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.
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.