Battle Angel is based off a very well done Manga series called Battle Angel Alita. The movie covers the first two volumes of the Manga: Rusty Angel, which documents Alita’s “rebirth” and Tears of an Angel, which portrays a tragic love story. This anime from 1993 is one of the best man-machine interface animes out. The story is solid, and the drawing for that time period is terrific. While you might hear some gripe that the Manga is better, I think Fukutomi did a terrific job in taking Kishiro’s story to anime. I can only hope that James Cameron does a similarly wonderful job with the upcoming live action version of this. Just a warning – this is not a kids story – it contains lots of blood, head removals and minor amounts of nudity.
Battle Angel takes place far into the future, after a societal collapse has occurred. Advanced human society has been relegated to a floating city called Zalem, that sits above a refuse heap called Scrap Iron City, which is inhabited by denizens living off the scraps and waste products Zalem expels. A corporation called the “Factory,” the primary employer for Scrap Iron City, sends products back up to Zalem through a series of huge metal tubes. Cyborg technology has become a way of life, with many “humans” having only their brain remaining from their original human body host. Scavenging and theft has become a way of life for many. Backbones are a particularly sought after commodity by thieves, who sometimes will violently take them from their living hosts. As social services no longer exist, the Factory posts “bounties” for the heads of the most egregious villians, which bounty hunters, called Hunter-Warriors pursue for money.
Daisuke Ido, an cyborg doctor extraordinaire, former citizen of Zalem, scavenges through the refuse heap to find spare cyborg parts to repair the citizens of Scrap Iron City. One day he comes across a female cyborg head that has a still-living human brain in it. He sets out to repair this head and gives her a wonderful body off of parts he has collected. He names her Gally (she is called Alita in the Manga), and she seems totally restored, except for the loss of memory from her earlier life. Ido becomes attached to Gally and they quickly develop a father-daughter type relationship.
Gally learns that Ido moonlights also a Hunter-Warrior both for moral reasons and to support his medical practice. Gally saves Ido from certain death, and thus, reveals that she, in her former life, was also a very talented warrior. Under protest from Ido, Gally asserts her individuality and desire to become a Hunter-Warrior like Ido, so that she too can have purpose to her life.
Chiren, also a cyborg doctor and Ido’s former partner, has also been ousted from Zalem, and is consumed with finding a way to return. Deciding that she will do anything to make this happen, Chiren hooks up with Vector, a shady character who has connections with the “Factory,” who agrees to eventually take her to Zalem in return for sexual favors and for her assistance in building a supra-cyborg gladiator named Greweicia for the fighting ring. This cyborg warrior also has a penchant for eating brains, and ends up on the bounty list. Chiren, wanting to be seen as superior to Ido, gets Greweicia to fight Gally in the hopes of destroying her, and thus, destroying Ido.
Gally, in exploring the city has become infatuated with a hard working body named Yugo, who dreams of going to Zalem. Although it’s common knowledge that nobody born in Scrap Iron City can ever go to Zalem, Yogo is also consumed with finding a way, and has gotten an agreement from Vector, who promises Yugo if he can make 10,000,000 credits, than he will take Yugo to Zalem. Yugo has taken him up on his offer and has started stealing cyborg spinal cords as a way to augment his day job of fixing machinery. He is discovered, and is put on the Bounty list. Gally, who has fallen deeply in love with him, tries to rescue him from a rival bounty hunter. Unfortunately she is too late, but is able to save his head, and asks Ido to turn him into a cyborg. Even after becoming a cyborg, Yugo’s dreams of reaching Zalem cannot be abated, as he sees his life a struggle against the worthlessness that is the Scap Iron City.
In Battle Angel, we see strong influences of Akira in most every aspect of the production. From the facial expressions to the darkly textured backgrounds to the fighting style approach, Battle Angel clearly has used Akira as a template for modern animation techniques. Like many OAVs of this time period, some of the backgrounds are bland while others are lavishly penned and inked with multi-layered designs. They “pick their battles” with the designs, but for the most part, the decisions are solid. The simple designs are in backgrounds such as the sky and in Ido’s house. The more complex ones are in the underground, Yugo’s hang out, and in the refuse heap scenes – this is where most of the action and plot take place.
While I think Battle Angel is a terrific anime, there are some changes from the Manga that some find annoying. Most bizarre is the renaming of Alita to Gally, and the city Tiphares to Zalem. However, unlike some, I don’t find the changes in the plot to be that problematic. The anime wonderfully captures the essence of the Manga. Perhaps the biggest change is the rationale for Alita’s powers. In the anime, we really don’t get an explanation, but in the Manga, Alita is first given a normal body by Ido, and ends up destroying it in her first fight. Realizing that Alita is a warrior at heart, Ido gives her the body he has saved for a long time – that of a berserker warrior. The primary villain in Rusty Angel is also different – he is a being who has grown up in the sewers, and after losing his body in fighting Alita, he takes over the Gladiator’s body. And Chiren, a central character in the anime is not in the first to novels of the Manga. Again, for the most part, I have no problems with the changes, and actually love the dimension that Chiren adds.
Battle Angel (Alita) just works for me as an anime. It is intelligent enough and well enough executed to get you to imagine a world where cyborgs are a reality. The world from the underground perspective is well done and Alita (I call her Alita, not Gally) as a character is terrific. Along with Armitage III and Ghost in the Shell (obviously), Alita is one of the best animes of this kind. Just a caution for those who have only seen the VHS, like most Japanese animes, Battle Angel comes off FAR FAR better with the Japanese dubbing cast than it does the English cast.