WARNING: SPOILERS WITHIN
GUNNM, or Battle Angel Alita, is a 1993 two-episode OAV based on Yukito Kishiro’s manga of the same name. This OAV more-or-less covers the first two volumes of the manga. I recently re-watched it for the first time in over a decade, and I like it way more now than as a teenager. The production values aren’t quite as high-quality as its notable cyberpunk contemporaries, but the story and characters hold up and the action is well animated.
Though GUNNM functions well enough as a sci-fi actioner, I think there’s more going on there than the engaging hand-to-hand combat sequences. In fact, I want to make the case that it can also be viewed as a kind of existentialist myth. By “myth” I simply mean a traditional story that serves to convey an ideology through narrative, in this case a visual narrative. Also, I realize that existentialism is quite a sweeping term that encompasses many paradigms of thought; I draw my understanding of these ideas from, in the main, two figures: Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky.
Suggested Soundtrack for Reading – The Killing Joke “Nervous System”
I feel like GUNNM so well crystallizes certain foundational elements of existentialism that it almost strikes me as visual metaphor. However, despite this fact, I don’t think the show is wholly analogical. Therefore, I think I’ll just stick with the term “myth.”
When watching GUNNM, the first couple of things that hit you are (a) the setting and (b) the cyborgs. The entirety of the show takes place in the aptly named Scrap Iron City, a grimy, junky sprawling urban landscape which also happens to serve as the dumping ground for the garbage of the floating city of Zalem. There is no detectable rationale underlying why some people live “in heaven” while others are relegated to “earth.” The dichotomy between Zalem and Scrap Iron City (as well as the violent, unpredictable nature of the city) reflects what existentialists refer to as “the Absurd,” or the unjust, irrational nature of the world.
The concept of the Absurd is most clearly illustrated by Ivan Karamozov from Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamozov. In a chapter entitled, “Rebellion,” Ivan presents his case for atheism, a case whose most poignant point is a reading of (actual, non-made-up) newspaper clippings detailing stories of the suffering and death of innocent children. A world that contains such unjust tragedy is the epitome of absurdity.
As stated above, the second feature of GUNNM the viewer will immediately take note of is that nearly every character is cybernetically enhanced, either in whole or in part. This aspect of the setting indirectly lends support to the existentialist conception of human beings, namely that each of us is defined by her existence and all that entails, rather than by a preconceived essence. The presence of cyborgs seems like a living counter-example to traditional notions of the essence of man as a rational creature with both a body and a soul. This alone is not a positive argument for the existentialist thesis; however, it does position it as an attractive, rational alternative to a now-suspect, traditional theory.
Though these elements of GUNNM are what you first get acquainted with, by themselves they aren’t clear allusions to existentialist philosophy. They could just as easily be interpreted to fit into some other paradigm. It is only in light of the main narrative thrust of the second episode that the purpose of the aforementioned elements becomes unambiguous. The character arc of Yugo turns Battle Angel from cyberpunk tragedy with possible existentialist sympathies to, really, a prototypical existentialist story.
For those who don’t know, Yugo is the mechanic for Dr. Ido’s home. He unintentionally, though not to his dislike, gains the affection of the protagonist, Alita, reconstructed cyborg amnesiac. Ultimately, however, Yugo has his gaze fixed on Zalem rather than Alita. He believes that his life will only attain meaning if he can live in Zalem. In a way, Yugo is right: humanity deserves more dignity than life in Scrap Iron City can offer. The reality for Yugo, however, is that neither he nor anyone else can actually earn passage into the floating city. When he realizes this, Yugo is crushed and makes one last desperate attempt to get into Zalem, and this costs him his life.
Existentialist philosophy tells us that for so long, human beings mistakenly sought meaning and validation for their lives in something beyond existence, something transcendent. Ironically, this sort of thing can be grasped but only within existence (think about the idea behind the phrase, “This moment will live on forever in my heart”). Yugo seeks the meaning of his existence, his life in Scrap Iron City to this point, in the transcendent, the floating city of Zalem that lies beyond Scrap Iron. He gives everything to this ideal, and he is ultimately crushed by that.
The truly sad part of Yugo’s story is that there is a way for him to be saved, but he realizes it too late. Some strands of existentialism teach that through a love relationship to the Other (another self) one can grab hold of something like the transcendent, like the eternal within time. One person exists in Yugo’s life that truly cares about him and wants his happiness: Alita. She falls in love with Yugo and puts his dream of going to Zalem ahead of her own happiness (which involves the two of them starting a life together).
Upon learning that Yugo cannot actually get into Zalem, Alita, in a moment of raw openness, reiterates her love for him and offers him a chance to live his life with her. He doesn’t realize until his final moments that this would actually make him happy. Perhaps he was saved in the end, when he embraced the love of the Other (Alita) and reciprocated? I’m not sure Alita was so lucky. The manga tells us that her soul is plunged into a dark place after Yugo’s death. Such alienation is also a hallmark of existentialist thought.
One of the major criticisms of the GUNNM OAV is that it just ends when there is obviously more of the story to tell. While the manga certainly satiates the need for more Battle Angel, the OAV serves a valuable purpose all on its own.
3 thoughts on “Battle Angel Alita as an Existentialist Myth”
I always find existentialist stories interesting, even though I don’t particularly agree with the philosophy. I also thought that Shakugan no Shana had some atheistic existentialism running through it. I shall remember to give this anime a shot though I had formerly paid it no mind.
And that’s some great background music!
I actually find bits of existentialist thought laced through a lot of anime series. It became very popular in Europe after WWII, and perhaps Japan picked it up during this time? GUNNM just stood out to me as a story hitting so many of these themes and ideas bang on.
As a medievalist, I’m sure you’d find a lot to disagree with in existentialist thought. I’m not sure I’d call myself an out-and-out existentialist, but I do believe that there is a lot of merit in many ideas of the philosophy. It certainly helps that its conceptual lexicon is so modern.
I love the Killing Joke! Glad you dug the song. First comment I’ve gotten on my BGM features. Thanks for listening (and, of course, for reading!).
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