Alita: Battle Angel is not the first time that creative minds adapted Yukito Kishiro’s manga for another medium. James Cameron, who produced the 2019 version on a reported $200 million budget, became acquainted with that world over a decade ago, thanks to both the manga and single anime adaptation. The latter is somewhat infamous, having added new characters and brought Alita’s story to life, while being unceremoniously cut short before telling the entire story.
Shueisha’s Business Jump first published the Battle Angel Alita manga, or Gunnm as it’s called in Japan, in 1990. The company released the comic as a series of self-contained stories, which allowed businessmen riding the train to read it in spurts, but still come away with a complete chunk of narrative. The publication helped Business Jump skyrocket to nearly 700,000 copies a week, and anime studios were quick to capitalize. Animate, a Japanese production company, approached author Kishiro to adapt the first two volumes. The only problem: he had yet to complete the serialization.
“It might have been better to turn down the plan and wait for a better proposal to come up,” Kishiro later said in an interview. Nevertheless, he agreed. Like so many manga comics, Alita would become an anime.
Just not an anime remembered like or on par with other beloved manga adaptations like My Hero Academia, the Dragon Ball series or Attack On Titan. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, anime series weren’t created as 13-episode arcs, but rather as OVAs (original video animation): Standalone releases, often an hour long, that could afford a bigger budget given their reduced runtime. With the rise of the VHS, OVAs were testbeds for new ideas, touting better production value, ample fan service, and adult content that pushed the boundaries of television broadcast standards.
OVAs were wildly successful at introducing fans to anime and filling the pockets of companies in Japan, with companies selling VHS copies directly to consumers. Publishers like AD Vision, AnimEigo, Central Park Media, and more eventually brought the OVAs to America, with films like Bubblegum Crisis, Megazone 23, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, and Gunbuster taking root in the subculture that would embrace them.
The Battle Angel OVA saw multiple studios team up to bring the stories to life: Animate, which contributed to Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust and CLAMP in Wonderland; Movic, a branch of the Animate company whose claim is the largest retailer of anime, manga, and video games in Japan; and KSS Inc., a company known more for subtitle and translation work, that had a hand in making Oh My Goddess!, Golden Boy, and Naruto. The studios hired Hiroshi Fukutomi, known for his direction of the anime TV series Cat’s Eye and Fatal Fury: Legend of the Hungry Wolf, to direct without fanfare — like most OVAs, Battle Angel was a quick project meant to make money on a bankable title. Despite Kishiro creating the manga, he had no involvement with the anime adaptation.
In the end, Battle Angel amounted to two separate, half-hour episodes, each adapting one of the manga volumes. Though the OVA found little success in the east, it was massive hit in America. John Ledford, president of Sentai Filmworks and former president of ADV, tells Polygon, “The title was one of ADV Films’ best titles. It sold somewhere in the low six figures (in videogram units) during its lifetime on home video. It was an evergreen title.”
The OVAs arrived in 1993, and were a product of the time. Riding off the excitement for cyberpunk stories like Akira, Battle Angel told the story of a young cyborg trying to survive in a harsh world. In “Rusty Angel,” Gally (as Alita is known in the English version of the anime) is found in a trash heap by cybernetics expert Dr. Ito. In the world of Battle Angel, there are the people who live in the floating city Zalem, and there is everyone else. The second episode, “Tears Sign,” shifts focus to a boy named Yugo, who assaults cyborgs and steals their priceless spinal cords for money in hopes of paying his way to Zalem. Yugo’s relationship with Gally takes him closer to Zalem than ever before. Even though the OVA was short, Battle Angel achieved a classic status in the West, leading many to discover the manga series when it hit American shores — and finally wrapped up the story.
The initial deal between the producers of the Battle Angel OVA and Kishiro only covered the first two volumes of the manga, and by the time production wrapped on the anime, Kishiro was still in the process of completing the manga. In a 2005 interview, Kishiro blamed the short length of the anime on his finances at the time. ”I couldn’t afford to review the plan coolly,” he said to MNS in 2005. “At that time, I was still serializing the work and was so busy that I wasn’t ambitious to make it into animation.”
There were other factors to Battle Angel’s short-lived existence as an anime. In conversation with Polygon, Amanda Winn Lee, the OVA’s ADR Director and the English voice of Alita/Gally, says that the reason Battle Angel’s additional manga volumes weren’t adapted was due to the anime’s poor sales in Japan.
Battle Angel arrived at the tail end of the OVA market boom, when Japan’s economic recession rattled the business. Then Neon Genesis Evangelion happened, and changed the anime landscape forever. Evangelion showed you could do adult sci-fi in a television setting and the audiences would show up in droves. That made it less likely that producers were going to pursue more OVA adaptations.
Lee also recalls hearing that audiences just didn’t find Alita “cute enough” and “they wanted more fan service.” After the failure of Battle Angel, Animate, Movic, and KSS produced Plastic Little, which was considered a direct response to the thoughtful science fiction story. “Lots of girls, lots of boobs. [Plastic Little] is what they invented the jiggle counter for,” Lee says.
The voice actress also has her own regrets over the movie; Lee says she recorded her Gally lines with a 102-degree fever, and while recording the “battle foley” screams that accompany bigger action scenes, apparently passed out in the booth. “Sometimes I wish I could have gone back. I don’t know how different it would have been, but that movie will always have a very, very special place in my heart,” she says.”
Since 1994, the original Battle Angel Alita OVA remains the only anime adaptation of Kishiro’s manga. In an age of revivals and reboots, that’s still a strange legacy — but there’s a trickier answer. During a recent fan screening of Alita: Battle Angel, Cameron revealed that after The Shape of Water director Guillermo del Toro introduced him to the manga in the late ‘90s, Cameron flew to Tokyo to convince Kishiro to sell him rights to the series. The director read Alita’s story as one about adolescence and finding out how one fits into the world, material that his daughter could relate to. He and knew immediately that the book needed to be a film — which doomed any new anime prospects.
Yukito Kishiro sold the rights for Battle Angel to James Cameron in 1998, right after the success of Titanic. The deal included rights to all adaptations — including anime. You only have to imagine the director of the biggest movie of all time coming to your door, begging you to make a movie out of your work, to understand why Kishiro took the deal. (Cameron’s deal allows him to lift from the anime, too: Chiren, played by Jennifer Connelly in the film, and Grewcica, converted into Jackie Earle Haley’s screen character Grewishka, only exist in the OVA.)
Any regrets over the anime likely made the decision to hand the rights to Cameron easier for Kishiro. For his part, the manga author would love to make a TV anime of the series. “Yep. I’ve always wanted to,” he said in conversation with Anime News Network. That decision lays ultimately in the hands of Cameron.
Max Covill is freelance journalist for Film School Rejects, Playboy, SyFy, and many others, and and the host of @itsthepicpod. You can find him on Twitter @mhcovill discussing all things video games, movies, and anime.