Beneath the floating metropolis of Zalem lies the Scrapyard, and around it, Scrap Iron City. There, Dr. Ido discovers a broken cyborg among the refuse, giving her a new body and name – Gally – despite being unable to retrieve her memories. When introduced to the violent world of bounty hunting, Gally’s fighting instincts rise to the surface, and she takes on the hunter mantle in order to immerse herself in that sense of purpose. Along the way, Gally falls afoul of vicious criminal cyborgs and another bounty hunter, which threaten her budding romance with an ambitious boy from the slums.
With the live-action Battle Angel movie finally scheduled for release this summer after years in development hell, I thought it might be fun to take another look at one of the formative OVAs of my early anime fandom. Along with the likes of Bubblegum Crisis and Black Magic M-66, this was one of shows that introduced me to the concept of cyperpunk. I loved the gritty industrial aesthetic, and the character of Alita (renamed Gally in the anime) as a diminutive powerhouse able to take on threats both literally and figuratively larger than herself.
Rewatching the anime left me a bit conflicted, since I definitely have some nostalgia for the 1993 OVA, and upon viewing it for the first time in many years, I have to say that it isn’t all that great. It’s certainly not terrible, and it has some iconic visuals that have been referenced in other animated sources over the years, with my favorite being from Batman Beyond. However, it looks and feels pretty flat and “safe” compared to its much starker and more bizarre source material.
Battle Angel, aka Gunnm, which is a portmanteau of… you know what? Read the Wikipedia page if you want to know all of the weird factoids and name changes that crop up between the manga and the anime. Go on, I’ll wait.
Back? Alright, cool.
The anime version of Battle Angel is a moderately loose adaptation of the first two volumes of the manga. While many of the story beats are the same, there are several significant changes. Some of these, like Alita meeting her love interest, Yugo earlier in the story and drastically simplifying the backstory of one of her antagonists, help fit the story into the OVA’s limited length. The addition of Dr. Chiren, a former partner and possible lover of Dr. Ido, also helps tie him into the plot and provides one of the more interesting character arcs in the show. Chiren’s jealousy and frustration with Ido is played against Gally’s growing love for a boy named Yugo, and it’s honestly more compelling and tragic than much of the plot surrounding Gally.
The plot is being so truncated due to the time constraints of the two-episode format does come at cost. Events have little buildup, and there’s a clumsiness to Gally’s growth as a character. She’s a sweet girl hoping to help and protect Ido for all of 15 minutes before warping into a ruthless killer, and without the internal monologues that help clarify her changes in the manga, it feels pretty abrupt.
Also missing is Gally’s physical growth. In the original story, She goes through various cyborg bodies as Ido tries to help her survive the fierce life of a bounty hunter, and the abilities and challenges that come with each body parallel her changing personality. In the anime, she’s a murder machine pretty much from the word go. The limits of the runtime really leave the story feeling bland compared to its source material, where almost every conflict helps Gally learn more about herself and feature antagonists with pages of backstory (some more compelling than others).
Speaking of fights, if there’s one thing the Battle Angel anime is remembered for, it’s the two that are split between the episodes. The first, against a massive cyborg with whip-like razor claws is by far the most interesting, and offers some sweet visuals. The animators do a fine job of contrasting Gally’s quick, nimble movements against her massive opponent’s power and viciousness. The second fight, involving a rival bounty hunter, has a couple of neat tricks, but definitely feels perfunctory. It would have been nice if the fights had been a little longer to give the choreographers more time to play with, but once again, the time limit really cuts into it.
Overall, the impression I get from Battle Angel is that it was an advertisement for the manga, made on the cheap and without the same passion as some other OVAs of the time. It features some sharp artwork and a nice soundtrack (Kaoru Wada would go on to create a lot of excellent music for various shows), but lacks in the story and characterization department. Despite that, it certainly did its job – long after watching the show, I picked up the manga and found it to be far more interesting, if absolutely bonkers.
Would I recommend Battle Angel? If you’ve read the manga, it’s a neat, if flawed exercise in adaptation, so I think it would be worth your time to give it a go. If not, it might be worth it to check out ahead of the Robert Rodriguez/James Cameron movie, since it looks like they’ve primarily taken inspiration from the anime rather than the manga. The extent of that remains to be seen, and I’m hoping that they can pull in some of the weirdness that makes the manga such a page-turner.
I’d also like to say that I think the casting of Christolph Waltz and Mahershala Ali is awesome, and I believe that they’ll lend a lot of weight to their roles. As far as the creepy eyes in the trailer, I think they were trying to make her look more doll-like, but next to actual humans, it just looks off. I’d much rather have seen them go full CG and stylize all of the characters, since the bulk of the environments and cyborg elements are going to be digital anyway. I’m trying to withhold further judgement until I see the film, but I’d be interested in hearing what others think so far.