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Battle Angel Alita's long road to the big screen began with Japanese upheaval and cyberpunk

Contributed by
Feb 12, 2019

Almost two decades ago, 20th Century Fox first bought the domain names "battleangelalita.com" and "battleangelalitamovie.com." It was a fittingly cyber start to the long-awaited Hollywood film adaptation of Yukito Kishiro's Gunnm — known in the west as Battle Angel Alita — as the classic manga is one of the most beloved titles to emerge from anime's cyberpunk golden years.

Alita: Battle Angel stars Rosa Salazar as the title character, a cyborg with extraordinary combat skills but no memory of her past. She resides in Iron City with Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a cyber doctor who discovered Alita in a scrapyard and provided her with a new body.

Kishiro's manga first appeared in a 1990 issue of Business Jump, a now-defunct manga anthology magazine. The original series ended in 1995, with Kishiro penning a number of spin-off and sequel series; the latest, Mars Chronicle, has been running since October 2014, promoted as the last chapter in the Gunnm series.

For over 15 years, James Cameron was the American behind the fledgling film adaptation, an ambition that made sense given his filmography and ambition.

The Aliens and Terminator director's original intention was to film Alita first and then Avatar, which he had started working on as early as 1994. In 2005, he changed his mind; Avatar released a decade ago this December, and went on to become the highest-grossing film in history – overcoming Cameron's own Titanic – so obviously its sequels, scheduled for December 2020 and 2021, became his main focus.

He didn't give up on Alita, at least not right away. As late as 2011, Cameron was still going on record saying that he still planned to direct the film, telling Collider that while he considered handing what has become his Detox to another filmmaker, he just couldn't. "I love it too much," he said. That possessive love lasted another four years, as Robert Rodriguez (Sin City) was brought on to direct in 2015, with Cameron staying on as a producer and co-screenwriter.

Alita's road to the big screen didn't start with Cameron, however, nor did it start in 1993, when the character made her first film appearance. Battle Angel Hyper Future Vision GUNNM, an OVA (original video anime), adapted the first two chapters of the manga in two 30-minute segments, making some hefty changes from the source material in the process. The OVA was a success, in no small part because it was part of the cyberpunk anime genre that was so in vogue at the time thanks to perhaps the most influential anime of all time, Akira.

No conversation about cyberpunk anime can be had without discussing Katsuhiro Otomo's 1988 magnum opus. Based on his 1982 manga, Otomo's first full-length feature was responsible for the subgenre's explosion in popularity in Japan and anime's international success as a medium in the boom period in the '80s and '90s.

Though there had been a handful of cyberpunk animes before Akira, like Bubblegum Crisis, the landmark film was by far the most influential. In its wake came other titles, like Appleseed, Cyber City Odeo 990, Armitage III, and most importantly Ghost in the Shell, Mamoru Oshii's 1995 adaptation of Shirow Masamune's 1990 manga and the most prominent anime release of the '90s.

Ghost in the Shell

Credit: Manga Entertainment

What was it about cyberpunk that appealed to many manga and anime creators in the '80s and early '90s? According to manga scholar Shige Suzuki, an associate professor at Baruch College in New York City, cyberpunk manga writers and anime directors used the subgenre as a way to directly address "the living condition of the Japanese people in the 1980s."

After World War II, Japan rebuilt its economy by investing in heavy industries such as architecture, automobile manufacturing, and construction. Less than 30 years after the events of the war, Japan was an economically prosperous nation once again. But, by 1973, that "growth period," as Suzuki called it, was "pretty much over," in part thanks to the oil crisis of 1973. By the end of the decade, Japan's economy started to shift from industrial jobs to more white-collar professions like insurance, finance, IT industries, and — especially important when it comes to cyberpunk — advertising.

Suzuki says that in that period between the late '70s to the early '80s, "media images [advertisements, commercials] became oversaturated in the public space." Think of the large billboards of Japanese companies like Atari, TDK, and Sony in the background of the Los Angeles in Ridley Scott's 1982 cyberpunk film Blade Runner and you're not too far off from what 1980s Tokyo was like. "Cyberpunk authors were responding to this kind of socioeconomic and cultural condition," Suzuki says.

The increasing influx of technology into everyday Japanese life also fueled the cyberpunk golden age. Starting in the '70s, Japan established itself as a technological innovator. (The West noticed too, as William Gibson's Neuromancer – his debut novel that helped also popularize cyberpunk – is set in Japan.) The decade also saw the personal computer go from government offices to people's homes, and in a development that was important for the anime industry, gave Japan the VCR. Anime studios, at the time flush with cash, were able to experiment with different forms of content without having to appease censors or corporate sponsors, which led to the creation of OVAs, some of the earliest of which were cyberpunk titles like Megazone 21 and Bubblegum Crisis.

battle angel-alita-rusty angel

The third and final factor Suzuki brings up when discussing the inspirations behind Japanese cyberpunk is the "punk" aspect of the subgenre. In the late 1970s, "Japanese society witnessed the rise of a new type of youth subculture," he says, explaining that the media referred to them as "shin-jinrui," literally meaning "new human species."

These were young people who didn't want to be a part of the "post-industrial" Japanese society. They didn't want to have to conform, to be told what school to go to, what degree to get, what corporation to spend the rest of their life working for. So, of course, they were demonized, told they were afraid of hard work, had no loyalty to anyone but themselves — things that millennials have been hearing for years.

In that Battle Angel OVA, Alita (here named Gally) decides she wants to become a bounty hunter rather than become the good doctor Ido's perfect little android. It's the cyberpunk version of a "shin-jinrui."

Fans never got to see what would've happened to the rebellious hero of Battle Angel Hyper Future Vision GUNNM, since the OVA was just the first two parts of a planned series that never came to fruition despite a cult following that still goes strong today. When the Japanese economy soured in the 1990s, the OVA market did too. Like American programming, cable became more common in Japanese homes, so ultra-violent anime like Battle Angel could be shown on TV, eschewing the need for VHS-only releases. Cyberpunk anime continued to thrive in the '90s but soon took a back seat as shonen manga like Pokémon, Bleach, Naruto, and One Piece became the biggest anime exports. Most modern cyberpunk anime these days are just continuations of previous franchises, like Ghost in the Shell.

Alita Battle Angel

Credit: 20th Century Fox

Still, despite Battle Angel Alita's big live-action debut, there's still some hope that the classic franchise could get another anime adaptation. Yukito Kishiro recently told Anime News Network that he's still interested in an anime adaptation, that the only reason we haven't seen one is due to rights issues with the movie. Perhaps Cameron's movie will be the spark needed to make the anime happen. If not, though, fans waited this long for the film adaptation, so what're a few more years when it comes to waiting for an anime version in the future, one that will tell the entire story?


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