A long time ago, in a pre-digital age when OG otakus got their anime on bootleg VHS tapes from Japan, Viz Comics published a lot of translated manga for an American audience. One of them was Battle Angel Alita.
Supposedly, James Cameron, fresh off the success of his blockbuster Titanic, was so taken with the manga that he flew to Japan to ask Yukito Kishiro personally for the Hollywood rights to Alita. Kishiro reacted the way most comic book artists would react to being asked if he'd like a dump truck full of money backed into his driveway. But it took twenty years for Cameron to get around to actually producing the movie. Special effects technology advanced a lot in that time period, but Cameron's ability to match his vision to a relatable story apparently did not. Alita: Battle Angel was not exactly a box office disaster, but it wasn't a success either, and for a big budget film that the studio was hoping would be the start of a new franchise, it was a complete failure. This means the prospects of a sequel, let alone a franchise, are bleak.
Which is a shame, because while the film wasn't great, it wasn't bad.
The story told in the film is Alita's origin story. It's a post-apocalyptic world, there was a war a long time ago, and now all the characters we meet live in a giant futuristic third-world ghetto, with the floating sky-city of Tiphares looming overhead as the most in-your-face constant reminder in history of the divide between the Haves and the Have-Nots.
Doc ("Dyson" in the movie, "Daisuke" in the manga) Ido, played by Christopher Waltz, is a cyberphysician with a mysterious and tragic past. Rummaging through the vast junkyard consisting of all the trash that Tiphares dumps on the city below them, looking for the parts he uses to repair the city's cyborg denizens, he discovers a partial cyborg with an intact human brain, somehow still alive after countless years.
Titan Books, 2018, 384 pages
In the 26th century, a female cyborg is rescued from the scrap heap by a scientist....
This is the official novelization to the 2018 science-fiction film, Alita: Battle Angel, based on manga by Yukito Kishiro. The film is directed by Robert Rodriguez, written and produced by James Cameron of Titanic and Avatar fame, and stars Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, and Mahershala Ali.
I almost never read movie novelizations, or any kind of media tie-in fiction. This book is a good reason why, but that's no slight on the author, who did an excellent job of translating the film onto the page. But if you've already seen the movie, then the novel offers nothing new, except a bit more background and some character monologues that couldn't be filmed. It's nice to have the bits of added detail, but the plot is a very straightforward novelization of the film.
In Pat Cadigan's novelization, we are treated to Alita's internal monologue in more depth than we got in the movie, and Cadigan does a very good job of portraying Alita as an actual 14-year-old girl, with all the histrionics and drama and over-the-top emotions that entails, and at the same time, a highly trained cyborg warrior who is possibly the deadliest weapon this post-apocalyptic crapsack world has seen in 300 years.
I think the novel is enjoyable and coherent enough to stand alone, but honestly, it's probably not going to really entertain you unless you are already an Alita fan. Cadigan does a good job of translating the CGI-spectacular fights into text, but still, you're missing out on the visuals, although some of them (like Ido's rocket-hammer) actually sound less silly as described on the page than when seen. But you can't really separate this novel from the film it's based on.
But let's start at the beginning.
Viz Media LLC, 1990, 248 pages
I read the Viz translations of the original Battle Angel Alita manga many years ago, and since they were still on my shelves, decided to revisit them after seeing the movie and reading the book.
The first volume, containing Alita's origin story, is similar enough to the movie that you can see where Cameron took the bare bones of Yukito Kishiro's story and added the necessary Hollywoodization. The teen romance from the movie doesn't actually appear in the manga until the second volume. Ido's backstory, invented to make the male lead more interesting, included a dead daughter and a villainous ex-wife (played by my celebrity crush, Jennifer Connelly, who made even Dark City look good), both from the sky city of Tiphares. But in the manga, we learn almost nothing of Ido's background or why he left Zalem. ("Zalem" is the name of the sky city that appears in the first manga series; "Tiphares" doesn't appear until the second.)
The manga is mostly a pretty straightforward comic book for boys. Alita is an anime cutie who James Cameron did his best to simulate with Big Eyed-CGI effects that almost escaped the Uncanny Valley look, but once her first body gets destroyed (much like in the movie), Ido conveniently has an ancient, high-tech "berserker" body sitting around to transfer her into. Whereupon she becomes the ultimate fighting machine in a tiny waifu body wearing a tight butt-hugging catsuit.
The manga's big bad is Makaku, a cyborg psychopath who goes around killing people and eating their brains in order to get an "endorphin" rush. He progressively becomes more and more powerful, by killing a champion gladiator and stealing his body, which has "grind-cutters" capable of moving at supersonic speed, thus turning Makaku into the giant, fearsome enemy Alita must defeat in her final Boss Battle.
There isn't much more to the story than that in the first volume. The movie turned Makaku into the minion of the real big bad and added a more complicated plot involving class warfare (Tiphares vs. the junkyard below) and motorball. But many of the notable scenes in the movie are taken directly from the manga: Alita and Ido trying to persuade their fellow hunter-killers to fight Makaku, Alita trashing a bar full of hunters to prove herself, Makaku bursting his way in, smashing everything in sight, then descending into the sewers for Alita to follow him, even the bit where Alita smears war paint below her eyes.
In the manga, unlike the movie, the dog lives. However, the manga is much gorier.
Like the movie, the story isn't deep, but the visuals are great, Alita is an endearing, heroic protagonist, and there is a lot of plot that's just hinted at, and unfortunately will probably never make it to film.
But if the movie left you wanting more, there are a total of nine volumes (in the Viz English-language translation) in the original Battle Angel Alita series, plus a sequel series and a prequel series.
These nine volumes are a complete story, with several arcs within spanning multiple volumes. Reading them in their entirety is an experience completely unlike the movie, as the story become increasingly bizarre, almost surreal at times, and it's also apparent that Yukito Kishiro sometimes really didn't know where he was going and just dropped some zany characters and boss battles into the story as filler.
While volume one introduces Alita and Doc Ido, Hugo, her love interest in the movie, doesn't show up until volume two, Tears of an Angel, and she only takes up Motorball (which was another subplot in the movie) in volume three, Killing Angel.
Volume four, Angel of Victory, is the end of the Motorball arc that many fans were bored with. We're introduced to an entire hierarchy of bosses, each of whom Alita takes on in succession with a series of over-the-top battles typical of 80s manga/ and /anime, where the combatants will flash their "Ultimate Move" only to be countered by an even more Ultimate move.
But it's not until volume five, Angel of Redemption, that we completely exhaust the material Cameron mined for the movie. Zapan, the pretty-boy cyborg whose face Alita sliced off, returns as a crazed, homicidal killer, while we're introduced to the real mastermind hinted at in the movie: Desty Nova, a mad scientist from Zalem who arranges for Zapan's brain to be transferred into Alita's original "berserker" body and juiced up with nanobots, making it a weapon of mass destruction which Alita must defeat in her biggest battle yet.
And then we get to volume six, Angel of Death, and the entire story takes a strange turn.
Alita becomes an agent of Zalem, given a devil's bargain she can't refuse. Doc Ido disappeared in the last volume, abducted by Desty Nova, and Alita wants to find him. So she becomes one of the "Tuned," and goes on a quest to find Desty Nova (who the head of Zalem's secret police also wants to capture).
Volume six is also where Kishiro introduces Figure Four, a big lug who's an obvious parody of Fist of the North Star (one of the most popular Shonen series in the 80s), and whom Kishiro inexplicably turns into Alita's new love interest.
In volume seven, Angel of Chaos, things just get stranger. First, there's a time skip of ten years. It's so sudden that I couldn't help thinking this was the point where Yukito Kishiro wasn't sure what to do with Alita's story next. So, fast forward, she's been running around the desert wastelands far from Zalem, hunting for Desty Nova and Doc Ido for ten years, and suddenly she's given a new partner, or rather "Controller," a ditzy office girl named "Lou" who pulls a pistol on her boss in a fit of paranoia.
Why are elite agents in the utopian sky city carrying guns around to their cubicle jobs? This is just one of the many silly throwaway gags Kishiro drops into the story at random.
Alita, with Lou as her distant "partner" by radio, are now on the trail of a bandit gang called the Barjack, which Kishiro bases on an actual rebellious band of boatmen from medieval Japanese history. In fact, Kishiro draws quite a lot on history and literature for Alita references — we eventually learn, for example, of the origins of the name "Zalem" (it's a Biblical allusion, like many of the heroes and villains in the manga), and he loves quoting opera and other works of Western art along with Japanese history.
And yet, for every literary reference and subtle character detail he inserts into the story, he also draws ridiculous boss battles like Den wielding a "Car Cleaver" sword that's literally carried on a crane.
The Barjack have been hijacking the nuclear-powered trains that deliver supplies to the network of Factory Towns that supply Zalem. This introduces the next Big Bad, a giant cyborg-centaur named Den, who is the fanatical leader of the Barjack. At this point, one wonders why Alita is so loyal to Zalem, when she should be joining the Barjack.
One also wonders why Kishiro went to all this trouble to set up the "Panzer Bride" chapter in which Alita fights Den while wearing a wedding dress, which made me think the unsubtle phallic imagery of the fight was totally not coincidental.
Alita's characterization undergoes a lot of evolution over the course of the series: she starts out as a spunky YA protagonist, and as she loses more and more people, and suffers ever-escalating levels of ass-kicking (as in typical manga fashion, the more powerful she becomes, the more powerful her enemies have to become), she is by volume 8, Fallen Angel, a gloomy death machine who's sometimes plain crazy.
Still disjointed and trippy, Fallen Angel is at least pulling some threads together and drawing us towards the climax. In the penultimate volume, Zalem has created robot copies of Alita, given AI brains uploaded with all her fighting skills. The first one kicks Alita's ass, and she is shocked and dismayed to learn that Zalem always considered her expendable and replaceable. (Really, girl? Not the sharpest blade, even if you carry the sharpest blade.) Missing an arm and a leg, she presses on, still seeking her old foe, Desty Nova.
Meanwhile, Den has built his ginormous train cannon that will fire a ginormous artillery shell at Zalem. It never occurred to our genius revolutionary that Zalem might have defenses prepared against the eventuality of a bunch of grounddwellers pointing a big gun at them.
Alita has a psychic ki battle with the cyberghost of her old frenemy from her Motorball days, Jasugun.
It's all kind of weird and still alternately cute, gory, and touching, with the author still dropping characters and plot lines whenever he doesn't know what to do with them.
And that brings us to the finale: Ascended Angel.
Those who were looking for a clean ending will be disappointed. Alita finally reaches Zalem, we learn a lot about its secrets, and yet there are more questions left unanswered. Doc Ido (found and then lost again years ago) remains lost. Figure Four, to whom Alita has sworn true love even though she hasn't actually seen him in years and we haven't seen him since volume seven, is dropped back into the story at the very end as Alita's final objective. After all her battles, having defeated the final big bad, she limps home in her mangled cyborg body, and... well.
I was actually glad that this volume included an alternate "non-canon" ending that tells an entirely different version of the conclusion of Alita's story. Although one is decidedly more poetic and optimistic than the other, they'll both leave you sad if you were hoping our heroine would ride off into a Happily Ever After.
The entire series is well worth reading (it's all still in print, and also available on Comixology), even if it is quite dated. Despite the weirdness and the inconsistency in Alita's character, and the lack of resolution for many storylines, I enjoyed it a lot, and I'd recommend it as a glimpse into the wild and zany world of 80s manga, as well as the source material that James Cameron would have mined if he'd been able to fulfill his dream of turning Alita into a cinematic franchise.
As for the follow-on series, I'll probably read and review them in the future.
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