Who is Alita? Well, for starters, the titular star of cyberpunk sci-fi movie Alita: Battle Angel (Read our review here) wasn’t even called Alita to begin with. Not in the original Japanese manga, anyway.
When Japanese manga artist Yukito Kishiro created the comic in 1990, the name of his lead character was Gally, which was changed to Alita when the manga was translated and published in the United States.
In a 1993 interview with Seiji Horibuchi (collected in the book Anime Interviews: The First Five Years Of Animerica, Anime & Manga Monthly (1992-97)), Kishiro says that she was initially a cyborg police officer character in an unpublished comic called Reimeika.
In 1990, he was commisioned to draw a story for special manga compilation by publishers Shueisha, whose editors had like that character and suggested he used her as his lead.
“Her name was ‘Gally’. Of course, the Gally in Reimeika was completely different from the Gally in Gunnm, but that’s how she was born,” Kishiro says in the interview.
When Gunnm was commissioned to become a long-running series in November 1990, Kishiro couldn’t believe that it was true initially. “At first I couldn’t believe he was serious, but I went ahead and wrote the script for the first installment anyway,” he says, joking that he only truly believed it was real when he saw the actual magazine itself.
Gunnm ran from Dec 15, 1990 to April 1, 1995, and spawned two sequels, Battle Angel Alita: Last Order (2000–2014) and the ongoing Battle Angel Alita: Mars Chronicle.
So who then is Alita? Well, in the beginning, she was just a dismembered core of a cyborg with no body, but a fully functional brain.
The story starts with cyberphysician Daisuke Ido finding her in the scrap yard of Scrap Iron City (the Scrap Yard in the US), and then giving her a new body and naming her ‘Alita’.
Though her body is restored, her memory is gone, and she can’t even remember her name, let alone her past.
One thing she does remember subconciously is her skill in the ancient martial art Panzer Kunst (German for ‘armoured art’), which originated from Mars.
It is a martial art that allows the proponent to fight in zero gravity conditions, and is considered one of the most powerful of all cyborg martial arts.
Her primary weapon is a sword called the Damascus Blade, which originally took the form of two blades mounted on her wrists, which she used while she was a Motorball player. The two blades were later reforged into a single sword, which became her signature weapon.
Alita also has the ability to manipulate plasma and use it as weapons, or to enhance her own attacks.
City of floating dreams
One of the major locations of the world of Gunnm is the aerial city of Zalem, which is called Tiphares in the US version of the manga, but changed back in the movie.
A gigantic floating city that hovers above a giant scrapyard, Kishiro created the city after realising that the setting of the original short story was not good enough to sustain a long-running serial.
Below it lies Scrap Iron City, which exists mainly to supply Zalem with food and resources.
Managed by an automated system called the Factory, it is located directly beneath Zalem’s waste disposal duct, which creates the giant scrap yard where Daisuke Ido finds Alita’s core in.
In the interview with Horibuchi, Kishiro says that he was inspired to up with the initial set-up of a scrap yard by his father.
“My father was an eccentric who was into dune buggies. He was always digging around at the junkyard looking for parts he could use. He used to take me with him sometimes… I still like spending time at the junkyard,” he says.
Angel of many faces
Throughout the manga series, Alita takes on several roles. Her first ‘job’ is as a hunter-warrior who hunts criminals down and exchanges their heads for bounties. Her first major battle was with a vicious murderer called Makaku, who eats human brains for nourishment.
In later chapters, Alita becomes a professional Motorball player, and then an agent for the Tipharean Ground Investigation Bureau (GIB).
With each of her different occupations, Alita has had different cyborg bodies. Her original non-combat body was destroyed by Makaku, after which Daisuke gave her a Berserker body that was designed for battle. Later, she changed to another body more suited for motorball, and then to a specially designed ‘TUNED’ body when she was a Tipharean agent.
Unlike most popular manga, Gunnm doesn’t have its own anime series. The closest it has to one are two 30-minute original video animation (OVA) episodes that covered the first two story arcs of the manga, which were released in 1993.
At the time, Kishiro said he was far too busy with the manga to bother with the anime, and there are currently no plans to revive the project.
Coming to life
The live-action adaptation of Gunnm stays mostly true to the first two story volumes of the manga, with a few added elements from the later volumes, including the Motorball segment.
Interestingly, Kishiro discussed the prospects of a live-action Hollywood film with Horibuchi in their 1993 interview, 26 years before the movie was released!
In it, he mentions that it is his “ultimate childhood dream” was to make a live-action movie. He even singles out Motorball as one of the aspects of Gunnm that he most wanted to see in live-action the most.
“I’d love to see the whole spectacle of Motorball brought to life. I’d love to see those special effects. I think the Motorball segment by itself could make a great movie,” he said.
Well, judging from the final product, with its stunning Motorball sequences, it looks like his dream came true after all.