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  • Writer's pictureIan Slutz

Battle Angel Alita Explained

Coming to a face near you.

As a long time fan of “Battle Angel Alita” I thought I would toss together a little primer before I saw the movie. Hopefully, this will give some insight into why James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez, and I are drawn to this story.

What Is My Relationship to Battle Angel Alita?

I first encountered “Battle Angel” when it had its English language debut in 1994. My Grandmother had just died and the story seemed like such a bummer I skipped it. However, I stayed curious and picked up one of the graphic novels the next year. With new eyes I saw that while there were many bad times, the story was about defying the darkness, not wallowing in it.

As I grew into an adult I found a lot of manga didn’t hold my attention anymore. “Battle Angel” is still something I read and enjoy and look forward to new material from.

What Exactly Is Battle Angel?

“Battle Angel” continues the story telling tradition of a tough martial artist, traveling the world, and learning about themselves through fighting. It has been a popular genre in Japan since at least Eiji Yoshikawa’s “Musashi” was serialized in 1935. The unifying theme in this genre is that the protagonist can only understand themselves by a series of violent confrontations with interesting rivals. Yukito Kishiro’s number one innovation is that he places Alita’s story in a futuristic scenario.

How Much of It Is There?

A lot.

And Kishiro still has more on the way..

Is It Popular?

I have no clue. Perhaps because it hasn’t been turned into a hit anime it never achieved big time fame. I have only met fellow fans from time to time. However, it seems to have wide appeal. On a trip to Brazil I saw a “Battle Angel” collection prominently displayed in a department store. Korean film director Park Chan-Wook sights “Battle Angel” as his inspiration for “I’m a Cyborg and That’s OK.” There is even a small homage to “Battle Angel”in Sergei Lukyanenko’s “Night Watch” series. So Alita seems to get around.

Explain Alita’s World to Me

At the start of “Battle Angel”, Alita’s world is defined by its relationship to the floating city (Tiphares or Zalem depending on translation). Goods are manufactured and sent up to the floating city, trash is dumped back down, but the citizens don’t mix. The only exception are a few floating city renegades who make it to the surface. They are rare and far between.

Life below the floating city has laws and rules but a severe absence of justice. Factory Law is fairly unique compared to the rules of other dystopias. Rather than represion the overall impression is one of neglect or ambivalence. Factory workers aren’t slaves and the robotic agents of the floating city don’t dictate how one should live one's life. Unfortunately, there is little societal cohesion; abuse and chaos are rampant.

This is a world where unseen elite literally crap on the heads of people living in an unruly slum. It is one of the most interesting science fiction apartheids I have encountered.

What little policing that is done is performed by bounty hunters. In the stories the system is never portrayed as corrupt. But since it’s only method of operation is money for heads, it doesn’t appear particularly enlightened either.

The world of Alita takes place in an initially unknown time and place. Over time the the author fills in the picture so we can see how this world came to be, but it is never a central mystery to the story.

Is the Floating City and the People Below the Whole World?

It takes a long time, but eventually Alita makes it to the floating city and the world beyond. I won’t spoil what she discovers, but the general gist is that the place she knew is far more provincial and irrelevant to the bigger picture than anybody living down below would guess.

What About Those Eyes?

I haven’t read why the creators of the movie chose the big eyes. The following is why they work for me.

Alita has an artificial body and a human brain. People with partial or full cybernetics bodies are not uncommon in Alita’s world and appear to make up a sizable minority. Most body modifications are some mix of affectation and utility. Alita is portrayed as having very human features in the books, but at the same time characters in the story know she is a cyborg right away. Kishiro’s art never indicates how people identify Alita as a cyborg, they just do.

I believe that the filmmakers chose the large eyes to maintain the sense of otherness that one might feel meeting Alita on the street. Alita is not like Ava from “Ex Machina”, she doesn’t pass as human. In the story, there are times when she is sensitive about her artificial body. I think it is a bold choice to create a character that exhibits the alieness she is meant to feel.

Talk About Ethnicity and White Washing in the Movie

Unlike some recent adaptations from Japanese material, Alita’s story does not take place in Japan. We eventually learn the floating city is hovering over what used to be the American Midwest and that Alita is originally from Mars. As to her specific ethnicity the story never commits one way or another.

Alita is revealed to have a Japanese given name, but she has a Central European surname. Almost every aspect of her martial art has a German pronoun (i.e. Panzer Kunst, Hoher Krieger). And the Martian colonies seem to be either settled by Germans or show a great deal of Deutchephilia.

Because there is such a mish mash of influences on display, I thought Rosa Salazar made a perfectly fine casting choice.

What Else Is Cool?

One of the chief joys of “Battle Angel” is the large cast of fascinating supporting characters Alita meets. There are so many memorable rivals, heroes, villains, and allies there is no point in listing them here. However, there is one that stands out.

Sitting atop the pantheon of Kishiro’s creations is a particular villain named Desty Nova. Despite having a name that could only be taken seriously in manga, Desty Nova is a highly original antagonist. His closest analog in fiction is that of Mephistopheles (with a little Mad Hatter on the side). In “Battle Angle”, Dr. Nova’s research gives him cause to grant the wishes of people that come into contact with him. These aren’t ‘devils bargains’ designed to ensnare the unwary. Instead he seeks to empower individuals who exhibit intense passions. Then he likes to stand by and watch what good or evil flows from giving interesting people what they ask for. As you might imagine he causes no end of trouble and Alita has to clean up most of it.

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