Books on Japan: Battle Angel Alita
Battle Angel Alita
Hemanth Kissoon looks at the classic Battle Angel Alita series.
VIZ Media LLC
Manga are far more respected in Japan than our comic book equivalents. They are read by all demographics and are viewed as an art-form like any other. It is visual storytelling, using panels of pictures with speech and sound effects.
Battle Angel Alita, volume 1, was published back in 1991. After writer-director James Cameron finishes his magnum opus, Avatar, he will turn his attention to adapting to the silver screen this wonderful sci-fi action-adventure.
When reading this manga note that, although translated into English, the book is "printed in the original Japanese format in order to preserve the orientation of the original artwork". So you read right to left, back to front.
Right from the awesome image of a robotic woman with angel wings on pages two and three, we are thrust into the world far, far into the future. This is a Japan where cities float in the sky, and shift in their moorings to the ground according to the moon. Like much manga and anime, technology has advanced exponentially to almost unrecognisability, and there is an exploration of the nature of humanity. Here the relationship between human and machinery has blurred. Artificial intelligence exists, where robots are just as sophisticated as nature. Humans are revived and augmented and are now cyborgs happily living (though the health-care system is only for the wealthy). The influence of writers Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? aka Blade Runner) and Isaac Asimov (I, Robot) are felt.
Volume 1 focuses on the scrapyard city below the floating utopia of Tiphares. Those that have not, it seems, live below Tiphares. Environmental damage that has been on the forefront of many minds in Japan currently has taken root, and this scrapyard city is a sea of neon and metal, with no signs of vegetation or birds or animals (except dogs). I wonder if that is the reason why this manga is drawn in shades of black and white, without any colours which potentially represent nature, as well as hope?
While the environment has apparently suffered, on the other hand scientific knowledge has grown. There is a mechanics genius whose shop sign reads: "Daisuke Ido, Mechanic Cyborgs Androids Robots Repairs of all kinds, Tuning & Maintenance Cybernetic Repair Workstation"
Mad-haired Daisuke often wanders into the mountain of scrap looking for robotic elements to build from. He comes across the head of a robotic girl, with a neck and part of her torso still attached. She is 200 or 300 years old but her brain is intact and he manages to revive her, and then constructs a body for her. She is without memory and so Daisuke names her after his dead male cat, Alita, until she remembers her given name.
The police no longer exist. Instead 'Factories', administrative centres, register bounty hunters who catch criminals for a fee. Like much Japanese originated sci-fi, there has been a societal breakdown. Fearsome criminals now roam the streets. Daisuke, is not only a scientist, but one of these vigilantes, who captures criminals "for the rush" - showing that not all computer whizzes are nerds.
Alita follows him one night and is forced to help him. In protecting him she unleashes and unknowingly unveils her gifts as a fighter and decides to become a bounty hunter herself while she learns who she really is. This theme can be seen also in James Cameron's post-apocalyptic television show, Dark Angel, where a genetically modified woman (Jessica Alba) fights for good while on her own journey of self-discovery.
This society is not in good shape, what with vampire serial killers, and drug-addicted cyborg murderers. This latter killer is in fact a nutty Nietzsche-spouting snake-borg, Makaku, who eats the brains of humans and dogs to get their natural endorphin chemicals. Daisuke is right, when he says, "Damn, he's scary!" So bounty hunters Alita and Daisuke lock horns with Makaku in a grand, brutal struggle.
There is plenty of action, though it unfortunately can be a bit confusingly portrayed at times; while the violence is tempered by the imagination on display and the lack of colour.
Battle Angel Alita is a stunningly drawn comic book with a heart, and a gripping mystery story at its core.
"There's nothing in this world of value...nothing worth risking our lives for...except, perhaps...what little we can create ourselves. Without you Alita my life has no value," says Daisuke. A reference perhaps, to not only children, but to also art, and job satisfaction?
Battle Angel Alita Volumes Two, Three & Four
Story and art by Yukito Kishiro
Battle Angel Alita is a nine part manga. They all continue straight on from each other as if there is no break. Rumours are that director James Cameron will turn Volumes One to Three into a first film, and if it is successful there will be a trilogy.
"I have no memory of my earlier life...so I don't know what kind of person I was really like. Life itself remains undefined to me...whether it's ugly...or beautiful...a sin or a gift to cherish I don't know. But I'll find out! I need a sense of purpose being a bounty hunter lets me search for myself through battle! The money you speak of is meaningless to me! I walk in faith! The faith that we choose who we want to be...and grow into that identity, ugly or beautiful!" Alita
Over the three volumes Alita goes through heavy emotional turmoil. She gets driven by love, and then unfocused rage. Whenever in combat, she learns a little more about herself and her origins. Alita's is not the only mystery to be solved. We begin to learn about Daisuke Ido, Alita's quasi-guardian - what that mark on his forehead means. There is also the floating city, Tiphares, above the scrapyard city that is shrouded in anonymity. There are plots and sub-plots that make this series gripping.
There is the added bonus of interesting, compelling characters. Alita, as the focus, is strong, witty, fearsome and compassionate. She has an impressive, unchartered array of weapons and gifts that originate from her and the Berserker soldier's body (that Daisuke grafted onto her).
The battle with serial-killer junkie Makaku continues into Volume Two, and his background is delved into that perhaps aims for understanding a bold choice. Giving everyone of significance a back-story develops empathy and gives richer characterisation. Makaku, we discover, was abandoned as a baby in the sewers and attacked. There are issues of child abuse, violence on the streets, and corruption of innocence. An enigmatic scientist saved Makaku, and is later revealed to have possibly saved another nemesis of Alita.
Makaku is eventually vanquished. Alita continues meting out justice to a city that is more and more revealed to be severely lacking in that commodity. "The factories [the administrative body] operate entirely for the sake of Tiphares and are not concerned with the daily lives of the residents of the scrapyard".
Amid all this chaos Alita falls in love with Hugo, a dreamer who wants to escape to Tiphares. Seemingly courageous, he in fact will do anything to make enough money to fulfil his ambition, even if that includes vicious assaults on others. Love is blind, and Alita does not care. (Losing an eye is a motif that runs through the series.)
There is a stunning image of an in-love Alita looking out over the city. The love affair though has the whiff of tragedy from the beginning. Once realised, Alita goes A.W.O.L. and Daisuke hunts for her. The tragedy reveals the alarming chasm literally and metaphorically between the two cities.
Daisuke tracks her down to one of the two major combat sports in the scrapyard Motorball. Alita is now a rising star, and plays as the 'Killing Angel', where she takes out her aggression and frustrations of a broken heart and lack of identity. It is "a combat-oriented racetrack in the Western Region where cyborg circuit-riders compete to control the ball". There is the feeling that the violence of Motorball is used to sate the citizens, la The Running Man, otherwise discord would erupt.
Volume Three really shows the enhancement of humans with machinery the benefits and detriments. There are new characters introduced. Alita's team consists of Umba (mechanic), Esdoc (coach) and Tommy (sponsor). As her aptitude at this brutal sport is made clear, she has flashbacks to her training. She decides out of obstinacy to challenge the best Motorball player that probably has ever been Jashugan. He has been enhanced to spectacular level by Desty Nova, a cyber physician who could also have saved Makaku as a child.
Even with Alita's lost combat technique for machine bodies, 'Panzer Kunst', the battle would look foolhardy. The encounters with Jashugan jolt memories that are still tantalisingly vague.
Volume Four is an exciting page-turner. There is a good build-up to the climatic game, which ends in a cliff-hanger as to the fate of Jashugan. Oh yeah, and Alita remembers her real name... The imagination on display is impressive, as well as the thrilling pace. Amid the carnage, the frailty of existence is really felt.
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