Saturday, January 18, 2014

Valentine's Day comes early

If I'd had any foresight I would have timed this for Valentine's Day, but I really do want to get cracking on the Battle Angel reread, so let's just pretend I posted this about a month later.

Alita's amnesia left her with a grasp on all the fundamentals of walking, talking, and so on, but her emotional development is pretty much reset to zero.  In volume 1 she relearned how to fight, and in volume 2 she relearns how to love.  Alita and local odd-jobs guy Hugo meet-cute during one of her bounty hunts, but can two crazy kids make it in a cyberpunk dystopia?

No, no they can't.

This volume is our first indication of how chameleonic Battle Angel will get; the series kind of shifts premise every so often (opinions may vary on how organic this is; I always thought the transitions were very natural) and this is a pretty surprising break from the sustained martial-arts violence of the first book; there's no big set-piece fight, it's much more about drama and worldbuilding. When fights do break out, it's not an acrobatic kung fu spectacle, just messy murder. It's hard to say Hugo actually deserves his fate, but he was in fact a clear and present danger to the public, being perfectly willing to mug random people and pry out their spines.

And yet, in the ridiculous dystopia of the Scrapyard, where life is so cheap Zapan kills at least two people for no other reason than feeling embarrassed by Alita, he's still more sympathetic than pretty much anyone but Ido.  Hugo lives in the gutters, looking up at the stars-- but Tiphares is blocking the view, literally and metaphorically looming over everyone.  We still don't know much about it by volume's end, but we do learn just how its policies make the Scrapyard the horrible place that it is.

Hugo's childhood didn't turn out so great, but Alita's second one is coming along all right. At this point we have zero idea what mental age she "should" have, and we won't get an answer for quite a while. Her amnesia really isn't a mystery to be solved, it's more a device to make the series a coming of age story, and it ends up covering quite a lot of character development. At this point, she's a love-struck teenager, sitting around sighing, and trying really hard not to come on too strong (literally; she has a whole Clark Kent routine going on trying to hide the fact that she's a combat-spec cyborg). It's worth noting that Kishiro dials back the detail of his style for the goofier moments in this volume; I don't remember him doing this again later, but then I didn't remember it happening here.

Speaking of character development, Zapan showed up briefly in the first volume, but he's much more central to this one.  Despite his petty, vicious thuggery here he actually ends up being one of my favorite characters, but I'll come back to that in a couple volumes.  For now, I just want to note that Kishiro is very good about unexpectedly making minor characters important. 

Let's close out with some random thoughts.  This lorem ipsum text appears to be in Hebrew, which is interesting considering the Jeru-Zalem naming scheme that the English translation replaced with Kabbalah.  I don't think now is quite the right time to talk about the religious references in the series, but while I'm thinking of it, "Zapan" is meant to be "Xaphan", I think.

The anime adaptation stops at the end of this storyline.  It's been quite a while since I watched it, all I recall are the changes they made to be more self-contained.  Poor Zapan is pretty much just a cameo!

The word "Lycanthropazine" has stuck with me ever since I read this volume.  (It also reminds me of a certain part of Samurai Flamenco...)

Exposed brain tally: 2 smashed, 2 intact (1 extra intact one on the unflopped's table of contents!)

Edition changes: The unflopped rerelease again has a handful of rough sketches, a page on the laws of the Scrapyard, and another one diagramming the law enforcement Netmen.  More importantly, it starts with the end of the Makaku battle, and ends on a cliffhanger, with one chapter of Hugo's arc still to come (a chapter which ends up missing quite a few sound effects that were in the flopped version, during the climb).  I pity anyone who came into this series late and ended up with a mixed set of books...

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Unusual Honesty From Editorial

I can't quite believe that actually made it onto the back cover, that's up there with that volume of Blade of the Immortal that actually said "several major story lines [are] finally beginning to dovetail[...] is Samura's epic study on revenge and survival beginning to wind its way toward a massive, final confrontation?"

They are right, though.  The first volume of Knights of Sidonia very much reads like Tsutomu "Blame!, Biomega" Nihei thinking "Hmm, what do normal people like to read? I'll try that," but his attempts to add light comedy to his usual hyperviolence are still surreally awkward and weird because it's still written in his completely affectless style and filled with grotesquerie.  It's honestly not all that far off from that Blame! High School gag he did where all the gnarled silicon monsters were wearing sailor suits and giving each other love letters.

"Teenage mecha pilots vs giant monsters" is a pretty well-worn premise (though I actually can't think of too many manga, it's usually anime), so much so that I won't even go into the plot, but again, since this is a Nihei book, this first volume doesn't really establish anything so much as just hint at it.  Our main character is an alleged regular human in a world full of genetically advanced superpeople, who still seems to have the insanely high pain threshold and healing speed of all Nihei heroes (that Wolverine story really was the perfect choice for him, wasn't it?  Too bad it ended up so dull), which is excellent because even before he gets inside the giant robot he is surrounded with constant threats to life and limb.  His constant culture shock reminded me of The Forever War, though Nihei's trademark understatement means it doesn't amount to more than the occasional sweatdrop as all the mean posthumans in pilot school make fun of him for still needing to eat and excrete regularly, and he accidentally wanders into the girls' locker roomphotosynthesis chamber and gets slapped... not a cartoon comedy Love Hina slap, there are like three panels of his head striking the wall and blacking out, leaving a huge bloodstain and breaking his nose for the rest of the chapter. And eventually they fight a giant fleshy space monster that assimilates one of his classmates as everyone watches in impotent horror. Then after he passes out and vomits at her funeral it's time for a festival and pool party!

It's really hard to decide what to make of this book, largely because the goofy school antics are depicted in the same abrupt and tonally detached manner as the shocking violence they're constantly juxtaposed against.  Knights of Sidonia may be more approachable than Nihei's normal inscrutable action epics, but it's still pretty far afield from normal, it has that same outsider art quality as Mysterious Girlfriend X. I wouldn't call it conventionally "good" but I did enjoy its weird, hilarious awkwardness in the same way I do a David Lynch movie.  I feel compelled to continue.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Living in Yukitopia

Happy New Year, all.

Lot of exciting Yukito Kishiro news lately; the US release of Battle Angel Alita: Last Order finally finished its interminable, volumes-long Zenith Of Things martial arts tournament, the series is ending this month, and a sequel/spin-off has already been announced.

I kind of gave up on Last Order about, mm, six volumes ago.  The never-ending plot-halting ZOTT was so disappointing that it was making me wonder if the original series was really as good as I remembered, and this seems like the perfect time to scare up my old copies and check the whole thing out from the beginning. As it turns out, it's been just long enough that I'd forgotten most of the specifics, but I still recognize a lot of the little things that pay off later in the series.

And thankfully, it is really damn good, right from the very start.

Kishiro and his publisher had a falling out and the original nine volumes of Battle Angel Alita series are out of print (which is a shame, because Last Order probably makes even less sense without this context), so I'll go ahead and summarize a bit, with a little assist from Kishiro, Fred Burke & co. The series takes place in a future cyborg dystopia:

Back alley cyberdoctor Ido, digging through the trash for spare parts, finds a woman's limbless torso-- still alive, but amnesiac. Rebuilt and renamed, Alita discovers she has the "muscle memory" of a master martial artist and a conscience that can't ignore the cruelties of her new home, which leads her on a high-tech kung-fu hero's journey. In this particular volume, Alita explores her talent for violence, tries to provide a good example for her fellow citizens, and ends up in the sewer fighting a brain-addicted body-jumping severed head.

It's interesting just how quickly this series finds its voice; I know this wasn't Kishiro's first series, but it's still amazing how the series is pretty much fully formed right from the start.  The insanely intricate mechanical detail, the absurdity and gore (he sure loves drawing exposed brains, I count at least three in this volume, more if we allow CAT scans and not just actual exposed gray matter), the wild-ass character designs, they're all here. Check out the mecha-Celtic barbarian with a rampant steel boar-crotch.

Mind, the reason I remember this series so fondly is the strongly drawn characters.  BAA is unmistakably a fight manga, but one always driven by relationships and philosophy.  Alita's relationship with Doc Ido is particularly nuanced by manga standards; he's a generally nurturing figure, but definitely no saint, and his control-freak tendencies give their relationship an interesting Oedipal vibe right from the start.

On the other hand, the philosophy is pretty existential, sometimes even bleak (which is not surprising given the dystopian setting).  There is so much self-actualization through battle that this is practically a sports manga, it's probably the most macho story I've ever seen with a female protagonist. On the one hand, the series is clear that compassion is the difference between a hero and a monster, but it's equally clear about showing the weak being consistently at the mercy of the strong.  There is such an explicit will-to-power thing going on that it honestly might have felt outright fascistic with a dude espousing it. I'm reminded of Jodorowski's Metabarons, which is surprisingly similar to BAA in a lot of ways (including the relentless surreal craziness), but almost none of its (male) leads are at all sympathetic.

Now that I think about it, almost every villain in Battle Angel is male, certainly all the significant ones... actually, Alita herself is often the only woman around at all.  I'm gonna have to come back to this thought when Figure Four shows up (he's super macho, but still an underdog, moreso than any of the other fighters-- he is ass-kicking Krillin), and again with Sechs in Last Order. 

On the other hand, the male-vs-female dynamic works well visually, it adds a lot of contrast to have the pretty small character against the huge ugly ones.  Kishiro definitely loves the David and Goliath thing, to the point where it kind of takes over Last Order.  Even this early, a lot of these fights are right out of Shadow of the Colossus, Alita climbs all over Makaku like a jungle gym.  Like, his head is larger than her entire body, and he just walks around with a severed arm sticking out of his eye socket after she tries to blind him.

Also, because I am insane, I'm comparing the original larger flopped release to the newer (but also tragically out of print) unflopped tankobon-size rerelease.  So far the changes are trivial; dialogue is the same (which also means some of it still refers to the flopped-art orientation of things, whoops) but fonts and occasionally word balloon placement differs, and the new version has a handful of sketches and one or two gag strips in the back.  The unflopped does have nicer paper and print quality, though; the opening sequence, presumably in color in the original, is a much muddier BW conversion in the unflopped.  The color balance is also different in general; the flopped lightens many scenes and elements within scenes, maybe to make the linework pop more, but it does lead to a few panels looking a little washed out. Unfortunately, the smaller trim size of the unflopped edition isn't compensated for, and sound effects very often bleed right off the page or get lost in the book's spine.  On balance, the flopped version is superior, but good luck not paying an arm and a leg for it.  The flopped edition also includes the first chapter of the second unflopped volume, which both puts the complete Makaku arc in one volume, and makes sure a certain important character debuts in the first...

Overall, Battle Angel is a really engrossing mix of high and low, mingled constantly-- we go directly from high-speed cyborg fighting to verbal philosophical sparring to a crotch-mounted cybernetic scanner in the shape of a giant boar's head. It tickles both the base and low impulses.  It just all seems so primal.  And of course, it's also really nicely drawn, and Kishiro only gets more polished as the series goes on.  I'm really glad this first volume lived up to my fond memories of it, considering how badly wrong Last Order went, but who knows? Maybe I'll have a new appreciation for it by the time I get there in this reread.