In 1993, I happened upon the English dub of an anime by the name of Gunnm, translated for Western audiences as Battle Angel. Unbeknownst to me (and my parents) at the time, the story about a little robot girl being put back together by a doctor was much less like the 80s sitcom Small Wonder and much more like the 70s/80s post-apocalyptic feature franchise Mad Max. The cyberpunk aesthetic is strong in this eye-catching series in which human beings are more machine than man as a general rule, with the deadliest among them wielding razor-sharp blades, extending claws, and even energy weapons within their out-of-proportion cyborg frames. And yet, at its heart, Battle Angel is a story about a sentient being’s awakening in a strange and alien world, and a love story in a world where such human emotions are often trampled by the ever-present machines.
That was a lot for my 10-year-old mind to take in (and as a word of warning for adults, this anime is decidedly not for 10 year olds in any way shape or form). But such was Battle Angel, a two-part OVA (original video animation) based on the “Battle Angel Alita” manga series from Yukito Kishiro. Granted, the creator was more focused on the manga at the time of the early 90s anime, so while it’s a rather loose adaptation as far as story chronology is concerned, it was most certainly a gateway anime for many fans like myself. But does it hold up more than 25 years later? And how does Robert Rodriguez‘s live-action adaptation compare to both the manga and the OVAs? I went back to watch the hour-long anime pair of Battle Angel: Rusty Angel and Battle Angel: Tears Sign to find out.
Rosa Salazar‘s out-sized eyes in the new live-action movie have been the subject of much attention/criticism/confusion from fans and casual viewers alike, but the eyes in the anime have so much more focus on them. That makes sense in the anime for a couple of reasons: One, drawing the “big-eyed” version of people was (and is) the accepted style for sympathetic characters; they’re shorthand for emotional beats and human expression, which are difficult to get across on the pages of a manga or even in the frames of an anime film. And two, the world of “Battle Angel Alita” is one in which humans are able to replace and augment every part of their natural body except for their brain and spine, which are hot commodities on the black market along with eyes. In other words, sometimes the only human things that remains of someone’s appearance in Iron City are their eyes. Without them, viewers can assume that they’ve left their humanity behind for the sake of artificial augmentation.
But then there’s the title character, a robot discarded in a junkyard with only the shoulders and big-eyed expression sticking out from the surrounding scrap. That’s your first clue that this is not just something special, but someone special. And it’s all in the eyes. At least, in the anime it’s all in the eyes because Amanda Winn Lee‘s English dub performance is mostly screaming or cutesy questions and confusion. It’s not bad, but Salazar’s performance dances circles around it in the live-action version. You quickly forget all about the out-sized eyes and just fall under her spell as Alita (known as Gally in the anime) explores her new world and matures at an accelerated pace thanks to the tutelage of Dr. Ido and the affectionate attentions of the neighborhood scamp, Hugo (Yugo in the anime). The core relationships from the anime are deepened, enriched, and vastly improved in Alita: Battle Angel, even as the story beats remain the same.
That’s all well and good, but what about the insane, cybernetic beat-em-up action? That’s been one of the toughest things to translate from animation, and specifically anime, to live-action. Normally, a team of animators is limited only by their imaginations while a live-action production has to take many more practical concerns into consideration, relatively speaking. But thanks to filmmakers like Cameron, a live-action movie can replace almost any percentage of their footage with computer-generated imagery and action-packed sequences. Alita: Battle Angel is often times closer to an animated film than a live-action movie for this reason, which allows the visceral fight scenes and stunning Motorball sequences to play out dynamically, kinetically, and at breakneck speed. It’s worth noting that Gally doesn’t get into the bloodsport in either of the OVAs and it’s never really shown, though there are a few shorts of cyborg combat seen in the background throughout the anime. Rodriguez’s adaptation embraces this arc from the manga in a big way, so while some of that particular storyline is rushed, the sequences that audiences get to experience are absolutely amazing.
But fans of the original manga and anime will also want to know about the one-on-one battles between Gally/Alita and characters like Grewcica, Zapan, and various other ne’er-do-wells you’re bound to run across in the Hunter-Warrior profession. While some of the anime’s fight scenes are translated almost shot for shot in the live-action version, the PG-13 film is a lot less bloody (and a little bit kinder to animals). Sure, you can shred a cybernetic body apart without worrying about blood and viscera in live-action, but the anime glorified in the gory violence while the big-screen version shies away from it. Nothing is lost in the telling here, and sometimes what you imagine is actually worse than what they didn’t show on screen. Regardless, these fight scenes and the Motorball sequences are absolutely worth the price of admission for the live-action version.
I need to spare a moment’s thought for Jennifer Connelly‘s character Chiren, the former partner/lover of Dr. Ido who is willing to do just about anything to escape Iron City and make her way up to the haven of Zalem. In the OVAs, Chiren’s pretty inconsistent throughout, sometimes a shady corporate type, other times a sexy pawn of the big bad Vector, and also a gifted surgeon and cybernetics expert who patches up Vector’s cronies and Motorball players. Oddly, Chiren’s issues in the anime are copied over to the live-action version, though her redemptive arc is slightly improved in the new movie.
For the most part, Alita: Battle Angel and the Battle Angel OVAs do a decent job of adapting the manga and telling Gally/Alita’s story. The father-daughter relationship and budding romance between Gally/Alita and Yugo/Hugo is much stronger in the live-action telling, which remarkably keeps the anime’s dramatic and unexpected beats intact. However, the ending of both the two-part OVA and the live-action movie are quite different in this regard, and this is where I give the anime the edge. I’ll happily take a sweet moment of remembrance rather than a detached sequel-setup scene any day.
Overall, Alita: Battle Angel is a phenomenal anime/manga adaptation that has set a new high bar for other filmmakers who want to attempt such a feat. There are moments where it looks like the anime itself has come to life and it’s an absolute blast, but there are many other moments where Salazar’s performance elevates the material to a whole new level. So while both Alita: Battle Angel and Battle Angel are worthy adaptations, I’m hoping that the new movie acts as gateway into the broader world of anime and manga, just like it did for me over 25 years ago.
*This is a re-post of an earlier article, in celebration of the film’s release on Digital.