Based on the manga by Kishiro Yukito, Battle Angel (or Gunnm as it is known in Japan) is the story of a girl named Gally who is found in a giant scrap heap. A benevolent cyberphysician, Ido, takes in her body and is shocked to see that she’s still alive. He revives her, only to learn she knows nothing about her past. However, in a moment of panic, Gally discovers that she has latent fighting abilities; in fact, she knows “Panzer Kunst,” an old and powerful fighting style that has since been lost. Gally reckons with her new identity and wants to become a Hunter-Warrior, but Ido vehemently opposes that idea. She also has to cope with her body, which is more metal than flesh, as she develops feelings of affection for a buy named Hugo.
The existential angst of Kishiro’s original manga is somewhat dumbed down in this two part OVA. It covers only the first two volumes (with modifications) of the manga, so many mysteries are left unaddressed. This adds a certain kind of allure, but it’s always frustrating when you watch a feature that leaves so many critical plot elements unexplained. It’s one of those scenarios that leaves those who have not read the manga confused, but is not particularly satisfying to those who have read it. If you can get past that, you can see that the story does have some flesh to it, despite the first part being typical sci-fi fare.
Gally discovers her fighting abilities, so a big mean monster has to be thrown at her. There are plenty of cyberpunk elements in the two episodes (especially the part concerning Hugo, which is a nice cyberpunk love story), but how it meshes together with the viewer is less than ideal. As we all know, cyberpunk is not the most accessible genre, and the feel of Battle Angel is a very detached one.
So the future is bad, but what is director Fukutomi saying about the present? Nothing, really. You get a sense of wandering into the bad part of town, but there’s no real struggle to survive. So life is rough in Scrap Iron City, but Fukutomi doesn’t present us with the how and why. The story is presented as is, and the whole production is akin to background noise. It just isn’t very engaging – there’s little build up to the climax, and the conclusion of the first part is ultimately cut short so the second episode can begin.
The second half suffers from some of the same problems as the first. There is just a general rush to cover the bullet points of the manga’s second volume, and doesn’t really offer any kind of closure. We don’t get to see the far-reaching consequences that Hugo will have on Gally – not entirely, at least. The idea of a love story taking place in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world is interesting, but it is directed here with such lack of care that it becomes uninvolving. It’s a shame that Battle Angel did not become an anime series, because so much of the missing plot elements resurface again and again in the manga, and are ultimately tied together. Unfortunately, this animated feature lacks that kind of coherence.
The characters are pulled from two volumes of (what would eventually become) a 9 volume series, and it shows. We don’t get a good sense of who Gally is. She has a good heart, doesn’t have memories of her past, and operates a lot on instinct. Her struggle with her own nature is not well depicted, although it should be a driving force behind her later interactions with Hugo.
Ido is far too generic as a good guy. He’s just good… and a guy. He has some ties with Salem, but very little exposition is devoted to him. Dr. Chiren is somewhat interesting. She is built on a shaky kind of morality, where her sense of right and wrong conflicts with her own desire to return to Salem. Ultimately, she ends up getting involved with the unsavory Mr. Vector. He is a generic villain type, driven by greed and also spoiled. In a sense, it works because he’s the corporate fat-cat that we all love to hate, but he doesn’t offer any particularly compelling antagonism beyond that.
Hugo is a little more rounded out. He has to balance a life of crime with an innocent looking facade, which he uses to deceive Gally. He also has the ambition to go to Salem, the mysterious city in the sky, and is driven by memories of his brother to do so. His own self conflicts come toward the end, where he has to reconcile his past misdeeds with Gally and a powerful, unnamed bounty hunter. In Hugo, at least, we get the sense that there is something we don’t want to lose.
The problem with these characters is that they lack the internalized complexity that the manga so ably expresses. This is mostly a side effect of the limited run time. We see them merely as animated beings who move around more or less robotically to fulfill the needs of a predetermined script; they never really come alive in their own right.
It’s really obvious that Battle Angel is a 1992 release. All of the hallmarks of the early 90’s style are there; sharp, angular faces, contrasting shading, emphasized lips, etc. The animation itself is done nicely, but there are no elaborately long fight sequences. The feel of Scrap Iron City is captured through bursts of color through darkness. The design isn’t very forbidding as it probably should be, but it sticks closely to Kishiro’s originals. The sound and music are nothing to write home about, and the voice actors do a decent job with their material.