Friday, May 2, 2014

How To Sell A Contradiction

And so, back to Battle Angel.  Continuing its desperate quest to avoid falling into a rut, Battle Angel Alita volume 5 picks up two years after Motorball, with Alita retired from the circuit and living quietly... until Zapan from books 1&2 comes back to kick over the anthill.  The supporting cast takes a beating, the status quo gets blown up again, and most importantly, Desty Nova finally makes his debut.  His obsession with karma defines the series from this point on... but in hindsight, it's really just foregrounding themes Kishiro has been toying with since page one. 

Before I started rereading the series, I remembered this was where it went from a book I liked to one I loved, and it turns out a decade away hasn't changed my feelings. 

(Interesting that Viz went with some cross-promotion with ADV's anime release on the flopped release; that's a Nobuteru Yuuki promo piece for the anime, and with all the feathers and pointy noses, it's halfway to being Escaflowne art)

The big thing that struck me this time out is that the book starts out looking like an epilogue.  BAA is so defined by the quest for self-knowledge (by way of cyborg violence) that it's kind of shocking that Alita seems to have found whatever answer she was looking for in last book's fight with Jashugan.  I'd love to know how much of this series' constant reinvention comes from Kishiro or his editors; I remember reading a comment from him to the effect of "My editors kept asking questions like 'Can she be a cyborg instead' or 'can you work in some martial arts fighting?', and somehow it all turned out all right," but by the time of Last Order he seems willing to stick to his guns over even the smallest point of principle.

Regardless of whose idea it was, Alita's Motorball career seems to have gotten violence out of her system, and she's spent the last two years catching up on her reading, teaching martial arts, playing music at (New) Bar Kansas, and doing a little gardening.  If she had her druthers, she might have just done that for the rest of her life; at this point, she's actually spent more time at peace than fighting, as the gap between this book and the last is longer than the entire preceding series.  It didn't occur to me the first time I read this, but this volume is pretty much a Western, specifically the kind about the past catching up with a retired gunslinger. Maybe that's why it's called Kansas...

Shumira is still around too, waitressing at Kansas. Kishiro is pretty good about keeping tabs on minor characters' changing lives as they drop in and out of touch with Alita, which gives a very clear sense of time passing, pretty rare for a fight manga (see also baby Koyomi from volume 1 toddling around and talking).  This makes the fairly radical shifts in premise read more naturally, especially since every change in the status quo broadens the scope of the world a bit and makes it feel a bit more lived in. There were a lot of times earlier where I wondered how anyone managed to stay alive in such a ridiculous hellhole, but at this point the series has gotten downright domestic.  The Scrapyard feels more like Alita's hometown now... until she gets her ass tossed out when the neighbors who aren't unstoppable masters of space karate first try to sell her out to Zapan, then beg her to stop him.  Which is a dick move, but on the other hand, Alita is a little unrealistic in expecting everyone in the Scrapyard to stand up and fight the cybernetic monster head on.

In fact, she seems unusually contemptuous to people she considers her lessers, compared to the starry-eyed idealist who eagerly jumped into a pit to save Koyomi, but ultimately she does go out and fight Zapan for their sake instead of telling everyone to go screw.  The authorial voice seems to be a little more merciful than Alita's; Shumira despairs over her physical weakness, but is immediately comforted by the thought that she can still show strength through compassion and caring for the injured. BAA can be surprisingly sentimental at times, particularly in this volume, and the dialogue is never far from melodrama, but I kind of love it for that.  I want to talk more about the tone shifts in this series, but for now, I'll just say that Battle Angel is by no means a subtle book, but it's not a stupid one either.

Case in point, Doctor Desty Nova, both the series' most cartoonish character and most prominent font of philosophy. It's easy to gloss over his mentions of karma, and I kind of did in my original go-through, but it reads a lot differently now that I know more about Buddhism.  Like most mad scientists, Desty Nova is playing God, but the specific God he is playing at is Buddha.

In the Buddhist context that I (and I presume Kishiro) am most familiar with, karma doesn't really relate to sin or even morality; at base, it's a statement that actions do not occur in a vacuum, and the repercussions of decisions and events in the past inevitably affect the present day.  If you get involved with something, you get entangled by it.  That said, imperfect human nature makes it hard to avoid giving or receiving harm; it's kind of a film noir view of the universe... and one that crashes right into BAA's ongoing will-to-power theme.  How strong do you have to be to truly call yourself master of your own destiny?  Nova will apparently keep turning people into super-cyborgs until he figures that one out. 

The issue of karma is particularly interesting in a series about an amnesiac, someone with will and agency who is nevertheless (theoretically) a blank slate free of entanglement.  It's no wonder Alita becomes Nova's favorite lab rat, although really, this volume seems to argue against her freedom from the karmic cycle; she's lived mindfully and done everything as best she can, but Zapan still came back out of the shadows to claim revenge he thought he was owed.  Sometimes, life just sucks.

I don't have enough firsthand exposure to Nietzsche to talk out of my assspeak intelligently on that topic, but I think it's interesting that Kishiro seems to be contrasting the superman approach with the Buddhist compassion-based one, and honestly has been since the Alita vs Makaku fight in volume 1.  That said, it might well be a false dichotomy since this is a battle manga, and ultimately moral victory is always joined by physical victory, but at least it makes a more interesting than usual justification for the constant fighting.  The Buddhist reading is extremely relevant to my take on the series' ending, so we'll come back to this later.

As a usurper of the Buddha, Nova's nanotechnology lets Kishiro more explicitly play with reincarnation & rebirth motifs.  This volume in particular is all about metempsychosis; death and rebirth, transfiguration, all that kind of stuff.  Nova and his underlings just won't stay dead, Zapan, named after a demon (and marked by the cult of the blue oyster), comes roaring back out of Hell as a prog-rock-album-cover nightmare, cyberdog handler Murdock visibly "resurrects" from complete decrepitude once Zapan makes his comeback, and of course, Alita has been constantly reinventing herself since we met her, physically and mentally.  Actually, between the amnesia and the body-swapping, she kind of has a Ship of Theseus thing going on...

All that and I've barely even talked about the actual villain!  Zapan and Sara deserve their own post, so let's stop this one here.