“I didn’t dig you out of the rubble because I saw a monster, a military machine – I saw something beautiful – and you grow more beautiful every day!”
-Doc Ido, Battle Angel Alita (Vol 1, page 34).
Cyberpunk has been one of gender studies’ biggest champions as well as one of its biggest villains. As Judith Butler once stated in her work Gender Trouble, the “transcendental move away from the body tends to exclude women by subsuming their difference in the great universal.” Battle Angel Alita, known as Gunnm in Japan, was originally published from December 1990 to April 1995 in the serial Business Jump manga-zine, created by Yukito Kishiro. Its creation was heralded as a positive, gritty post-cyberpunk future that took people beyond the scope of Blade Runner into a future where human life and flesh is cheap and it is the machine that is expensive, notably, the machine that can be used as a weapon is the most vied after.
While Alita herself is a cyborg (human brain with machine body) there are some characters who still embody flesh-and-blood, and the world of the Scrapyard, a far-future United States, still embodies some gender-roles of current times. However, it is a refreshingly progressive text/manga series, encompassing 9 translated volumes in English (Viz Media). The version I’m choosing to review is Viz’s re-release of the series, published between December 2003-April 2005 in the original right-to-left Japanese format. There is also an OVA that encompasses the first two volumes (1993) as well as a non-released video game (1995) that went on to be the creative influence behind the sequel manga, Last Order (2001).
The world of the Scrapyard places little value on human life, therefore the character of Doctor Ido, the Tipharean who locates and resurrects Alita, is a rarity. Discovering her brain still intact and functioning in a junkyard of the Scrapyard, he creates a body for her, forming a parental attachment both nurturing and supportive. He is also the one who names her “Alita.” Doctor Ido subverts the idea of masculine identity being unable to be nurturing; though he at first tries to imprint upon Alita a role of a girlish child, he comes to his senses quickly when he realizes that despite not having any memory, her only link/strong identity is that of a fighter: “You’re right, Alita, you’re right! How arrogant to dream of controlling your life – or anyone’s!” (Vol 1, pg 45). Instead of staying true to forcing her into a set identity/gender role, he supports her search for identity and role, fitting her with the cybernetic Imaginos body that will be able to physically support her martial arts/fighting lifestyle. He, too, is a warrior, taking down bounties, which is a role that he bonds and shares with Alita.
Ido also subverts traditional ‘masculine’ identity by having Alita as an emotional strength; despite his ‘warrior’ status of hunting bounties, he seems to have not his emotional needs fulfilled until she was in his life: “Without you, Alita, my life has no value” (Vol 1, pg 82). Throughout the manga, his role as parent is central – not only does Alita grow from his lessons, she rebels against what she feels is his stifling over-protectiveness, and then later centralizes her entire life around locating and finding him. Alita accuses him of being more susceptible to “cute” things than her -“And Koyomi’s such a cute baby… you’d rescue her” (Vol 1, 162). Their roles to each other are that of family and support, with Ido being accepting of Alita as a human being rather than a preconceived notion of gender expectations.
Alita, for her part, is probably the most gender-neutral character in the manga. Waking up as an amnesiac, she has the benefit of not knowing or having been taught gender roles, and so has no expectations for her own or others’ behavior. Because of this, she is able to develop into a fully-fledged warrior that can develop as a person, rather than a woman: “I walk in faith! The faith that we choose who we want to be – and grow into that identity, ugly or beautiful!” (Vol 2, pg 10). Throughout her journey, she consistently questions the roles people place her into, including the choice of her (swappable) cyborg body: “Why did you give my circuit rider body female proportions?” (Vol 3 pg 58). Alluquere Rosanne Stone argued in Will the Real Body Please Stand Up? that “virtual community originates and must return to the physical” (113). Alita’s physical component (brain) is resolved to be XX, and therefore she is automatically ‘assigned’ to a female cyborg body, despite her mental/virtual self not identifying with either gender.
That is not to say that she does not participate in the male/female physical dichotomy. She has two (positive) love interests in the series, Hugo and Figure Four, and two different men who obsess over her. However, the things that draw her to first Hugo, and later Figure have not so much to do with their physical forms so much as their personality and spirit: “Such a distance between us. if only I could share HIS world” (vol 2 pg 57). Hugo is consistently dreaming of traveling/inhabiting the floating city Tiphares, and his determination is what draws Alita to him. Figure Four, on the other hand, makes fun of gender roles constantly, “I’ve had it with you and your attitude, Miss “Angel of Death”! Come and fight me like a man!” (Vol 6 pg 89) and knows anti-cyborg martial arts, determined to defeat 1000 cyborgs with his new skill set. Her romance with Hugo is realized as one-sided with her initiation of kisses (vol 2 pg 139) until right before Hugo’s death. Figure is also a more ‘mature’ romance for Alita, as he initiates interest and romance just as often as she does, as well as counts on her as a partner and more skilled fighter with no jealousy of her abilities.
On the other hand, the negative (and one sided) men who obsess over Alita do so as a physical, lesser being. It is interesting to note that the men who do so are shown as lesser, despicable beings. The first is an outlaw named Makaku who takes an interest in Alita after running into her and Ido after a night of bounty-hunting. Makaku chases after Alita after the incident with a single-mindedness that is eerie, prompting Ido to realize “Makaku’s attitude towards Alita… on the surface, he seems to be picking on someone who’s weak, but that’s not it! It couldn’t be… is he in love with Alita?” (Vol 1, pg 155). Due to his disturbed background or his life of crime, Makaku cannot conceive of a “normal” relationship with Alita; seeing her as woman, his only idea of romance is to possess and destroy her. Even in fighting her, he sees every wound as an act of love “Every day, you can soothe me with your cries of despair!” (Vol 1, pg 214). When he knows he is beaten, he asks her to “Despise me! Smash me to pieces! Burn my soul to a cinder!” (Vol 2 pg 25) in a last act of sexual satisfaction – not knowing or understanding love based on mutual understanding and respect, he is satisfied with being destroyed by the one who he obsesses with.
A more disturbing ‘romance’ for Alita is the character known as Kaos, the son of the antagonist Nova. Kaos is a radio personality with psychometric abilities. Coming across the unconscious (and badly beaten) Alita after a recent battle, he touches her – and falls “in love” with her (later admitting that the emotions he feels are probably picked up from her memories of Figure, Hugo, and Ido as a parent figure). Upon her waking, Kaos informs Alita that “I repaired your body.. but it broke my heart. This is your fault,” (Vol 7 pg 113-14) before kissing and attempting to cybernetically ‘rape’ her. He fondles the inside of her mechanical body, telling her during “I love you. I’m speaking directly to your digital comlink. Can’t you feel my LOVE… being directly transmitted INTO you?” (116-17). The obvious invasion into both her physical and communications ports is akin to rape, which Alita, once aware and able to break his controls, thwarts by throwing his body clear across the room. He attempts to reason with her that he cut off her communications to her handler to give her ‘freedom’ then offers her a wedding dress: “You’re free. Now, will you try this on? Leave your past behind, come live with me…” (119) After his attempted rape he is still trying to force her into a patriarchal, un-Alita role that she does not fit. He later dies trying to save her, as a misguided attempt to right his previous wrongs.
The most interesting aspect of all of Alita’s ‘romantic’ conquests is that rather than going with the trope of female cyborgs of the 1980’s and 90’s being “fucking machines” (Holland, Veronica. Reload: Rethinking Women + Cyberculture) and encouraging male privilege, the ones that are positive and championed are the ones that actually demonstrate the outer boundaries of true cyberpunk – the ones that show that physically tied gender roles are no longer an issue.
In conclusion, I’d argue that Battle Angel Alita as a manga series under the scope of gender-relations, is a very surprisingly gender-balanced read. Strong women, compassionate men, and fighting based on intellect as much as physical ability all make this a fun read. Though I first read this at my public library when I was 12, I’d probably suggest no one younger than 16 start this just because of the gore/physical violence factor.