Until the premiere of ‘Alita: Battle Angel’, it could be said that the powerful audiovisual industry in the United States had been unable to get it right when it comes to adapting Japanese animes to live action film. We have umpteen examples. There’s ‘Speed ​​Racer’ (2008), the kids’ film with tons of colour the Wachowski sisters created, inspired by ‘Mach GoGoGo‘, a distant relic from the 70s, and one of the first series of Japanese cartoons that broke into the American market, completely forgotten unless you’re carrying two score and ten years on your back. And if we look closer to today, we could stop at ‘Ghost in the Shell‘, a disastrous case if it is reduced to several essential points

Obviously, getting Scarlett Johansson to play Major Kusanagi was an asset, she was a suitable actress for the role but even still, a sector of the public chose to boycott the premiere with that absurd ‘whitewashing’ affair, which boiled down to protesting the fact that a white woman with a wig was not a suitable choice to play a black-haired white cyborg like in the manga and in the original movie. That said, it was bad judgement to leave the script in the hands of Jamie Moss, who was incapable of preserving in the storyline of the film the fundamental questions about philosophy and technology raised in the 1995 anime. What opened in cinemas was an attractive-looking cyberpunk hodgepodge, some fairly dull action scenes and vague considerations on the ethics of artificial intelligence and the hacking of minds that wound up resulting in a mediocre popcorn-flick.

That’s why, every time an adaptation of a Japanese animation classic is announced, whether it’s a Hollywood studio or Netflix, you’d be best not to get too carried away. Netflix is ​​a crucial ingredient in this new scenario, as the video-on-demand platform has been responsible once again for abundantly supplying the Western public with a cargo of classic and new animes. This spring, for example, they will rescue the great mythical series of the 90, ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’-, and one of their most ambitious projects, which is already underway, is to adapt another cult anime, ‘Cowboy Bebop’, to a real action series after having turned ‘Death Note’ into a movie, which all told was a rather insipid and forgettable affair. In short, lady luck has failed to smile upon us, not when the industry has put its dirty hands on ‘Dragon Ball’ nor even when Guillermo del Toro made ‘Pacific Rim’ (2013), which was still a camouflaged version of ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion‘.

As a result, it mightn’t be a bad idea to go see ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ with a garbage bag in hand, just in case. There comes a time when you no longer trust the siren songs, now that the superheroes are exhausted, when in the distance you hear that the next Hollywood target to satisfy mainstream appetite will be the Japanese comic book, a genre which is so attractive to us. On the other hand, the scale weighed heavily, and positively in its favour when the news broke that this version was being handled by Robert Rodriguez, who in ‘Sin City’ (2005), already demonstrated how to adapt a comic to the big screen, and that James Cameron was putting his money on the line, one of the greatest historical defenders of the anime in the United States. There was a glimmer of hope that the end result would at least save us from blood boiling or that feeling you’ve just thrown your money away.

There are some really terrible moments in ‘Alita: Battle Angel’. There’s an absolutely unnecessary short scene with a street musician playing a half Jamaican thing with a twelve-string guitar, which is only understood as a concession to suggest an idea of ​​the diversity that, in any case, is clear in the rest of the film, given that the action takes place in the terrestrial suburbs of the aerial city of Salem, a kind of futuristic Bangkok and megalopolis where the last surviving humans of all races and cultures have converged, increasingly dehumanized by the unstoppable need to improve their flesh and blood bodies with artificial prostheses. One positive is that it isn’t hard to find a political reading to the film: the cyborg is no longer just a possibility posed by literature and the dystopian comic, without a present-day reality that can only continue to grow and that will entail transformations in social uses. The message jumps out at you by just scratching the surface.

Although ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ is an action movie, and above all, what one takes away from the experience are the fight scenes in the bounty hunters’ canteen and in the Motorball stadium, which have that ability to leave you gasping in the same way that the mythical highway chase scene in ‘Matrix Reloaded‘ (2003) did, another hidden anime, this is also a film of and about love, between father and daughter, and between impossible lovers, which anticipates a debate on the sociology of the future.

As in ‘Her’ and ‘Ex Machina’, two films that confronted the idea of ​​the ‘uncanny valley’ in relation to advanced artificial intelligences – the feeling that the more they resemble us emotionally and physically, the scarier they become -, ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ raises issues such as affection between humans and intelligent machines, or even the ultimate nature of life in a strongly mechanized future. These are largely secondary themes to the main plot, overflowing with blood and dismemberment, but which are well structured in the development on the whole, as well as the eternal catastrophic fantasy of humanity dominated by a tyrannical power that must be defeated by a superior-type being who leads a war of resistance, stemming from the myth of Parsifal to ‘Matrix’, and from Orwell’s ‘1984’ to ‘The Hunger Games’. For an industrial consumer flick, it’s not too shabby.

The most interesting thing about ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ is the visual experimentation. The cyborgs may be burdensome – the villains are iron masses of a tangential anthropomorphism, unpleasant to the eye, but this gives them some interesting license in fight scenes – and the choice of Rosa Salazar in the main role was a great pick, because she actually looks like the original drawing and has that childish, fragile constitution that characterized the original robot, continuously challenges our idea of ​​the human face. In manga, we find big-eyed characters charming; it’ a cornerstone of the kawaii aesthetic, but when CGI increase the size of the eyeballs in an image that seems to be real, we are once again treading the floor of uncanny valley.

The original manga on which ‘Alita‘ is based was first published in 1990 by Yukito Kishiro under the title of ‘Gunnm’. With the series still in development and which would come to have nine initial volumes, and a second part a decade later, in 1993 an hour-long anime adaptation was made, in other words, two OVAs, two thirty-minute segments designed for direct commercialization on VHS, but that never premiered in the theatres. It did however become a cult classic at the time, slightly after the great impact of ‘Akira’, in which we experienced the boom period of anime in the West. Robert Rodríguez’s film largely follows the original aesthetic, the story comes to an end where the anime ended, thus concurring with the first two manga volumes, and he completes the plot with information and scenarios that only appeared in the comic, like the figure of Nova, the supreme leader of the flying city of Salem, past battles from which the warrior body of Alita emerges, and the brutal gladiator sport of Motorball. James Cameron’s team have already announced that there will be a second part, hoping that it can be confirmed as a profitable franchise.

And this announcement sends an important message. If done well – and so far it hasn’t been too bad, anime can enjoy a second coming in Hollywood in the form of real action adaptations. It is about respecting the aesthetic, the philosophical background and the vertigo of the action without looking like a hurried rip-off nor a piss-take. ‘Alita’, with all its warts and commercial bias, is nevertheless the example to follow, and more so now that there are other anime adaptations in progress: the ‘Cowboy Bebop’ series, the next version of ‘Your Name’ directed by Mark Webb, director of ‘500 Days of Summer’, from the most successful box office anime in Japanese history, and other projects that we will soon be hearing about. And on the horizon, the great test of fire, the mother of all challenges: will someone finally dare to stick their neck on the line with ‘Akira‘?

Javier Blánquez (Barcelona, 1975) is a journalist specialized in culture, editor and professor of the history of modern music.
He is a collaborator of different Spanish media -El Mundo, Time Out Barcelona, Beatburguer-, as well as the Barcelona publisher Alpha Decay, and has coordinated the collective book Loops. A history of electronic music (2002 and 2018), together with Omar Morera, for the publisher Reservoir Books.
In 2018 he also published, this time as author, the continuation, Loops 2. A history of electronic music in the 21st century.
As a result of his interest in classical music, which he has combined with electronic music for years, he also writes about opera in El Mundo and publlished in 2014 the essay Una invasión silenciosa. Cómo los autodidactas del pop han conquistado el espacio de la música clásica for the Capitán Swing publishing company.