Battle Angel Alita (English title) / Gunnm (Japanese title)
Author: Yukito Kishiro
Genre: Cyberpunk/Sci-Fi, Action
When top scientist and cyborg physician Daisuke Ido is roaming the Scrapyard looking for spare parts, he comes across the head and torso of an old female cyborg. He is able to ascertain that she is still alive and brings her back to his workshop and resurrects her. She returns with no memories of her past, though finds that when she fights she remembers an old martial art: "Panzer Kunst". The manga deals with her journey to regain her memories and the relationships she develops in her new life.
Worldbuilding - Battle Angel Alita takes place in a far off cyberpunk civilisation, made up of three parts. The first is Tiphares, a floating monolith in the sky where only the rich and privileged are allowed to live. The second is the factories, that are manned mostly by lowly cyborgs called deckmen, and make goods that are sent to Tiphares via large tubes that connect the two. Then finally, the Scrapyard where most of the story takes place. The Scrapyard is actually a huge, run-down, industrial city filled with regular humans and cyborgs alike.
The world that Yukito Kishiro has built up is astounding. Each panel reveals different details of this society, from the cyborg designs, which range from brutally practical to downright insane, to the hobbled together architecture with its industrial flare. The comic medium is perfect to show this as its through the illustrations that this world is revealed, though there are bonus pages that talk about various aspects of Scrapyard society at the end of each volume. These auxiliary snippets aren't necessary to the story but provide an insight into different characteristics that would otherwise be stuck in Kishiro's head. It's not just that he has built such an interesting society, but it's one of the few I've seen in manga that has something to say. It speaks about the distribution of wealth, the disparity of rich and poor and what civilisation would be like if the systems break down.
Art - This might just be my taste but I can't help but love the art style of this manga. It's a product of the late 80s/90s and looks unlike classic manga, though refrains from crossing into moe territory. Each panel is incredibly detailed, with intricate pipework and piled up junk being major parts of the buildings, and the character designs of the cyborgs all have various panels and metalwork that show the care that has been put into these drawings. The character designs range from beautiful, to grotesque, to absurd but each fits with the world in their own unique way. It should be mentioned however that the manga gets gory, so it might not be for people who can't stand a large amount of flying eyeballs, lots of blood splatter and the shlurp shlurp of brains.
The only issues I have with the art is that there were a few off panels where characters noses were twice as long as they usually are, or their eyes look rather far apart, plus towards the end there are a few computer made backgrounds that look like PS1 renders, but these are rare and not enough to detract from the overall fantastic work on show.
Characters - The protagonist of the tale, the eponymous Alita, really carries this story. Due to the fact that she has lost her memory, her personality changes and develops quite quickly throughout the story, but in a way that feels natural. Generally, she's strong, devoted to those she loves and willing to fight for her ideals, which is likely due to being awakened by Ido, who's personality is not dissimilar to this. Throughout the tale however, she changes on the surface while retaining this underneath. We see her as a lovesick follower and as a slightly psychotic killing machine, but I promise they fit the situation. Alita, like those that have lived their lives in the Scrapyard, is moulded by her terrible surroundings and I think this is what makes her such a compelling character.
The side characters of the tale are often unique with believable personalities and motivations; especially the villains. There is nobody trying to take over the world here, but enemies often want to change the society they live in, but go about it the wrong way, or just change their lives. One is more of a mixture of a drug addict and a classic school bully, who deals out pain in the hope that he will not have to suffer himself. There is the mad scientist trope thrown in there and one revenge tale, but even they fit within the tale nicely.
The Plot - The plot is dependent on a trope that makes most manga/anime fans groan: Amnesia. It makes sense as Alita has been asleep for hundreds of years, but everyone knows it's been done to death. Luckily, Alita's lost past is usually pushed aside in favour of her life in the Scrapyard and her relationships with those around her. This makes for a varied manga, with a different focus in almost every volume. While remaining an action oriented story, it also goes through romance, war and even becomes a sports manga for two volumes (though the sport is Motorball, which is somewhere between racing and fighting), and this keeps the story feeling fresh. It also means that there is a balance between plot and action, so no ten chapter fights or fighting through powerful henchmen to reach the Big Bad.
Attitude to Love - There is one volume that concentrates on a character that tricks Alita into thinking he's great, while Kishiro shows us he is not. The problem I found with this is that his actions are terrible, and not long before this Alita is ready to condemn an ally for similar behaviour, but Alita seems to sort of not mind because she loves him. It was actually hard to like Alita for the short amount of time that this went on as she was willing to give up everything for this person that she barely knew, even though it is made clear throughout the course of this that Ido is the most important person in her life.
Incoming Retcon - This is actually less than half the tale, which continues in Battle Angel Alita: Last Order. This would be fine, however about half of the last volume is actually made void in order to continue the story. This lessened the impact for me, for what was a good ending. I understand that Kishiro says he was made to rush the ending, and was dissatisfied, but retcons are rarer in manga than they are in western comics and it makes the ending feel slightly pointless.
I vastly enjoyed Battle Angel Alita. The plot impressed me a lot of the time, though was upstaged by the fantastic world building along with seeing how this setting affected the characters. Fans of cyberpunk, or sci-fi in general, should feel right at home with Battle Angel and I'd happily recommend it to action and fighting manga fans who were looking for something with a little intrigue and story behind it.