging spinal columns he’s cut out of unsuspecting cyborgs for a supposed 10-million-chip ticket to the floating city. Hopelessly head over heels for the budding organ harvester, Alita decides to assist Hugo by taking on Makaku’s bounty. Instead of waiting for Alita to track her down, however, Makaku instead seeks her out, having developed a sick obsession with her and stolen a new, superior body. After a long, ferocious battle, Alita collects on the price on his head.
Unfortunately, the jig is up for Hugo; his scam discovered, there is now a bounty on his own head, which hunter-warrior Zapan intends to collect. Alita, caught between her duty as a hunter-warrior and her feelings for Hugo, comes up with her own solution; she cuts off Hugo’s head, sustaining it by hooking up her own respiratory system to provide oxygen to his brain. After being revived, his head mounted to a cyborg body, Hugo confronts Vector only to discover that Vector’s own promise of being smuggled into Tiphares was yet another scam–upon giving Vector his ten million chips, Hugo would have been sent in pieces, his organs and brain removed and sent up in jars for an unknown reason. Devastated by the hopelessness of his situation, Hugo then attempts to scale one of Tiphares’ supply lines, connected to the Factory by large tubes and protected from unauthorized individuals attempting to ascend. Despite Alita’s attempts to dissuade Hugo and confession of her love for him, he falls to his death after his body is shredded by the supply line’s security system.
Alita then vanishes for months from Ido’s life, aimlessly wandering the Factory’s streets before stumbling upon motorball, a racing sport for cyborgs that sprinkles gladiatorial mayhem on top of the violence of the classic roller derby. Alita becomes a rising star in motorball’s lower echelons, quickly ascending into the sport’s top league and finding a new, exciting challenge in facing Jashugan, the sport’s undefeated champion. Jashugan’s skill and ferocity is undeniable, but he is aware that he doesn’t have much left in him–a near-fatal brain injury should have halted his career entirely, and even reconstructive brain surgery isn’t enough to save him from life-threatening seizures that seem to grow in severity by the day. Jashugan then agrees to face Alita and a team of hand-picked motorball players in their attempt to dethrone him, knowing that this match will be his last. Jashugan manages to defeat Alita and her team, but at the cost of his own life.
Alita then retires for a couple years, living a simple existence as a singer in the local favorite Bar Kansas, but her life is soon uprooted by a chain of disastrous events. Near the end of Alita’s motorball career, her trainer sold her combat chassis, the beserker body, to an unknown buyer in order to keep her on the track. Knowing that possession of the berserker body in the wrong hands could spell devastation, Dr. Ido tracks the body to the laboratory of Desty Nova, a fellow former Tipharean and mad scientist behind both Makaku’s cyborg body and Jashugan’s brain surgery. Nova reveals that he has given the berserker body to Zapan, who feels he has a score to settle with Alita. Unfortunately, as Zapan does not possess the will to control the beserker body’s latent, experimental nanotech, his misguided attempt at revenge quickly devolves into a gory rampage through the city streets. Though Alita manages to defeat him, she finds herself cast out, as the blame of Zapan’s destruction is quickly thrust onto her shoulders. Additionally, it is revealed to her that Dr. Nova has “dismantled” Ido’s body and intends to reconstruct him in a place far from the city in order to force him to be his assistant.
This rejuvenates Alita’s drive; she becomes an agent of the TUNED, a group of special operatives sent by the Tipharean government to maintain control over the Scrapyard. For ten years, Alita roams the Badlands surrounding the city in order to find Nova and rescue Ido, becoming a hardened veteran in the process. During her search, she is tasked with taking down a militant/terrorist group with alleged ties to Nova known as the Barjack. Led by a massive cyborg known as Den, the Barjack’s mission is to pull Tiphares down from the sky, no matter the cost. Initially, Alita accompanies groups of mercenaries hired to prevent the Barjack from breaking the supply line that runs from the factory farms in the wasteland and Tiphares, to whom the farms pay tribute. It’s here that Alita meets and connects with Figure Four, a brash, non-augmented soldier who has mastered a fighting style that makes him more than a match for the average cyborg. After a devastating ambush by the Barjack, Alita and Figure Four find themselves stranded in the ruins of an old city, where Alita begins to open herself back up to human emotion through interacting with Figure. Upon reaching his hometown Alhambra, a fishing village built out of flooded, derelict high-rises, Alita parts with Figure in order to finish what she’s started.
In the series’ next storyline, Alita finds herself in the care of Kaos, broadcaster of a pirate radio station stationed in the Badlands. Though Kaos’ body is frail, it is soon revealed that he is telemetric, or has the ability to read the history of objects through mere touch. Upon touching Alita, he sees into her forgotten past as Yoko, an elite Martian soldier and immediately falls in love with her. Of course, all is not as it seems with Kaos; as it so happens, he is the son of Desty Nova, and an experimental implant that was grafted to him as a child split his personality in two. One aspect is Kaos, the overly-sensitive artist, and the other is Barjack leader Den, who projects his consciousness into remote bodies while Kaos sleeps. Astonishingly, Kaos with his telemetric abilities is unaware that he is literally of two minds on his stance on violence, but soon comes to realize this once he comes in contact with a sword Den has handled in Kaos’ body. As Kaos faces a mental breakdown upon discovering his true nature, Den begins planning a final attack on Tiphares, which revolves around a massive cannon destroying the space elevator shaft, Jacob’s Ladder, that keeps the city afloat.
Alita, meanwhile, learns from Kaos that Ido is now living on Farm 21, a village that has been under Barjack control for quite some time. However, upon finding him, Alita discovers that he has voluntarily erased his own memory after Dr. Nova divulged to him a horrible secret buried beneath Tiphares’ utopian facade. Her resolve hardened, Alita makes for the Granite Inn, Nova’s mountaintop fortress, only to discover herself betrayed by the Tiphareans–as it turns out, Alita’s conscription as a TUNED agent was only to provide them with combat data in order to create merciless killing machines in her image, the first of which she encounters on the way. Meanwhile, the Barjack prepares for its assault on Tiphares. Despite its best efforts, the ragtag rebel group fails to sever the elevator shaft supporting the floating city due to an unanticipated shield surrounding it. Finding themselves severely outgunned, the Barjack’s offensive is quickly dismantled.
At the Granite Inn, Alita arrives to confront Nova hours after Kaos has, falling prey to the same trap, a dream state controlled by Nova, aptly named the Ouroboros. In it, Alita relives her final fight with Jashugan, quickly breaking free of the simulation. She then confronts Nova, who reveals the secret of Tiphares: upon reaching adulthood, Tiphareans have their brains removed and replaced by a biochip containing replicas of their minds, ensuring docile members of their society. Of course, knowledge of this secret assuredly drives nearly all Tiphareans to madness, and requires those who discover the truth to either be exiled from paradise or terminated, as we see happens with Alita’s handler.
Alita then chases Nova throughout the facility, destroying as many of his inhumane, mortifying experiments as possible along the way. Unfortunately, this distraction allows Alita to become trapped by the Ouroboros again. This time, her mind is attacked from a different angle–first through her memories of Ido, then through a simulation of an alternate version of her life, in which Ido and Nova are colleagues in the Scrapyard. However, Nova finds himself drawn in by his own simulation, finding that he and Alita have formed a strong bond in this reality. Meanwhile, Kaos exhibits serious badassery in attempting to use his telemetric powers to break into the Ouroboros, eventually transcending his physical form. After he breaks Alita free from the simulation, she cuts Nova’s head off, putting an end to the madness.
But, in a shocking comic-book twist, Nova’s not dead, seeming to have backed up his brain-chip to a second in his torso. What’s more, he lures Alita into a trap when she least expects it, reassembling her on Tiphares, to which he has been granted amnesty. Before then, however, Alita has a vision into her past life as cyborg space marine Yoko, in the defining, vicious moments before her cognitive death. Upon revival, Alita quickly comes to realize the perverse nature of this impossibly peaceful society, which also has public suicide booths on top of the whole brain-swapping thing. She then goes into full-on rampage mode, tearing Tiphares apart from the inside. This is ended by a confrontation from Melchizedek, Tiphares’ AI goddess overlord, who divulges that, despite humanity’s high aspirations to colonize the stars, the scarcity of resources among the planetary colonies themselves led to a civil war that plunged the solar system into a dark age. Melchizedek then effectively kills herself by evacuating her core out of Tiphares’ main trash chute, destabilizing the city’s connection to Jacob’s Ladder. In order to save both Tiphares and the Scrapyard from certain destruction, Nova gives Alita a nano-serum that will change her physical form based on her greatest desire, and combines her matter with Tiphares and its neighboring station Ketheres Elysia into a massive root system, which blooms into a massive flower from the structure of Ketheres.
Years later, Ketheres Station has been turned into a tourist attraction for surface dwellers and Tiphareans alike, but there’s trouble when Figure Four bursts in with his country boy hustle, on a mission to find Alita. He tracks down Desty Nova, who has devolved into a babbling crackpot with a flower blooming from his skull cavity. Nova shows him the way to an egg sac hidden within the station’s biological infrastructure. Inside he finds Alita, reborn in a new body.
Battle Angel Alita is a fantastic vision of the future, in more ways than one. Blending cyberpunk with incredible character growth and a dash of space opera, the manga is a unique read with a level of innovation on par with Star Wars, creating an immersive world fairly innovative for its time. The art is gorgeous and brutal, the character development is uncommonly well-developed and earnest for a science fiction series, and the world, mingling transhumanist cyberpunk visuals with the vaguely-defined “desert punk” subcategory of post-apocalyptic fiction, is engaging enough to get lost in for hours at a time.
Of course, Battle Angel isn’t without flaws. It has the tendency to slip a little too comfortably into shonen tropes from time to time, resulting in an over-the-top feel that, while never so much that I failed to take the story seriously, may throw some readers off. The most specific example I can think of lies in motorball champion Jashugan’s weapon of choice–he has a set of alternating rotors built into his arms, which are designed to snag and tear opponents to pieces. How, exactly? I’m not entirely sure, but according to the manga, it’s highly effective. Also, another motorball player, Caligula the Armblessed, has the ability to turn into a spinning top of death.
Similarly, in keeping with a plot structure typical of the genre, the stakes continuously inflate and Alita’s enemies become more and more superpowered as the story progresses until they’ve reached critical mass, almost bordering on the absurdity of a Marvel film. Fortunately, this works in the series’ favor for the most part, but is most noticeable when shamed hunter-warrior Zapan loses control of Alita’s berserker body, which changes form due to internal nanites into a hideous monster that has the ability to level cities. Because of this and other reasons, the pacing of Battle Angel has the tendency to feel a bit stilted at times–Alita’s fight with Zapan felt like a means to an end, a way to force the story to move to the next plot arc.
Likewise, Alita’s budding romance with Figure Four in the “Rain Maker” storyline stood out to me as a weak point in the manga. Don’t get me wrong, they shared some endearing moments together–my favorite was when Figure teases Alita with a morsel of food, only to snatch it away from her, which she responds to with a swift kick to the stomach as they dangle from a rotting skyscraper. But it didn’t strike me as developed enough in light of the way Alita’s last crush ended (Hugo’s heart-rending death) to prompt her to dive headfirst into a committed relationship, and certainly doesn’t seem to be enough to cause Figure to search for Alita years later. The worst example of stunted pacing, however, may lie in the series’ final issues, once Alita finds herself in Tiphares. Everything happens extraordinarily quickly–while Battle Angel’s other plotlines make a point to chew the scenery, Kishiro doesn’t let anything settle on Tiphares. This might not be so much of an issue if not for the story’s climax, when Alita takes the magical wish-granting nano-serum. Had Kishiro taken more time to develop the last storyline, this element might have felt less like a deus ex machina and more like a natural choice.
This last point, however, may be due to the fact that Kishiro was unable to devote as much time to the series nearing the end as he would have liked to. In light of the above minor missteps, the rest of the series excelled at tugging my cold, brittle heartstrings–an uncommon thing to find in a cyberpunk tale boiling over with blood, viscera, and melting flesh. And there is indeed several instances of melted flesh–the entire manga excels at crafting the Scrapyard, Tiphares, and the Badlands as a sick, twisted world to live in. This can range from anything as simple as excessive gore–early on in the series, Alita dips her fingers into a pool of a slaughtered dog’s blood and smears it under her eyes, creating her iconic warpaint look–to progressions in science that might make even the most strong-stomached among us wince, ranging from Barjack soldiers who are merely slack-jawed heads until screwed into heavily-armored combat bodies to nearly full-cyborg individuals that sacrifice their entire bodies save for odd superficial elements like hands or a face, which, among other details dispersed throughout the story, gives Battle Angel a sort of primordial feel.
On the other side of the coin, Kishiro displays almost masterful technique in creating memorable moments in Battle Angel from as early as page one, to the point that it would be impossible to list here without causing this article to drag on. But, I must confess that my favorite moment was after Alita is freed from the Ouroboros by Kaos and faces her sworn enemy, Desty Nova. Shortly before Alita beheads him, his face is streaming with tears as he confesses that, were they still in the dream, he would have done anything to protect her.
And that’s what makes Battle Angel truly special; this is not your run-of-the-mill hyperviolent cyberpunk action comic, but a chronicle of Alita’s life as she reexperiences childhood through young adulthood. Alita is a spectacular science fiction heroine, not just some waif-fu cardboard cutout for otakus to slobber over or an obvious stand-in for a male character (I’m looking at you, Samus Aran). In many ways, Alita feels like a person that could truly exist, and this is due to the vibrant inner life Yukito gives her. Unfortunately, this same care is not delivered to all of Yukito’s female characters–turns out Dr. Ido has a type, and it usually involves conventionally attractive women playing with a few cards short of a full deck. Fortunately, he averts this with Koyomi, a reckless teenage girl who joins the Barjack before the assault on Tiphares and later becomes a celebrated photographer. Also, while this may displease some of you, the series keeps fanservice to a minimum–there is nudity, but it’s warranted within the context of the story, and there is nothing that comes to mind that undermines the development of any character in that regard.
The greatest gift Battle Angel has to offer is watching Alita grow and feeling as though we’re growing with her. Yukito imbues his writing of her character with what I must assume is his own personal experience, tweaked and filtered through the ocular implants of a badass lady-cyborg. Alita is her own person, driven by her desires and curiosities, bearing her own personality quirks and a fiery temper, kicking serious ass with a feminine flair. As she grows, she sheds her girlish shyness and, once a member of the TUNED, loses her way as many of us in our 20s do, substituting drugs, alcohol, and sex with the intensity of battle, before she finds a sense of inner peace. Her experiences are relatable and touching; I felt like I could share in both her victories and losses alike. There’s even one point in which Alita dreams that she is being operated on by Ido after his kidnapping with a sick sense of immense pleasure–while it may sound fucked up (and it is), if any of you have ever had a dream about having sex with a relative, only to realize the shameful, disgusting place your mind went upon waking, well, Alita’s been there too. It’s with great courage that Yukito wore his heart upon his sleeve while writing Battle Angel Alita, weaving his darkest, innermost thoughts and experiences into the lore.
If you skipped the rest of the article because it was too long-winded, the short of it is this: Battle Angel Alita isn’t just another manga where the main character has to continue leveling up to become the most powerful plot device. Alita is about us, about what it means to be human in a mad, frightening world, and it’s told from the perspective of someone that’s near-entirely machine. It’s for the punks, sure, but it’s also for anyone who’s ever questioned their place in the universe, it’s for anyone who’s found themselves lost and confused among the contradictory and destructive nature of not just authority, but all things. It’s a tale that can only be fully appreciated through experiencing it, barring those who are squeamish when it comes to excessive violence (and you’re on a cyberpunk website, so I’m guessing you’re not).
Also, Alita is just fucking adorable. God damn, I wish they’d expanded the anime into a full series.
Battle Angel Alita – 10/10
Kodasha has published some fantastic new hardcovers of the Battle Angel Alita manga. You can find them here.