I know what you’re thinking. What the hell is Battle Angel Alita? At least that’s probably what you’re thinking if Battle Angel is even on your radar, which it probably isn’t. As San Diego Comic Con was winding down, the trailer for Alita: Battle Angel premiered. Most of the people I’ve talked to about it had one of the following two sentiments, or both.
1. What the hell is this?
2. Oh my God what the hell is wrong with her eyes?!
I’m going to explain both of these things to you, and more importantly, I’m going to explain why you should care. So suit up, strap on your blades and get ready for Battle Angel Alita, the best thing that you’ve (probably) never heard of. Mild spoilers will follow.
Battle Angel Alita is the English name of the cyberpunk manga series Gunnm (which means Gun Dream) by Yukito Kishiro. It was serialized in Business Jump, running from 1990 to 1995.
Quick culture note: Japanese Manga (comics) are generally serialized in anthology magazines, where each issue contains the new chapter of various titles. These anthologies can range from weekly to monthly, and chapters from a series are later collected into a trade called tankobon, much like how American comics are collected into trade paperbacks.
Why the name change? I don’t know, but this happened with several names throughout the series. An early translator claimed it was to make the manga more appealing to a general audience. While I understand that from a marketing standpoint, Gun Dream is easily as cool as Battle Angel, but I digress. Battle Angel Alita takes place in the far future, where an asteroid wiped out most of life on Earth. The rich and the elite rebuild civilization (or a form of it) in space, while those stuck on Earth’s surface do their best to survive. We begin in a city named the Scrapyard (Scrap Iron City in the original Japanese), which is a literal dump heap. Above the Scrapyard floats the city of Tiphares (Salem in the original) where the rich live without want or hardship. Tiphares uses the Scrapyard as its, well, scrapyard, literally dumping its trash into the city.
One of the kinder citizens trying to eke out a living is a doctor named Daisuke Ido, who specializes in cybernetic surgery. While looking through the trash heap he comes across the head of destroyed cyborg. By some miracle, the brain is intact and still alive. Ido takes the head home and rebuilds her. Since the head looks like a teenage girl, that’s how he rebuilds her, although it looks like they’re changing this to a young woman for the movie. When the girl wakes up, she has no memories of who she is, where she comes from, or what happened to her. Ido names her Alita (Gally in the original).
Alita soon discovers that Ido is a Hunter-Warrior (a type of mercenary/bounty hunter), who hunts down dangerous criminal cyborgs. The Scrapyard has no official justice system, no police and no prisons. If a crime is committed, a bounty is put on someone’s head, and whoever manages to take them down gets the reward, the more dangerous criminal, the greater the reward. Some have bounties so large that they walk about freely because no one is willing to try and bring them down. Alita of course follows him one night. He’s not happy and tells her to go home since the cyborg he’s hunting is dangerous. Naturally the target gets the drop on them, and Ido tries to defend Alita, urging her to run home. But somewhere in the back of her mind, an old program kicks in, and Alita proceeds to whoop this cyborg’s ass, despite being smaller and not (re)built for combat. She decides to also become a Hunter-Warrior, and in the process hopes to discover why she has these combat memories, and what it means to be human.
And so begins one of the greatest manga ever. I can’t really put into words how much this series means to me, it’s one of my top 3 favorite manga series and I first read it about the same time that I discovered Ghost in the Shell and Neuromancer by William Gibson. All three of these had a big impact on my fourteen-year-old self, and ever since I’ve been a huge fan of Cyberpunk. Everything about it speaks to me, the trappings, cyborgs, artificial intelligence, social commentary, the punk aesthetic, anti-authority, what makes us human, etc.… Now I don’t necessarily agree with every bit of social or political commentary that a work may have, but that can honestly go for anything. I only bring that up because Cyberpunk is inherently more political than other subgenres of science fiction. Battle Angel Alita is one of the less political cyberpunk stories, focusing more on characters, tragedy, and coping with trauma, but even then things like classism and wealth disparity are inherent in the setting.
The original Battle Angel Alit