Here we’ve got yet another buried treasure of Japanese animation, bubbling back to the surface thanks to the reticence of a certain King of the A$$holes World, James Cameron. Superstar producer/director Cameron has a lot of irons in the fire, and when he announced his intentions to develop a theatrical version of Yukito Kishiro’s Battle Angel, his film studio gobbled up exclusive media rights to the property and ADV’s release of the DVD quickly vanished from shelves.
Well, several years on, Cameron has lost interest in the whole Battle Angel thing, so ADV has dusted off this oldie-but-goodie to satisfy serious collectors and curious newbies alike. It’s a worthy endeavor; while this two-part OVA from 1993 is plagued by pacing problems, it’s still a remarkably involving little science fiction fable.
A lot of classic sci-fi stories—I’m trying really hard to think of an example, but all I can come up with is Freejack for some reason—feature the idea of class stratification and rampant pollution creating really, really acute separation between the haves and the have-nots. Battle Angel picks up that ball and scores a goddamn touchdown with it, envisioning a future where a wealthy city in the sky, Zalem, is quite literally unreachable by its toiling underclass, who eke out a living in the crime-ridden, red-tinged junkyard sprawl of Scrap-Iron City below.
Scrap Iron City is an impoverished, massive slum plagued by the infamous three Ps—Poverty, Pollution, and Pilfering of spinal columns. This is a future where cyborg modifications are easy to come by, but life is hard if you don’t have that all-important bundle of nerve and bone that plays traffic cop for your brain. And if you do have it, someone is liable to smack you with a club and carve it right out of you. Yep, things really are that grim.
Through this hellish futuristic favela stalks Doctor Ido, an imposing figure in a black trenchcoat and spectacles. He’s a cyber-doctor in exile, and in his excursions he happens upon the remains of a young girl—but this is a girl made almost entirely of artificial parts (think Ghost in the Shell’s Kusanagi, only cuter), so this discarded wreck is still a living person. When he brings her out of torpor, she can’t remember anything, so he gives her a name—Gally—and a tiny but extremely powerful robotic body.
Battle Angel’s pacing problems make themselves immediately apparent here; it literally takes less than a minute for us to meet Ido, and then Gally, and the show’s other major players are tossed at us in similarly pell-mell fashion. Fortunately, this OVA is full of quality—the character designs, courtesy of Escaflowne and Heat Guy J artist Nobuteru Yuuki, are wonderfully sharp and have aged well, and the animation, by Madhouse, is full of hot action and supervised by the great Rintaro.
The “action” part comes up because Ido moonlights as a bounty hunter; Scrap-Iron City is so entrenched in corruption that there’s no regular police force, so hired guns get to clean up the undesirables. Seeing Ido in combat (and in trouble) stirs something in Gally, and almost before she knows it she’s literally tearing huge cyborg lowlifes to bits using skills she never knew she had. In spite of her lust for combat, Gally is otherwise an almost disconcertingly normal girl; she cares about her mentor Ido, and even takes a shot at turning a local scavenger, Yugo, into a boyfriend.
The action, as I’ve said, is good stuff, but for me what keeps Battle Angel in the memory is how well it paints a compelling window into its world; we get an awfully good look at Scrap-Iron City, where the grass
is brown and the living is crappy. Even noble Ido and Gally have very human failings, and most of the rest of the characters, from the bitter Yugo to Ido’s old flame Chiren, are desperate, desperate people. This is the kind of story that ends with pretty much nobody getting what they want; Gally and Yugo stumble falteringly toward their modest dreams, but they’re bound to be thwarted by the cruel city and its crueler master, the chief employer/swindler known as the Factory.
Ultimately, Battle Angel puts up some good action as well as real pathos. I do wish it were considerably longer (the 60 minutes of story we get here is just scratching the surface) but this OVA works well as a taste test; if you like it, seek out Kishiro’s original manga, which is available in its entirety from Viz. At the end of the day, Battle Angel is compelling science fiction with a cyberpunk taste.