I went to see Alita: Battle Angel this weekend. I’m not going to add to the deluge of hundreds of other reviews of the movie coming out on the internet right now, but I will say this: it’s entertaining, groundbreaking, totally worth your time, and you should go see it, if only to reward filmmakers who are actually both passionate about, and hyper-competent with their craft, something that’s far too rare these days in the American movie industry. What I actually want to cover here, is my experience with the source material, which originally went by the name GUNNM, written by Yukito Kishiro.
From the start of the story, GUNNM is pretty upfront about its themes and allegories. This world’s privileged upper class literally lives in an untouchable, pristine mega-city floating in the sky; they literally dump their garbage on top of the town of the ‘underlings’ below, who sift through the junk in order to find anything useful; and we find out later, there are even people under the city (as revealed by one particularly distasteful villain), in the sewers, who live off what the people above have dumped there.
A scenario for class warfare if there ever was one, but the warfare of this world is instead mostly between the have-nots below (echoing real life, I might add), and particularly ultra-violent in nature. The floating city of Tiphares (or Zalem, depending on which version you read) is a complete mystery to most, and it is revealed that it is near impossible for someone from below to enter or live in this city.
The story begins with a cybermedic by the name of Maisuke Ido, who finds an advanced android’s head and torso while rummaging through the endless heaps of garbage. He takes it back to his lab with his partner, Gonzu (who for some reason is written out of the movie, and replaced by a female nurse), where they set to the task of rebuilding her. Ido names her ‘Alita’, or ‘Gally’ as she is known in the original manga, and in the anime OVA (more on this later), after his cat, who died. There’s also a side story in the manga detailing this period, where Ido also meets and falls in love with a young girl called Carole, who dies tragically. It isn’t crucial to the overall narrative, but goes a long way in explaining Ido’s motives, emotional state, and his immediate attachment to Alita. The movie alters the backstory to one where ‘Alita’ was actually Ido’s daughter, who also (surprise) dies tragically, and the body he later gives cyborg Alita was originally for her (the writers probably did this for more emotional weight). It also changes the story to include Chiren, the original Alita’s mother, who now works with the antagonist, Vector. Chiren originally appears in the OVA, but isn’t in the manga.
It becomes very clear over some time, that Alita is a highly powerful centuries-old battle cyborg. By her very nature, she sets about seeking battle, in order to help the victims of the merciless, dog-eat-dog world she has been thrust into, something that doesn’t sit well with Ido, but eventually he has to accept what she is. She registers as a ‘hunter-warrior’, which is basically a bounty hunter hired by the authorities to do peace-keeping, and dispatch violent criminals. Ido is also a registered hunter-warrior as well.
Let’s talk the OVA, how influential is it?
The new movie closely follows the anime, in terms of content and structure, which in turn, adapts the manga fairly accurately, but also makes a couple changes. Both the movie and OVA roughly cover the first four manga chapters. The main changes are, as stated before, the presence of Chiren, and the premature death of Vector (in the manga, he lives quite a bit longer). The first four manga chapters largely covers the arc involving Alita’s love interest, Yugo/Hugo, and his downfall, and is mainly what the plot of the OVA and the movie concerns itself with. It’s basically a tragic romance. Alita quickly becomes infatuated with Yugo after meeting him, but knows nothing of his shady after-dark activities, which consists of attacking cyborgs and stripping them for parts. He works for the previously mentioned Vector, who has sold him the pipe dream that he can enter Tiphares if he works to eventually accumulate enough money. Yugo becomes pretty obsessed with Tiphares, which, of course, leads to his literal downfall, and a pretty devastating emotional lesson for Alita. I suppose you’re seeing a pattern here; yep, this story has a penchant for death and tragedy.
The OVA is well-animated and produced, but at only two half-hour episodes, is way too short, and leaves viewers wanting more, which is my main issue with it.
The sport of motorball, which is key to later arcs, is only touched upon very lightly in the OVA. Which brings us back to the manga.
What I think this manga does particularly well is its world-building and its portrayal of action. Basically, the fight choreographers for the movie already had all their work done for them in panels of the manga. All the fighting and various acrobatic moves are clearly and intricately drawn, and are almost shot-for-shot in some parts of the movie. The sense of speed in the motorball scenes are palpable and truly breathtaking at times, almost like actually watching a high-speed movie chase, and the movie greatly benefits by them. What also adds to the cinematic feel are the numerous sound effects, which Kishiro uses, for even small gestures, that are sometimes used to amusing effect, and which I admittedly took some time to get used to.
The motorball stories only truly begin in earnest later during the fourth chapter. The movie touches upon it briefly, but many of the new characters and plot points, like the rift between Ido and Alita, are not present. Most likely, they are saving this stuff for the sequel, if it gets one.