Bodies in Battle Angel Alita

Kodansha Comics has recently begun reissuing one of my favourite manga, which has long been out of print—Battle Angel Alita. It’s been long enough since I last picked an issue up to make this something of a rediscovery for me, especially with regard to Yukito Kishiro’s art, which feels almost expressionistic in its starkness and fluid linework.

Battle Angel is set in the distant future, where the wealthy live in a floating city called Zalem while the rest of humanity live on the now barren wastelands of the earth. Almost any part of the human body can be replaced by synthetic parts and cyborgs now make up a large amount of the population. Alita is one such cyborg who is rescued by Dr. Daisuke Ito from a trash-heap her remains have been carelessly left in. Upon resuscitating her, Alita turns out to have a case of amnesia, but also knows a powerful form of martial arts called Panzer Kunst. This sets Alita on a quest to find herself (often with a lot of fighting involved).

This sort of cyberpunk scenario wasn’t terribly original even during the manga’s original run in the early 90s. What strikes me as unique is the emphasis Battle Angel places on physicality, both in its emphasis on martial arts action and more broadly on what it means to be a body in this sort of situation.

Cyborgs in Battle Angel are often an occasion for body horror, of seeing the human form perverted and betrayed. This sort of horror can be incredibly unnerving, not just because it can be gruesome and grotesque (and Battle Angel is indeed both of those things at times), but because it gives the lie to the popular modern sentiment that we are merely a person, a self encased inside a fleshy shell; rather, we are a body, and so a strange, mechanical transformation of the human form feels like an incursion into our very identity.

There’s another, more sociopolitical aspect to this in Battle Angel. Contrary to some transhumanist hopes, the increasing mechanization of human life in the manga has not freed people from the limitations of the human condition, but rather has turned the body into a commodity. One’s body is now a reflection of one’s social and economic standing, like clothing and housing, and we see how control over the body is a means used for creating de-facto slaves. The body itself, then, just becomes part of the divide between wealth and poverty, and an avenue for people to act selfishly at the expense of others.

If I recall correctly, the direction that Kishiro ultimately leans towards in response to this is very existential: in a situation where even our bodies aren’t our own, our true identities are to be found in the choices we make. This is better and more affirming than a nihilistic posthumanism, but still unsatisfactory in the long run. For an action to have a sort of dignity or meaning to it necessitates that the person acting already has a kind of dignity given to them: the body needs to mean something.

But to fully make sense of that idea is to wade into the thickets of metaphysics and theology. And against the increasing number of ways we can reduce human life to a dollar value, I find that it is not enough to make a counterpoint that the body means something, but to go further in saying that the body is incarnational and sacramental, that the spiritual is not something abstract, but rather has actively taken up residence in embodied human life. To go further in this direction is to articulate the deepest truths of Christianity. A profound sense of meaninglessness needs to be met, not with abstract principles, but with a “thick” worldview that hits back with even stronger metaphysical force.

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