Anime Reviews: Battle Angel Alita
Some Basic Info About This Classic OVA
Title: Battle Angel Alita a.k.a. Gunnm a.k.a. Battle Angel
Series Length: 2 OVA
Release Dates: 6/21/1993 to 8/21/1993
Age Rating: 15+ (strong violence, mild language, brief partial nudity)
Summary: Moldering in a long-abandoned scrapyard, the mangled remains of a female android are discovered by cyberdoctor Daisuke Ido on a routine search for spare parts. Back at his clinic, Ido fixes the android up as good as new, and gives her the name "Gally." Gally is sweet and innocent and devoid of any memories of her past; she also is attracted to a young mechanic named Yugo, who dreams of leaving the rust and dust of Scrap Iron City behind him and journeying to Zalem, the towering metropolis floating in the sky. But danger lurks close to home--Ido's nighttime ventures are punctuated by rumors of a deadly killer who murders androids and steals their valuable brains and spines, leaving Gally to suspect either Ido is behind the killings or, she simultaneously hopes and dreads, Ido is a potential victim. In the attempt to save her patron from his fate, Gally will discover there's more to herself than just a pretty face.
The Good: Attention-grabbing artwork stands the test of time; gorgeous ending theme; brisk pace, easy-to-follow plot, and gripping characters make for a superb viewing experience
The Bad: Woefully incomplete
The Ugly: Trying not to reflect on how depressing the whole damn thing is
What's my history with this classic OVA?
So I saw Battle Angel Alita many years ago, when 90s OVAs were being traded around on VHS in game stores and nerdy-activity school clubs in the early 2000s, but I only watched it once and never found another copy to claim as my own, although I remember liking it quite a bit. Now, in the modern internet age, such problems no longer exist, and I finally obtained one of the many objects of my adolescent enjoyment a few years ago. Why have I waited so long to cover this particular title, then? One part of me wants to say it was a clever ploy--a timely and topical review now that James Cameron is set to finally release his long-awaited, big-budget adaptation after nearly two decades at the end of this year--but really, it's because there is absolutely zero methods to my madness and Battle Angel Alita just slipped through the cracks. But no more! This anime deserves more recognition (that James Cameron will certainly provide more of than I possibly ever could), and I'm gonna tell ya why!
So what makes this OVA a bona fide classic?
As always, the first thing that catches my attention in any anime is the first thing here also: the artwork. Man, I really miss this gritty 90s art style, you guys. Some series that have utilized it may have aged poorly, but I'll be damned if Battle Angel Alita isn't still a visual treat. From the stylishly scrappy and humble character designs to the meticulously detailed hand-painted backgrounds to the breathtaking color choices, I was gobsmacked when I first saw this OVA nearly 15 years ago, and it still holds my eyes ransom to this day. While the action animation may not be the flashiest around, especially nowadays, there's nonetheless a real sense of urgency and danger in the direction, and the brevity and brutality of these fights actually work far better than the vast majority of overwrought hour-long particle effect showcases you'll see in modern action anime. Sometimes, quick-'n-dirty is the best way to go! Point being, this OVA is 25 years old and it still looks great, and outside of the works of Hayao Miyazaki, Hideaki Anno, and Mamoru Oshii, that's pretty rare for an anime to accomplish.
A relatively minor aspect of Battle Angel Alita that I nonetheless adore is its ending theme, "Cyborg Mermaid." It is legitimately one of my favorite anime tunes of all time--a heartfelt ballad that hits the right spot with its doleful keys and deep female vocals, and even a rockin' guitar solo to boot! Much like the visuals, this song is very reminiscent of the early 90s while simultaneously being just as good today as it was back then. Again, it's a small thing to comment on, but even a little bit of greatness is still greatness.
One thing I had completely forgotten about is just how freakin' fast-paced Battle Angel Alita is, with key scenes taking up maybe only a minute before we segue into the next pivotal scene. But the reason I had forgotten about this brisk pacing was quite simple: the direction present in this OVA is peerless. You know it's moving fast, but it never feels too fast. You aren't being left in the dust--in fact, the director knew he had to present us with this world and its many intricacies in an incredibly small amount of time, so little tricks like brief shots of filthy alleyways or cluttered workdesks tell us plenty about the setting without wasting our time with reams of expository dialogue. "Show, don't tell" is the magic ingredient so many writers and directors fail to follow, but that philosophy is here in spades.
Making matters easier for the director is how direct and to-the-point Battle Angel Alita's plot is. The story anchors us immediately with the all-too-familiar realities of its cast, and it does it in the blink of an eye, all accomplished without needless exposition--we don't need to know anything about the floating city of Zalem other than that it's where the rich and the elite live, because its status as a symbol to the people of Scrap Iron City is far more important than its history. It also helps that we're not bogged down with made-up words and impenetrable technobabble, which is often the death knell for science fiction. The result is a fast-paced story that is easy to understand, made easy to process through excellent direction, and easy to enjoy by virtue of its stylish aesthetics.
Oh, and I guess the characters deserve mention, as well, since these kinds of stories live or die by their ability (or inability) to make the denizens of their dystopian worlds feel real. Right from the get-go, with Gally, Ido, Yugo, and Chiren, we are immediately acquainted with who they are and what they want: Gally is a cheerful amnesiac android who wants to pursue her destiny as a hunter-warrior, Ido is a friendly and shrewd cyberdoctor/hunter-warrior who wants his surrogate daughter to be safe and whole, Yugo is a wayward mechanic forced into shady means to realize his dream of making it to Zalem, and Chiren is Ido's rival in the world of cybernetics constantly looking to prove herself worthy in the field so that she can win her way to Zalem through sheer skill. Their struggles are relatable, and their motivations are universal--finding one's destiny, protecting one's family, chasing one's dream, proving one's worth. And through it all, we see multiple sides of their personalities, the good and the bad. Again, in an incredibly short amount of time. This is a work of genius, people, and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.
Where does this well-oiled machine break down?
There's only one thing about Battle Angel Alita that leaves a bad taste in my mouth: the fact that it's only 2 episodes long, when the manga's been ongoing for damn near 30 years. What we got in these precious few episodes is utterly spectacular, even heart-breaking in its emotional impact, but you'll never shake that nagging feeling that there could have been more. We will never know what lies beyond Scrap Iron City. We will never know what traumas lie in Gally's past. The ominous, ever-present shadow of Zalem will always be an oppressive symbol of faceless tyranny whose walls and secrets remain forever distant and unknowable. Unless you read the manga like a dirty cheater.
And really, that's it. Everything else about this OVA is just so gosh-darned great that my only complaint basically boils down to "moar plz." That's rare, folks.
So, does Battle Angel Alita still hold up?
Without a doubt, Battle Angel Alita stands the test of time, having refused to age even a day in almost three decades. Everything about it just comes together masterfully, from its gritty animation to its relatable cast, to the fact that it refrains from wasting even a moment of your time with any filler or brain-numbing tedium. You know me, folks--despite being a relatively old-school anime fan, I always work to keep an open mind about newer titles and strive to knock down fallacious accusations of "New anime sucks! Old anime is better!" Because those people are objectively wrong. And then I (re-)stumble across classics like Battle Angel Alita and am forced to consider, if even for a moment, that there might be a grain of truth to those half-baked arguments. In case I haven't been clear enough, this series is highly recommended to any anime fan old and new. Get it immediately.
Also, you're probably wondering why the title is "Battle Angel Alita" when the main character's name is Gally. You can blame the original Viz translation for that. Just trust me, her name is Gally. You really don't want to jump down this particular rabbit hole. You'll go mad, and not even mad with power. And as Simpsons Movie villain Russ Cargill once said, "You ever tried going mad without power? It's boring. No one listens to you."
Final Score: 9.5 out of 10. Demonstrating absolute mastery in every aspect, from its appealingly gritty visuals to its down-to-earth cast and satisfyingly swift pace, Battle Angel Alita suffers only from the fact that you'll be left craving more and being unable to fill the void without reading the manga like a filthy peasant.