This Week: Battle Angel
On January 28th, Yukito Kishiro finally brought the Battle Angel Alita: Last Order manga to the end of its run.
With roughly double the length of the original series, its kind of a weird thing to actually see. If we include the original (1990 – 1995, ended early due to health reasons), some random short stories (that slow drip collection starting in 1997), and Last Order (2001 – 2014), this has all been, well, a pretty impressive professional accomplishment to say the least. The series had a little two episode OVA produced, so it seemed timely to pop back in this week and well before the next endeavor (The Martian War Chronicles) kicks off later this year.
Battle Angel (Gunnm)
To an extent, I’ve sort of always felt like Ghost in the Shell and the Battle Angel franchise were akin to family members going down different career tracks. GitS, with things like Masamune Shirow’s tendency be be scribbling exposition and technical notes virtually in the margins and Mamoru Oshii’s capacity for handling long conversations on the philosophical nature of mankind and the existence of self, would be the one who ran off to gobble up a bunch of advanced university degrees in an effort to go into the professorial circuit, do some peer reviewed publishing, that sort of thing.
Battle Angel, for the purposes of this comparison, thinks that’s nice and all but decided to carve out a far more practical or blue collar niche for itself. I mean, a significantly sized part of the manga involves the sport of Motorball, which is basically roller derby mixed with gladiatorial combat. There are useful distinctions of philosophies and perspectives they each bring to the table as a result though.
To give an example of what I mean, and as the first GitS film arrived in 1995 and the Battle Angel OVA in 1993 they came from similar visual media era stock: the former has scenes where characters are speaking about the hows and whys of the mind, identity, evolution of thought, personal agency, and the like. The scenes are well shot but slow moving where little is “happening” in terms of visual momentum and characters are all pretty much even handed in giving their points to one another quite thoughtfully and richly worded (the boat, the lab, etc).
Battle Angel has Gally give the agency argument by, well, getting into an argument. Outside, on the steps, voices raised on both sides as “I don’t want you soiling your perfect hands with blood” and “You don’t have to work! All you have to do is be beautiful” remarks are traded with “Do you think I’m some doll for you to play with?!” counterblows. It’s an easy to follow exchange of ideas that is fundamentally dealing in similar concepts, but is more direct, approachable, and keenly tied to the characters personal level frustrations and concerns being expressed. Which isn’t to say one is doing the job better or worse, but they are constructed to be doing it differently.
Something that likely came up in your literature classes in school was probably cases where a teacher or other students would bring up ideas of later developments in the medium, culture, or history and would try to tie it back to the actual work being examined and how it reads differently as a result of something from far later in time. To that end, watching the Battle Angel OVA now, more than twenty years after its original release, it’s kind of fascinating when looking at where the development of “moe” concepts has gone in anime portrayals the time since.
I think it is fair to say that Gally’s physical design here, such as the proportions compared to that of the body and the way she moves around, is coming from a pretty moe design sensibility even if the term had not yet actually existed as we know and identify it currently. In character narrative, she was abandoned in a scapyard, physically destroyed in almost every way, yet reassembled and made whole again by the scavenging Doctor Ido.
Gally fills the “She was considered trash and I want to protect you” kind of space in that way. Here, she easily emotionally attaches herself to folks so long as they pretty much aren’t a jerk to her, fundamentally a happy portrayal of a cute little cybernetic girl who will make scrunchy faces on rooftops talking of dreams and the like until times come to actually throw down. So to come back to the one “Doll” conversation / argument, as a result of where we are presently in regards to how laser focused and almost scientifically designed for maximum profit margins and figurine sales some moe productions are, it comes off quite a bit harsher I think now than it did way back when. Not that Gally herself wasn’t intended to be a pleasant design to manga readers or OVA viewers (she certainly was), but her remarks do sting at least a little more given some modern anime tendencies in the time since. It certainly caught my attention when she began speaking back using those precise words, at any rate.
Another aspect the OVA is primarily dealing in that is different when compared directly to that similarly timed GitS film would be that of character relationships and association. Not to say the later did not have those, but they were not as emphasized as they are here. Ido and Gally, Gally and Yugo, Chiren and Ido, Vector to Yugo, Chiren, and his own acting as a middleman between Zalem and Scrap Iron City, etc.
Characters frequently talk of feelings when compared to the tech rather than philosophy (though certainly feelings do constitute an expression of kinds of philosophy in their own right). Since we only have two episodes to work with, the whole anime does not have an extravagant allotment of time, but what it has it executes solidly enough to introduce and wrap several of their character mini arcs and show a few flavors of the rusted up and broken down little cyberpunk world they happen to exist in. I don’t think it’ll blow many self held world paradigms away, but it is a nice little story with a lot of tangentially bigger ideas that it just tries approaching on a smaller scale.
We meet enough of a cast to move them through a few interpersonal developmental stages before rolling to end credits, which serves two purposes here: as a standalone piece, I feel satisfied enough with how I spent my time watching it and being able to leave it as is, while as an advertisement meant to drum up one to pick up the manga I feel encouraged to do so to see more of their universe rather than feeling like the OVA is holding a viewer hostage. That’s a pretty key experiential distinction I feel, as certainly there is a much larger pile of shoddy little old OVA adaptations cranked out that are merely serving as characters moving around and nothing else, or worse, just flatly withholding a conclusion in a cynical “Well, you better buy the manga to find out!” fashion.
Given the seemingly endless development hell the live action film version has been caught up in (James Cameron has held a lock on the rights for over a decade, but keeps kicking back production for more Avatar related work), in all likelihood this OVA is still going to be the only long form audio visual portrayal of the franchise for several more years to come. And what we have is still a pretty solid thing to me, all these years later. It does what it needs to do with some nice flair and little jabs of commentary here and there, and its dusty and rusty Mad Max aesthetics are the kind of cyberpunk style we don’t really have a whole lot of compared to its many slicker anime counterparts.
Mothballs is a weekly write-up of already completed anime series I have either removed from my backlog or have recently revisited. A crash space for my immediate thoughts and personal processing, these are not intended as full reviews.