Manga Talk: Battle Angel Alita

When I read manga, I pay very close attention to panel placement and the fluidity of the artwork, in that is the action easy to follow. Manga can – at times – appear rather erratic, with large jumps between panels and characters who move very suddenly, which is understandable considering authors are very page-limited. Pace is something I imagine every artist of manga, comics or graphic novels grapples with, but when an author nails the pace and fluency of a scene, it’s such a pleasure to read.

50Last night while listening to the grandeur of The Cure, I recalled such a scene; it was in Chapter 22 of Gunnm, otherwise known as Battle Angel Alita.

Battle Angel Alita follows the life of Alita, a female cyborg with tremendous fighting abilities who is rescued from a garbage heap by a cyberphysician. When she recovers, Alita finds she doesn’t remember who she is or where she comes from, thus she begins to piece together the fragments of her past.

The chapter – titled Ars Magna – is the culmination of a two volume long arc and at a point in the story where Alita has self-exiled herself from her new life and adoptive family following a tragedy. Leaving behind everything, she immerses herself in the high-octane sport of Motorball, which is something akin to a murderous, all-at-once relay with just one baton.

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Alita spends much of the arc recruiting members to help defeat the reigning and undefeated champion, Jashugan, and the build-up to this moment is executed with perfection. The racers take their positions in Chapter 21 – there are flashbacks and monologues, the emotional weight is stacked to the Heavens – and everything gets underway in Chapter 22.

The readers are led to believe Alita has a chance; it’s five against one and Alita’s recruits are no pushovers, but from the get-go Jashugan completely dominates. This is where the author, Yukito Kishiro, absolutely nails the pace. Jashugan quite literally plows through Alita’s team and the scene reads in slow motion. Jashugan’s movements are precise, with Kishiro’s artwork and panel placement incredibly fluid. Backgrounds are erased as Jashugan calmly pulverizes the opposing team one by one, with Kishiro effortlessly displaying every key movement in tremendous detail. The reader gets a genuine sense of the action and the movements of each character, which is a phenomenal feat for such a busy scene.

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Alita rushes to the aid of her team and – inevitably – she and Jashugan become locked in a showdown. They fight one on one, with the author continuing to illustrate the action with not only incredible fluency, but tremendous ferocity. Jashugan is painted as all-powerful, in one scene rising from the flames after a seeming defeat. It’s a completely exhilarating chapter in a thoroughly outstanding manga. I cannot recommend Battle Angel Alita enough. It’s such a remarkable work, set in a completely alluring world with some of the most memorable characters and artwork manga has to offer.

I mentioned how I recalled this scene while listening to The Cure. The song that caused the images to surge into my mind was Plainsong from their Disintegration album. The opening instrumentals are particularly stirring; very grand and powerful. I love to listen to instrumental music when I read manga; if you get a piece that fits the tone of the book, it can become wonderfully immersive and not to mention incredibly exciting to follow when you have a master such as Kishiro illustrating each and every scene with elegance and fluidity.

James Cameron has been sitting on the rights for a film-version of Battle Angel Alita for over a decade and said himself that his adaptation will “use elements from the first four volumes”, which includes the Motorball arc. I’m not the type to freak out and fanboy over things, but to see this chapter on film would be an absolute dream. After many years of silence, it was announced a couple of months ago that the movie is finally going ahead, but that Robert Rodriguez would direct with Cameron producing. I’m not all that familiar with Rodriguez’s filmography, but am a little dubious whether or not Battle Angel Alita is really his style, but hopefully under the guidance of Cameron – who is a longtime fan – they’ll do it justice. Check back here in a couple of years for my thoughts!

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