After hearing the news that James Cameron would be helming a film adaptation of Battle Angel Alita next year, I decided to take a dive into the series and see what the fuss was about. I’d never actually read it, but after 15 years of anime convention-going I was sure I’d heard the name before. And since I like to be an informed critic, and am already strapped in and ready to critique the movie (with its tragically predictable almost-Asian-less cast) I figured there was no harm in familiarizing myself with it for dragging’s sake.
Well, after reading all nine volumes of the series, I can confidently say that while I can explain the story, I have no idea what the fuck it is about.
The series, which ran from 1995-2005, takes place in a postapocalyptic wasteland called the scrapyard, where criminals and outcasts live in the shadow of the floating city of Tiphares. Our protagonist is the titular Alita, a cyborg whose head is found by a friendly doctor. He takes it home and builds her a new body, and while she can’t remember anything about her past life before she was beheaded, she does have the muscle memory for some pretty sick martial arts. Over the course of the series, she uses these to find work as a bounty hunter, to become a motorball player (basically a cyberpunked out version of roller derby), and to ultimately become an unwilling agent of Tiphares when the doctor she sees as a father is kidnapped. Also, she falls in love twice because… I still dunno why. Because teen girls do that, I guess.
From the beginning, this series was a mess to read. The world is dystopian, but we never get any real sense of the conflict between Tiphares and the scrapyard except that there apparently is one. There’s no sense of what disaster caused the dystopian setting to take hold except for some vague allusions to a world war, and certain groups and conflicts are introduced without any necessary context. For example, we find out at the end that Alita was originally a terrorist from Mars bent on destroying Tiphares and the orbital station it hangs from — but up till that point we didn’t even know that there was a colony on Mars and are given no reasons why they would be set against the Earth folk. This makes Alita’s decision to reject her former self and protect Earth devoid of the weight it could have had. And it never gets as heavily into the themes inherent in cyborg stories – i.e., what it means to be human, etc., because it can’t nail down a character arc long enough to let anyone muse on the issue.
Not only was the character development questionable-to-nonexistent, the worldbuilding sloppy, and the story bland, the art was bad to middling at best. Some fight scenes were so hard to follow that I just ended up skimming past and only reading the dialogue. Alita’s personality is so changeable that I almost put a Jim Moriarty gif in this paragraph. In one volume, she’s serious and dedicated to justice; in another, it’s about the chaotic thrill of a battle; in another, it’s because she’s in love with some random boy. The Alita in the first volume becomes a bounty hunter because of her desire to protect the people she cares about; the Alita in the second volume falls for the first dude her age she meets and is ready to die for him before the book is over.
And while Alita is the title character and the protagonist, the story is deeply centered on the men in her life and she forms very few relationships – meaningful or superficial – with the very few women she meets over the course of the series. Her bodily agency is completely tied to the people who can manufacture or manipulate cyborg bodies, and more than once she is targeted because her brain – which holds the secrets to that baller martial arts style – is a valuable commodity. She’s literally objectified.
Looking forward, I suspect this movie adaptation may come under less fire for whitewashing due to the fact that, unlike Ghost in the Shell and Death Note, it isn’t set in a specifically Japanese setting — rather, it’s set in a post-apocalyptic U.S. — and doesn’t lean as heavily on specifically Japanese themes and issues. But it’s still Japanese-created source material being adapted with next to no input from anyone with Japanese heritage, which is shitty to say the least. And the one Japanese character in the series, Alita’s doctor, who is named Daisuke Ido in the manga, has been renamed Dyson Ido in the movie and is being played by Christoph Waltz. So despite significantly less opportunity for whitewashing, they still managed to do it to the one definitively Japanese character, while also perpetuating the idea that there are no Asian-Americans in our futuristic dystopia. Fuckin’ Hollywood. I’d like to think that presumably some day they’ll get the message, but it doesn’t seem like it’ll be anytime soon.
And I doubt the movie will do much to improve upon the miserable representation of dark-skinned people present in the manga, so it’ll be both racist against Asian people by omission and Black people by inclusion. There are three noteworthy Black/dark-skinned characters in the series, and none of them are anything to write home about. The first guy we meet is basically a mafia don, running a huge black market and swindling people left and right. (A standout role for Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali. Babe, you can do so much better.) The other two are a brother and sister duo. The brother is a huge, menacing motorball player, the undefeated champ and a walking scary-strong Black athlete stereotype. His sister, on the other hand, feels even worse somehow: she is the only person in the series to speak a sort of broken, babyish English and is desperate to marry Alita’s doctor father-figure, managing to both infantilize and sexualize her at the same time.
I read a lot of shitty manga as a baby weeb back in the day, but looking back, I’m really glad this wasn’t one of them. The original series is out of print (I read them from the library) and I can only assume that’s for a reason, although Viz is releasing new editions soon, presumably to capitalize on the movie. If you’re looking to check out an older manga series, I’d recommend you look anywhere but here.
Hear more from Lady Saika on Character Reveal, the podcast she cohosts with BrothaDom!