Sunday, July 13, 2014

Men Are From The Scrapyard, Women Are From Mars

Back to Battle Angel 5, but before I get to this volume's big villain, I want to talk about a little one I've been wanting to mention for a while.  Eelai is one of Nova's henchmen, and a pretty minor character overall, except for one thing: she may well be the only genuinely evil woman in the entirety of Battle Angel+Last Order. 

Alita has a few other female opponents like Takie from Motorball and the Guntroll crew in Last Order's ZOTT, but they're competitors and rivals at worst; none of them show the cruelty and violence against the weak that characterizes Kishiro's male villains.  Eelai also seems to be an intentional mirror image of Alita; they're both pale, dark-haired martial artists rebuilt by (mad) science, but Eelai is fully flesh and blood, sadistic and earthy compared to our relatively chaste, Joan-of-Arcish lead.  All of this makes her very striking, but there's not all that much to actually say about her; she barely appears in the series (I think she turns up in maybe three chapters) and when she does, never rises above hackneyed evil dominatrix schtick.

Maybe she seems disproportionately interesting because there are so few women in this series at all; I've already talked about the disappointingly flat Takie and Shumira (one of whom I forgot even existed before this reread), and if I recall correctly another three fairly important women show up by the end (depending on how you count... we'll get to that when we get there), but overall BAA is a real sausage fest, an endless procession of virile rivals for Alita to test herself against, monsters to slay, and would-be father figures to resist.  It's hard to get a similar read on the women; it's tempting to pick up on the book's occasional Western motif and identify femininity with passive nurturers like Sara and Shumira, but there are also cold fighters like Takie or Eelai.  None of them get tremendous amounts of panel time, though, so it's hard to say that women are pigeonholed into specific roles because they're so rarely taking ANY role.  Maybe the anime staff were onto something when they made their original character a woman. 

It feels wrong to say the series marginalizes women when it stars and is named after one, but Alita is often the only woman around, and given the many, many hats she wears it's hard to say how many, if any, her gender plays a role in.  Ido tried to simultaneously contain and feminize her back in volume 1, but was her becoming a hunter-warrior a rebellion against gender roles, or does she just get to violate social and power boundaries because of she's the main character in an action-adventure series, no different than Goku or Luffy?  It gets hard to read the intentionality of these things, especially across cultural and translation lines.

(and I will raise the question of what sex, gender, and societal roles of same even mean to someone whose only remaining human part is a brain... and immediately drop it again)

The other reason I'm on this topic is that this volume actually does in large part center around another woman, but not in an especially great way.  Sara isn't any more nuanced than Eelai; she's barely a character at all, since she spends her small panel time as a saint on a pedestal, and immediately gets martyred to give her boyfriend and father some motivation. 

(and I use that terminology pointedly; Sara doesn't wear a cross as I remembered her doing, but when you combine her general vibe with a direct quote from Leviticus in one panel and all the demonic/angelic imagery surrounding Zapan and the climactic fight, there's definitely some Christian subtext jostling against the Buddhism and Nietzschean-atheism I mentioned last time)

Much as I love this volume, I can't ignore that this looks like a textbook case of shoving a woman into the refrigerator. Or is it?  One of the earliest and most consistent rules of BAA is that life is cheap in the Scrapyard (and until this volume it was almost impossible to find anyone who wasn't a victim or abuser); Kishiro kills off an awful lot of people mere panels after introducing them (Sara has plenty of company in this volume alone), the main difference with Sara is that her death actually affects other characters instead of just being a sight gag or proof of the villain's depravity.  She definitely gets more characterization than the other walk-ons Zapan kills, even if it's postmortem.

I go back and forth on how gratuitous her death is, and I'm really not sure what conclusions to draw from Kishiro's treatment of women overall, but like the race thing during Motorball, I just can't not see it at this point, and I suspect Kishiro may feel the same, considering that women are much more prominent in Last Order.

But enough of ladies' night for now, let's talk about the man of the hour, Zapan.  Despite being the driver of all this volume's pain and violence, Zapan is depicted with a surprising amount of sympathy.  We never get much of his history (and now I think about it, we don't get much backstory on anyone but Alita and Ido), but his previous appearances suggested he was driven by an easily wounded pride.  This time, he's motivated by pain.  Despite all his bluster, Zapan was basically too weak to handle the world he lived in.  After his literal loss of face in volume two, he did try to get his life together and live with compassion, but he just couldn't hold the crazy in.  I can sympathize, in a Crime And Punishment kind of way (this is not the last time the series will stop to humanize a character who could be considered fairly monstrous, either).

Zapan seems to be a more effective shadow self for Alita than Eelai, actually; they're bound together by tragedy and hatred, but she seems more able to bear their karma.  She isn't happy to see him turn up again, but having already gotten her revenge on him she seems to have moved past anger (hell, she doesn't even think about his role in Hugo's death), while Zapan's inability to do that is his entire problem.  She is also consistently extremely graceful and controlled, whereas Zapan's inability to wield his monstrous strength with precision and mindfulness tips the whole thing into disaster.  He then goes on to reenact her origin of being fished out of the trash and rebuilt by a passing scientist (using one of her old bodies to boot), absorbs her during their final fight, and she saves herself by sprouting a pair of angel wings contrasted with his moth-like pair. 

Interestingly though, Alita herself lashes out blindly at those she thinks have wronged her, just like Zapan; Nova hasn't even implicated himself in any wrongdoing when she kills him and his sidekicks.  Perhaps Zapan is less a road not taken than a warning, especially since she loses another loved one in this volume.  Kishiro will come back to the "evil twin" motif in another couple volumes, and even more prominently during Last Order.

Reading Sarah Horrocks' blog has shamed me a bit about spending so little time talking about the art in this series.  I'm going to try and be better about that, especially since Kishiro's visual storytelling is also pretty great-- he doesn't need to explicitly say Alita hasn't done any bounty hunting in a while, this page of pulling her Damascus blade out of a dusty bundle tucked away behind some books does it all AND it's a delight to watch her cyber-parkour through her house AND reinforce the domestic backdrop with the banter with the neighbor.  Fun stuff.

He also abruptly lays down some really high contrast chiaroscuro blacks to highlight Alita's sudden, shocking emotional trauma in this POV shot where Nova passes on some really, really bad news.  It's an interesting look that he comes back to later in Ashen Victor.

And on a general art note, I hadn't realized until flipping through this that Alita hadn't fought anyone gigantically larger than herself since Makaku way back in volume 1.

The brain count for this volume is an astonishing 25 (one of those is a dog's brain, but I'm counting it... and the unflopped version adds a 26th brain on the table of contents), largely thanks to Nova's experiments, reaching a new record brain density of six on one page, five of them coming from one panel alone. Flopped edition extras are just some chat about nanomachines and a gag strip about Nova's version of a gray goo incident involving flan (and the cover uses an actual Kishiro piece), but in exchange for that you get some really poor reproduction, my copy has crazy moire patterns all over every dark panel.

At the end of volume 5, Alita is rejected by her community, homeless, and even missing most of her body.  This is as near a blank slate she's been since the beginning.  What happens next?  Can one really live free and untethered by karma, unshackled by what's gone before?  Well, we'll see.

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