I spent the best part of last week trying to wrap my head around Alita: Battle Angel. With my background in Japanese language and culture, and my interest in film, I figured that this would be something that I’d at least be interested in.
I had read some of the manga in advance, but this isn’t going to be a case of what’s different, what’s the same, what did they change – there are already lists online if you’re curious. No, this is a look more at how it exists in the cultural space, and as a franchise.
Japan is cool. It is cited as a great example of ‘soft power’, exporting cultural iconography like ninjas, samurai, mythology, animé, robots, technology, electronics, automobiles, and so on.
It’s such a resource to the country, that it has its own governmental policy index.
In terms of transmedia specifically, Japan has their own ‘Media Mix’ equivalent. This essentially functions the same as a Western transmedia franchise, but there is certainly a difference in business models with how much money companies are willing to put into a single franchise and their consumer base.
But as for Battle Angel: Alita, even for someone with an interest in Japan and robots, this was more just something I was aware of, but not something I was really engaged with.
For your typical westerner, or even animé fan, it felt niche. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, far from it – I personally love the world and mythos of the story – but it means that it could be a difficult sell.
Think about cultural osmosis. Your typical cinema-goer is going to be familiar with names big names like Pokémon, Dragonball, Godzilla, and maybe Astro Boy, Gundam, and Death Note.
But Alita? I would imagine that the people first hear about this franchise is as a James Cameron passion project.
THE UNFORGIVING WORLD OF WESTERN ADAPTATION
Think about some of the biggest clunkers of western takes on Japanese material. We have Dragonball Evolution (set in an American high school), Death Note for Netflix (with main character Light Turner – sounds like a dimmer switch), and then we have Ghost in the Shell accused of whitewashing in 2017.
All of these were met pretty poorly for a three main reasons:
- Whitewashing Japanese Culture.
- Disloyal to, or ‘dumbing down’, the source material.
- A feeling like an IP cash grab.
This is the case with all three examples in some way shape or form. It never felt like any of these movies needed to be made, and that they felt like an embarrassing mirror twin of the original intent.
But it is a really tricky line for producers to figure out when it comes to adapting these sorts of properties. There are often years, sometimes decades worth of Manga, movies, animé, toys, and trading cards to sift through before they figure out what they’re even going to adapt, and whether it will be well-received.
Things are going to have to be cut out in one way or another, but the common issue can also come down to audience – and the first point about westernising Japanese culture. This misstep was what doomed Dragonball Evolution and led to some uncomfortable questions for Ghost in the Shell – but casting better-known actors like Scarlett Johansson.
Thankfully, the world of Alita both in the Manga, the animé, and the blockbuster, is built around a cultural melting pot. The diversity is already written into the source material, which is a real blessing when it comes to a property like this. It’s less an accusation of appropriating Japanese culture, and more a mixture of multiple influences through a Japanese lens.
That said, this film isn’t predicted to do well at the box office, and has been critically panned, and I think it comes down to that anxiety about what exactly this film is supposed to be.
Now the consensus is that it will need the foreign market to shore up its box office – whether it succeeds due to its Japanese background and Chinese appetite for high-concept CGI Sci-Fi, we’ll just have to wait and see.
For cool special effects it’s very well done, but it’s the story that critics have picked on for letting it down. Namely, pointing out absent character motivation and plot points – all of which were addressed in the original source material over hundreds of issues.
FANDOM: THE DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD
Certainly, in the world of social media, fan response can be quick, uncontrolled, and instantaneous. Word-of-mouth can quickly brand something as inauthentic, lame, bad, or “not as good as the original”.
From a marketing perspective, it’s vital to get fans on board. They have money, they’re likely to see the next instalment of an established franchise – they’re a safe market.
But animé is already a niche market to start, so as soon as you add a more commercial element to it, there’s a danger that you may move people away from the remake – especially if they feel manipulated.
Yet Alita really doesn’t have a substantial fanbase – at least not one large enough to rest a $200 million on. Instead all the marketing is about this incredibly big-budgeted personal James Cameron project. Given the lack of knowledge of the franchise in the West, that’s probably the smartest move.
On the one hand, a small fanbase can be a bit of a blow to producers when it comes to selling. But it can also lead to more creative freedom.
They’re primary audience isn’t the niche fanbase, it’s more of a Western YA crowd. For a property like this, I think that’s a real blessing.
After all, if it were a bigger IP like Dragonball there’s already a huge fanbase that would scrutinise every last detail about the changes to the origin, characters, design, mythology, etc.
An IP has to do right by its fans first – and with social media, now more than ever.S
So, with a little freedom in adaptation, and a big name like James Cameron leading the project, this should have the potential to be great. Japanese influences in a modern CGI Western environment.
So, what went wrong?
TOO. MUCH. WORLD-BUILDING.
I’m not sure if there’s an official term for this, but I’ll refer to it as Phantom Menace Syndrome.
This is where a producer or director falls in love more with the world-building and history than the story, and is a very dangerous trap to fall into when devising a cinematic property.
George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode I had many other issues, but a big one was how the universe was developed. Dialogue-heavy exposition, cool CGI landscapes, and character motivations focused on moving from one action sequence to the next.
Before long, you’ve lost track of where you are, who’s which character, what the motivations are, who the villain is, what the heroes want – it’s a mess. It’s a mess born out of ambition and passion, but still a mess.
Alita suffers a similar fate.
James Cameron has made his passion for the source material well-known in the past, writing 180 pages on the story and world.
At a run time of 2h 22m, this was the cut down version.
So, the question is how you use the time effectively for adaptation. When it comes to Alita the consequences come in the balance between world-building and characterisation.
Dialogue is used to explain the world, the history, the war, the battle suit, flashbacks to Mars and so on. It does not develop the character, and there is no hook to engage with what these characters want.
I believe this is more of an issue with the budget and adaptational constraints. Again, it’s a tricky source material to adapt, with the Manga revealing character motivations and details out of sequence.
An interesting world? Absolutely. But without that character motivation to hook the audience, it’s a struggle.
Cool Sci-Fi cyborgs are great, but without a plot it all becomes noise.
This is why I’m a firm believer in transmedia storytelling for world-building, developing the world in different avenues gives the audience-goer time to breathe and engage with it how they see fit. The Mars subplot could have been explored more in short episodes on streaming services, video games, revised Western comic book tie-ins – just about anything.
Star Wars: Episode I for the N64 developed the Pod-racing subplot in a video-game avenue far better than in the film, and Knights of the Old Republic did a great job in establishing the ancient mythos.
Perhaps other avenues could have been better used as a tie-in to help familiarise people with the premise – especially seeing as it was such a focus of the film. Expensive? Absolutely, video games aren’t cheap to make, but this film cost $200 million – so diversifying those funds to make a $150 million blockbuster and a $50 million video game isn’t too far fetched … worked for the Matrix.
The world is so big, that it is impossible to cram in every aspect into this film without losing essential character development. So why not risk diversifying funds?
FROM TERMINATOR TO ALITA
There’s a lot going on here thematically, and the cyberpunk elements serve a purpose in the manga – less so the film. Without bogging you down with too much detail, the Japanese relationship with robotics and technology is different to the west.
Due to the Shinto and Buddhist history of the country, there is a greater affinity for our technological counterparts. Whether they are innocent robot children like Astro Boy, a symbiotic relationship in Neon Genisis Evangelion, or teaching your kids healthy life lessons like in Doraemon, there is a greater compassion towards machinery.
This comes down to the concept of Animism – the idea that everything, living or not, has a “soul” or “spirit” and are regarded as equal – they’re not human, they’re just different.
Conversely, the robot, cyborg, and technology is often frowned upon in Western context. Judeo-Christian values paved the way for an anthroprocentric view of the world – man mastering nature and being the next best thing to the divine.
Naturally, robots come in two forms – slave or enemy.
To see this in action, think about Western media. How many robots or cyborgs are good guys?
Terminators? The Borg? Cybermen? The Matrix? HAL 9000? Even good humans become more machine-like when they become evil – as seen in Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader.
The good robots are the subservient inhuman R2D2 and C3PO, Robbie the Robot, and the Jetson’s Rosie, never rebel against their human masters.
This is why I was very interested in this film. With someone like James Cameron, creator of the Terminator, looking at something so culturally different, there are lots of great themes to explore. Robo-ethics, prejudice, humanity, posthumanism, mortality, immortality, resurrection, technology v. nature, playing God – all themes explored in the manga that could have really given the film much more depth and meat to it.
Alas, they weren’t.
Everyone seems very comfortable with their robotic selves – cyborgs are just part of everyday life. Characters literally have their heads ripped off and put on a robot body without expressing any horror (or any reaction for that matter) at their newfound cyborg fate.
All that potential to explore our dehumanising relationship with technology.
Instead we get …
A … SPORTS MOVIE?
I think this was the biggest misstep for me personally. Alita: The Motorball Kid. For those uninitiated, Motorball is the cyberpunk future sport that everybody’s obsessed with in this universe. I’m not too familiar with the rules, but there’s a ball, and people on rocket roller skates try to get the ball into the goal – standard sports stuff I guess.
Except, I felt like this was handled a little differently in the manga and was really more of a side-plot at best. Sports can really help immerse oneself in the world – Harry Potter did this well with Quiddich, but the entire plot of the films didn’t revolve around it.
Instead, Alita is predominantly a Motorball player – and needs to become a Motorball champion to eventually fight the villain is. It is where the greatest visual spectacle lies, and we see some gruesomely cool cyborgs compete in the third act … but a fictional sport isn’t a hook; not when you’re trying to immerse yourself in a world, and not when you can’t tell who’s winning and losing.
Sports works in Rocky and Karate Kid because it’s an event the films build up to and a culmination of what these characters have learnt.
But when doing a cyberpunk sci-fi Japanese robot manga adaptation, there’s far more meat to analysing the struggles with her inhumanity and being a combat robot trying to find love.
When it comes to the designs, I would absolutely love to play a video game of Motorball, but it feels so odd compared to the more interesting themes of cyborgs, robots, and eventually immortality.
WHY END, WHEN YOU CAN STOP?
There isn’t a villain.
Well, there is in the manga: Desty Nova. A character built up as hiding in the shadows and living literally above the rest of the cyberpunk city.
He communicates through his human servants on the ground, but his goal is more to do with immortality – something the film very very briefly touches on.
His relationship to Alita is unclear, but the film ends hinting at a sequel. If there is a sequel?
This sort of highlights the issue with this film. We are half-way through the hero’s journey at best. Alita wasn’t even really aware of the villain, or had motivation to go after him, until he did away with her love interest.
It really feels like we’ve just finished the first act of a much larger project.
I think the goal could be to get people more interested in the manga, where they can read about what happens there. But the marketing made it clear that this was a mainstream blockbuster from the creator of Avatar.
That’s a different demographic to your typical manga reader, and I’m not sure that there’s going to be major demand for a sequel due to its confusing market placement.
THE AKIRA COMPARISON
If I were to compare this movie to any manga-to-film adaptation, it would probably be Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988). The themes are similar enough, and both Battle Angel: Alita and Akira felt like adult gritty series.
But most importantly, their film adaptations are both incomplete. It is impossible to cram thousands of pages of Manga and world-building into a single feature film – thinks have to be cut, and things need to be cut. That, and both Alita and Akira see their films end at a mid-way point – Akira more successfully.
The reason I bring Akira up is because it knew what to focus on. The Manga goes into more world-building, you learn more about the rivalry between the bikers, the religious priest has a huge backstory with the titular Akira that gets entirely cut, once Akira returns there is a new world order established with him and Tetsuo … all cut from the film. But it needed to be.
The film was a character focus between Tetsuo and Kaneda, with the psychic plot point being a catalyst to their relationship. If fans liked the film, they could read more about it in the Manga.
It can be done, and I think Alita: Battle Angel had the same potential as something like Akira. But whereas Akira knew that it needed to streamline, I think that James Cameron was almost too ambitious.
WHAT COULD HAVE WORKED?
James Cameron is a thoroughly talented film maker, having such enormous titles like Terminator and Avatar under his belt. So, I don’t think it’s fair to have some just-done-an-MA graduate pick apart everything he’s worked on, and was clearly passionate about.
That said, I think there are three major issues with this film: Audience, Story, Tone.
You could argue that there’s just not a Western appetite for animé-inspired robot girl protagonists, but we have seen successes built on similar high-concept themes in the past: The Matrix for example. This movie did have the potential to be new and interesting, combining a well-established American producer with a Japanese robot genre. But you also have to figure out where it sits in the market as a result.
Japanese animé fans could just go for the more authentic cultural exports. The cheaper to produce properties, which can claim to be more intrinsically linked to the country that produced it.
Why do we need James Cameron to give us this CGI film when there’s a grittier underground animé film from 1993?
It’s too niche to be a huge blockbuster success, and too mainstream to appeal to the animé fans that loved the original property.
Audience appetite is an external factor, and a good story can transcend cultural barriers. But the story is a mess.
We have a lot going on here in terms of tone. The start feels like a Spielberg movie about a scientist and his robot daughter. Then we have techno-sci-fi noir like in Blade Runner where she has to work as a robot bounty hunter. Then we go back to a romance teen subplot. Then we have an alien war backstory … then we have an epic sports bounty-hunter finale, then FINALLY we see the main villain supposedly pulling the strings behind the scene … without confrontation.
This is an adaptation of the first few volumes of the Manga, and there is already a lot of high-concept stuff going on. Supposedly, the titular Alita wants to discover who she is, but she’s highjacked by wanting to enter this roller-ball cyborg sport, to try to jog her memory (I think).
Don’t treat this as a synopsis, this is more how I felt after leaving the film and the information I was able to retain.
A good story often boils down to what a hero wants, and why they can’t get it. Often, James Cameron is great at writing such high-concept stories with relatable stakes.
But that method of storytelling doesn’t translate into a manga adaptation. The manga doesn’t see Alita wanting to know who she is, and it instead feels reminiscent of a father/daughter relationship. Each volume explores another episode, but the world and characters are revealed over time.
In playing down the Motorball side of things, and focusing more on Alita’s robot-human struggle, and giving a greater villain (she faces off against a couple of henchmen, but not the big bad) and a motivation for him wanting to destroy/study her … then there could be something to work with.
Of course, there would need to be changes to the source material, and perhaps the order events happen. But this is crucial when it comes down to translating thousands of pages worth of manga into a western blockbuster, even if it means sacrificing some of the world-building on the big screen.
IS IT POSSIBLE TO HAVE A MANGA-BLOCKBUSTER?
I think anything’s possible in film, but there need to be changes made to format. Alita focused on the world more than the characters, and the story suffered for it. It was almost hindered by a loyalty to the manga – albeit a worthy challenge.
For now, I’m cautiously optimistic about Detective Pikachu of all things. This isn’t an adaptation of the main series animé but focuses on a single aspect of the world and develops it.
I think if we saw greater development of smaller aspects of the world, that could be fascinating, and that could be something to consider when looking at adapting Japanese source material.
But as it stands, time will tell.
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