There are three characters that seem to me to be related to one another because they are all explorations of what it means to be human. The three are Rei Ayanami from Neon Genesis Evangelion, Mokoto Kusunagi from Ghost in the Shell, and Alita, the namesake of Battle Angel Alita.
Rei is interesting because she is a human raised to be a thing who learns to be a person. Mokoto is interesting because she is a human gradually becoming a machine. But Alita is interesting because she has figure out what it means to be human and live her life that way, despite the fact that her brain is the only human thing about her. Hers is a neat story – in fact, all their stories are neat, in part because they are different – and it seems to me like something worth looking at.
I’m going to be talking about the manga here. I’m writing this before February 14th – Alita Battle Angel opening on Valentine’s Day is surprisingly appropriate but that’s still three weeks off as I write (EDITOR’S NOTE: Now it’s three days) – so I haven’t seen James Cameron’s live action version and the anime was a pair of half-hour OVAs simplified into an action/adventure story, so there’s not a lot going on there.
The original Alita, from the manga.
But the manga is brilliant. It’s a wild post-apocalyptic cyberpunk ride with pounds of ultraviolence and a zillion cultural references. It works at a lot of levels. The ending isn’t so great…It turns out you have to get the six omnibus volumes of Battle Angel Alita: Last Order to find out how the story ends…but it’s still a treat to read.
And one of the key levels at which it works is in the development of Alita’s character.
At the start, she’s nothing, less than a baby, just a discarded brain left on a scrapheap, suffering from total amnesia. Doctor Ido picks her up and put her in a cyborg body and she prances off, grown in the course of a few pages from a babe in arms to a gawky and curious little girl.
The future being what the future is, she’s immediately ganked. I made that word up. It means she is mugged and her brand new shiny body is stolen. Anyway, she’s immediately ganked, and her brain tossed back on the scrapheap. Welcome to the world’s shortest childhood, Alita.
This time Ido puts her into a superpowerful battle body, hence Battle Angel Alita. And fortunately she has a repressed memory from her time as a living person of a powerful martial art style called Panzerkunst. This is enough to keep her alive, for a given value of alive, for most of the rest of the series. (She does have parts start to fall off here and there.)
What’s interesting is how her personality develops across time. The manga is explicit that years elapse between episodes; she is about fifteen years older at the end of the story than she is at the beginning. This gives her (and the story) time to change, and makes her growth as a character plausible.
So: At first she’s not unlike a newborn, doing the battle angel equivalent of trying to learn to walk and talk. Of course, because of Panzerkunst, to her walking and talking is beating the crap out of the biggest villain around, but still, it’s equivalent to the toddler stage of her development.
By the second volume (I read the Kodansha set of five volumes, so I’m going by those), she has developed into a metaphorical teenager and we meet her in full-blown teenager mode: completely rebelling against her father-figure, Ido. She runs away to join the circus, er, I mean the Rollerball circuit. Needless to say, thanks to Panzerkunst, she whups the champ’s butt, but that’s not the important thing that happens there. In the course of her separation from Ido she comes to realize how much she misses him.
How much she loves him.
Now, this is a daughterly love; she loves Ido as though he is her father. This is sort of explicit when the story gives Ido a lover, Shumira. Lover is not Alita’s job in Ido’s life. He “invented” her. She’s his little girl.
Down the road, now twelve years later, she meets the mercenary Figure Four, who is “naked” (he has no modifications), a superb martial artist, and quite possibly the toughest hombre this side of Mount Fuji. Symbolically, she gives him a nosebleed, and you know what that means *wink*wink*nudge*nudge* Of course, being Alita, she gives it to him with her fist, but still. Thoughts of Four, and the love she feels for him, will recur to her for the rest of the series. This is a romantic love.
Subsequently she finds young Koyomi, whose life she saved as a baby and who she helped raise as a toddler. It is clear throughout that Alita has motherly feelings toward Koyomi; and as between Alita and Ido, Koyomi runs away from Alita in an act of teenaged rebellion.
See what’s going on here? In each case she learns a new type of love. She gives her heart away in different ways to different people, a really good trick considering that she doesn’t actually have a heart (what that says about the author’s opinion about what love is and where it resides is left to the student as an exercise).
This reminded me of Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man, except of course Shakespeare’s Seven Ages were specifically male. But first she was an infant, toddling along blithely until she got ganked; next, a schoolchild looking up to (and later rejecting) her daddy; Shakespeare has lover and soldier as the next two stages but Alita reverses the order, as she meets Figure Four while working as a mercenary and falls for him later.
She’s not going to make it through all seven ages, of course. The idea of an elderly Alita is too tedious to bear. But the fifth and sixth ages are Justice and Middle Age; she reverses them again, becoming a mother to little Koyomi and then, at the end of the story, fighting for her city and people as a whole against the forces that oppress them.
And she does that because she loves them. She has learned the lesson of the fully evolved person, to be prepared to place one’s life in harm’s way for the greater good of the people that she loves. So she loves Ido…as a daughter does…Four…as a woman does…Koyomi…as a mother does…and finally everyone, all of humanity.
Alita is about 95% robot, but by the end of the story she is 100% human. It’s a wonderful character development, superbly written with lots of action at a breakneck pace. Battle Angel Alita is a great manga and Alita a great example of a character who comes to terms with her humanity, and does it through the mechanism of love. Well done.
Of the three of them, Rei, Mokoto, and Alita, Alita’s story is the most common. The machine becomes human: that’s a yarn that goes back before Frankenstein to the stories about golems. But the fact that it’s an older story or a more common story does not mean it’s a bad story. In fact, it’s pretty damned good.
I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.