It’s been nearly 30 years since the manga series Battle Angel Alita came onto the scene in 1990, but Yukito Kishiro’s dystopian masterpiece has stood the test of time. It’s simultaneously a callback to the retrofuturistic cyborg films of yesteryear and a still-fresh story whose relevance has only increased over the years. The series is all set to get the live-action movie treatment in 2018, and in honor of the upcoming film, the series is getting a digital exclusive release with an all-new translation—the first three volumes of which are out now. If there’s one area where my knowledge of anime and manga is lacking, it’s the older stuff, so I was excited to see what it had in store.
The story begins with Ido, a skilled cybermedic who, while searching through a junk heap for spare parts, stumbles upon a partially intact cyborg girl whose memories have been miraculously preserved. Only her battered head and chest remain, but as soon as Ido wakes her up, he’s determined to restore her to life (and limb). He soon finds that the cyborg girl can’t remember anything about her past, including her own name; he christens her Alita, the name of his recently deceased cat. He starts scavenging for cyborg parts, and before long, he’s built her an entirely new body.
At first, Ido treats Alita like a glorified doll—seeing as this is a man who named a cyborg after his dearly departed pet, this is perhaps unsurprising. He wants nothing more than to realize his “vision” for her, which is to transform her into a beautiful, girlishly dressed puppet. But it’s not long before Ido finds that Alita will be no one’s toy.
As soon as she’s physically capable of doing so, Alita starts following Ido around as he works. And when she tags along one evening as he sneaks away from his workshop, she discovers his secret: he moonlights as a bounty hunter. Alita proceeds to jump right in to the action alongside him, using battle-ready skills that are as much a surprise to her as they are to Ido. Ido tries to maintain his original narrow vision of her for a while longer, telling her she must stay behind and let him work alone, so that he can keep her from harm. But Alita will have none of it—and Ido comes around as soon as he realizes she’s the one saving his life time and time again, rather than the other way around.
I was intrigued by this story from the start. But I was cautious in my optimism—though I love sci fi, I’m not a huge fan of the stuff that’s heavily militaristic or highly technical, and at first glance, it seemed Battle Angel Alita had a good chance of being both. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the characters had a lot more heart than I had expected and that the story itself had many of the elements I consider essential to good sci fi. But more on that in a moment.
Beyond the overall concept of the story, the first thing that hooked me was the artwork. When it comes to anime and manga, it doesn’t matter how well written and groundbreaking the story is; if the art style isn’t to my taste, I can’t fully enjoy it. Right from the beginning, though, I knew that wasn’t going to be a problem with Battle Angel Alita. Every panel is full of detail and emotion, and the composition is spot-on. One aspect I particularly enjoyed was the way the occasional full-color panels in the digital edition are cast in a raw, earthy color scheme that captures the feeling of Alita’s and Ido’s broken-down dystopian world.
As I mentioned, it has that great classic sci-fi feel to it in a way that’s reminiscent of Blade Runner and other films of that ilk from the ’80s. Much like those stories, and like any sci-fi tale worth its salt, Alita really digs in to the idea of what it means to be human. Admittedly, it does this so much that it feels a bit heavy handed at times, but I was able to overlook it for the most part. From the time that Ido insists to his workshop assistant that Alita is “perfectly human” to the time Alita risks her life to save a small baby with all the maternal fervor you’d expect from any human in her place or the time when she declares to Ido, “I’m not your dress-up doll!”—it’s clear that Alita’s no cold, emotionless killing machine, despite her razor-sharp battle skills.
The main weakness I feel the story has overall is a pretty significant lack of world building concerning Ido’s and Alita’s dystopian surroundings; there was also very little back story given for any of the principal characters. In Alita’s case, this makes sense, since she herself has no idea who she is or where she came from, but I found myself wanting to know much more about the story’s big players. Beyond that, I wanted to know how the setting of the story came to be in the first place. For example, how did their world become a glorified scrap heap? What’s up with the floating city that looms above them? And what’s the deal with the cyborgs? Why were they made? Was Alita a flesh-and-blood human once, or was she built from scratch? I was able to get a good sense of the story and setting despite my many questions, but even still, the plot felt unpleasantly gappy at several points.
The other pitfall was that the story’s ending felt much too abrupt for my taste. I suppose this was done to up the suspense factor, and it certainly succeeded in this, but in my opinion, there are ways to do this that are much more deft and much more satisfying. Though the author succeeded in making me want to jump right into the next volume, as a narrative tactic it feels a bit cheap and manipulative.
Weaknesses aside, however, I truly enjoyed volume 1 overall for its aesthetic, its pacing, and the pathos of its characters. It has that deliciously, garishly ’80s vibe that keeps popping up everywhere lately and that I love more every time I see it. And while many of its themes were ones I’ve seen countless times, the ones it brought to the forefront were the ones that I want in every sci-fi story I read—the ones that will never get old.
Volumes 1 through 3 of Battle Angel Alita are available now, exclusive to ComiXology and Kindle and free with a ComiXology Unlimited subscription. (You can read chapter 1 for free on the Kodansha website.) Volumes 4 through 6 are coming in August and volumes 7 through 9 in October.