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.


  1. Weird. This inexplicable ate my first attempt to post.

    Anyway, I totally agree: it's a classic for a reason and is definitely Quality, though I loved it far more for the grimdark backdrop than the actual content or gonzo wackiness. That stuff made me laugh when reading it, but was never what I really loved about it.

  2. I figured you'd say something like that. Eh, unrelenting grimdark was pretty played out even the first time we saw this, I'd much rather Kishiro's unpredictable madness.

    That said, he does find exciting new transhumanist ways for the rich to oppress the poor in Last Order! All the methuselazation stuff and corresponding lack of value on human reproduction was really interesting, I hope maybe now that ZOTT is out of his system he'll come back to that material.

  3. Wasn't saying it was bad, just pointing out another strength of the material: it's breadth. And highlighting my self-deceptively selective memory of its key components :)

    There was some interesting stuff in the wackiness, like aging, etc. The bizarre ways the characters would modify themselves also seem incredibly ridiculous, but somehow I suspect that ultimately humanity will end up looking just as kooky if given the ability to make themselves look any way they want.

  4. Wow. Can't believe this blog got updated. Had to rub my eyes a couple of times to make sure that Feedly wasn't bullshitting me. A welcome sight, indeed.

  5. I'll admit, I was wondering if anyone would notice.

  6. Another typical "glad you're back" comment. This post was fantastic and came at the perfect time since I was thinking of rereading BAA again.