This weekend sees the release of a project 15 years in the making: Alita: Battle Angel. Directed by Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids, El Mariachi) and produced and co-written by James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar), the film represents the culmination of Cameron's 15-year quest to make a movie out of Yukito Kishiro's acclaimed and influential cyperpunk manga Battle Angel Alita.
But is there anything in Alita that can speak to audiences today? We've been diving into the manga and we think we know the answer. At its heart, Battle Angel Alita is a story about the future and potential of humanity... as told by a cyborg woman who kicks just a tremendous amount of ass.
Rescued From The Wreckage
The story of Battle Angel Alita begins in a scrapyard. More specifically, in a dump in the Scrapyard, a vast wasteland existing in a desert in the 26th century under the floating paradise city of Zalem, whose citizens live and die in squalor while toiling away at the Factories that supply Zalem.
Daisuke Ido (renamed Dyson Ido and played by Christoph Woltz in the film), a doctor specializing in treating cyborgs, finds the head of a highly advanced cyborg girl among the trash. Restoring it and attaching it to an experimental "Berserker" body he also found, he names her after his recently deceased cat, Alita (known as Gally in Japan and played by Rose Salazar in the film) and raises her as a daughter.
Initially content with her life, Alita begins longing for something more and finds it when she meets Yugo, a mechanic and dreamer who longs to go to Zalem. Alita finds out, to her horror, he's financing that dream by luring cyborgs in with free oil changes, then stealing their spines to sell to the charismatic Factory businessman Victor.
Alita's horror at this discovery sets off a chain of events that leads to her leaving Ido and the Scrapyard, becoming first a superstar in the hyper-violent sport of motorball, then a musician and an assassin on behalf of Zalem, which eventually leads to her saving the world.
A Long Road To Success
Published from 1990 to 1995 in the monthly Japanese manga magazine Business Jump, Kishiro's original manga, published in Japanese as Gunmm (a portmanteau of "gun" and "dream") was first picked up for American publication by Viz Media right after it ended. In keeping with the prevalent attitude that Americans wouldn't read manga in its original format, Viz had adapters Fred Burke and Toshifumi Yoshida flip the artwork from left to right and changed several names and locations (making Gally into Alita and so on) and released the results as a monthly comic. From 2003-2005, at the height of the manga boom, Viz published their translation unflipped in book form.
But seeing as how the series didn't cross over into anime outside of a two-episode OVA (original video animation) in the 1990s -- which later on was almost exclusively due to James Cameron tying up all the rights -- it was never a big hit for Viz and, thus, they let the license lapse. In 2017, Kodansha Comics USA (the Random House manga imprint co-owned with Japanese publisher Kodansha, who became Kishiro's publisher in 2012) began republishing the manga digitally and in print, along with its sequel series Battle Angel Alita: Last Order and the currently running Battle Angel Alita: Mars Chronicle.
To make their own claim on the property, Kodansha reached out to veteran translator Stephen Paul (One Piece, Vinland Saga) to re-translate the entire series. It was an easy call, to hear Paul tell it: "I've had a constant working relationship with Kodansha Comics for over a dozen years," he said, "back to when the operation was still directly under the branding of Random House's Del Rey imprint [known as Del Rey Manga]. Leading up to Alita's re-release, I did some work on their hardcover re-releases of Ghost in the Shell and Akira, so when the plans for a full re-translation of Alita went into motion, they came to me again." Compared to those other specific titles, Paul had a lot more freedom with Alita.