When most people think of futuristic sci-fi settings involving cyborgs in anime and manga, the first thing that’s likely to come to their heads is Ghost in the Shell. While the GitS IP is a very accomplished and influential one, it greatly overshadowed another similar but in my opinion superior work. Battle Angel Alita(which goes by the vastly inferior title Gunnm in Japan) was released in 1989 and despite being an excellent manga, it never became particularly successful and only a small portion of it managed to get adapted into an anime.
The story of Battle Angel Alita begins in a scrapyard where a scientist named Ido discovers the remains of a cyborg girl. She has lost all her memory and has no identity. He names her Alita, gives her a cyborg body and a reason to live.
The setting is based around a floating city called Tiphares. Most of the action is set outside of the city and on what’s deemed ‘the surface’ where people live off the scraps of the city, but events do eventually lead to the city itself. The artwork starts off as merely serviceable but gradually improves and becomes excellent late. It really brings the world to life. The style invokes a Blade Runner esque feel and manages to be very immersive. The action scenes are also excellently drawn. You can always make out what’s going on clearly and the panels segue into each other in a satisfying way.
What really makes BAA shine however is not its setting or artwork but its characters, or more specifically its main character, Alita(or Gally in Japan). She is easily one of the greatest characters in the medium. She is deep and complex and her character arc is extremely well handled. We see her go from an innocent ‘child’, to an aggressive bounty hunter and racer, to a love struck and contemplative individual, to badass anti-hero, assassin and eventually outright hero. This is all believably handled and very well executed.
While Alita no doubt steals the show, there are plenty of other high quality characters too. Most note-worthy is probably Ido, the scientist who took in Alita as his own and made her what she is. His relationship with Alita is quite deep and complex. He mostly sees her as a daughter and wants her to himself, though there is likely sexual undertones to it as well. He looks after Alita as best he can but tries to keep her as close to him as he can, to the point where he will intervene with her actions if she strays.
The villains are also a very fascinating bunch. Very few of them are portrayed as being outright evil. Even some that initially seem to have no redeeming traits end up being somewhat likeable in the end. They all have their reasons for doing what they are doing and never feel like they are just shoved in to give the protagonist something to fight. A mad scientist does feature but even that trope is averted somewhat. The way they play off of Alita’s personality while she interacts and fights them is very compelling to witness.
The story encompasses a very wide range of themes. It’s based around technology, ethics and philosophy. It’s very contemplative without ever getting bogged down with long winded exposition. The pacing for the whole manga is in fact pitch perfect. Each volume is about something different to the last, both in terms of theme and events. While the old chestnut Amnesia is used to start the story, things change very rapidly to a journey of self discovery, the meaning of life and the follies of man. Rage, sadness, jealousy, compassion, love and hate are all emotions present.
Events change from Bounty hunting, to rollerball, martial arts combat, wartime battlefields and more. Despite the change in tone, everything feels cohesive and well planned out. There is barely a single panel of filler throughout. There are also very few plot holes or inconsistencies throughout. There are a few revelatory plot twists that get introduced. They manage to both shocking yet in no way undermine the narrative that preceded it, like can often be the case with stories that rely on shock value.
Very few manga or stories in general manage to be so well paced and entertaining, while also being deep and contemplative, but BAA succeeds spectacularly. There are only a minor few gripes I had with the story. While I had no problem with the open ended nature of the ending, the build up to the ending did feel a tad rushed. Some events happened a little too quickly and weren’t explained in as much detail I would have liked. There is a follow up to the manga entitled The Last Order which does explain some of these things but that takes it a step too far and just ends up but a bloated mess, which is probably best avoided.
The only other flaw of any genuine worth I recall involves Alita’s relationship with a character called figure 4, who appears later. This character is not very likable yet Alita falls somewhat in love with him rather quickly. I didn’t find this particularly believable.Considering the type of character she was and the fact that he was somewhat of an idiot sapped credibility from the proceedings somewhat. This is fortunately only a small part of the story and doesn’t impede much on events overall.
Battle Angel Alita is perhaps the best sci fi manga I’ve read and one of the greatest sci fi stories in general that I’ve experienced. Despite its lack of popularity, its influence can be seen in works to this day such as the films Elysium and TV show Dark Angel. Regardless of that, the story is simply an excellent tale in its own right and deserves much more recognition than it has.