Anime Review: The Big O
It all started with giant robots. Transformers, Voltron, Tranzor Z. The mornings and afternoons of my childhood were dominated by giant robots…and I loved it. Then, eventually, they faded away from regular programming on TV, tastes moving on to other things. But my love of giant robots, while suppressed at times (you find out in middle and high school that girls really aren’t drawn to guys that like giant robots apparently…or at least in rural Northeast Ohio anyway), never went away. In my teens, I’d find out that two of those 3 giant robot shows originated in Japan…and they were still making them! Not necessarily those shows, mind you, but animation with giant robots…and animation with more mature subject matter (featuring the two things that most teenage boys look for…ultra-violence and boobs). New words like Patlabor, Macross, and Akira infiltrated my consciousness. And so began my decent down the rabbit hole.
But in later years, the anime bubble burst. Or maybe something in me changed. Or maybe, with the advent of CGI effects in movies, maybe giant robots have moved on to the big screen. I dunno. What I do know is that the giant robot animation I love is becoming harder and harder to find.
Before you begin to think this is an opinion piece, no, it isn’t. I just wanted to give you some background before I go into a review for one of my favorite anime series. But even it is aged. With the first season produced back in 1999-2000 and a highly unlikely second season in 2003 (I’ll explain that later), the Big O hits all the right beats: great characters and character design, a story that has as many layers as you care to peel back and, of course, giant robots. One point that certainly needs to be highlighted though, these giant robots don’t have the design aspects one would typically expect. There’s a bit of steampunk and art deco thrown into the designs, making them different from designs you typically see and really stand out.
“My name is Roger Smith. I perform a much needed job here in the city of amnesia…” Nearly every episode starts with this statement or a variation thereof. Our main character, the aforementioned Roger Smith, is a Negotiator in Paradigm City, where the rich live under sheltered “Domes” while the less fortunate are left to brave the elements. You see, something apocalyptic happened 40 years ago, destroying the world outside the Domes…but no one can remember. No one knows what happened to make their world this way and thus, the most expensive, unpredictable and sought after commodity are memories and memory fragments. This presents us with our first layer…or, depending on how look at it, potential stumbling point, in the overarching plot. Are the memories somehow material? Maybe books, plans and so forth? Or is it something larger, more immaterial? That’s something for you, the viewer, to sort out for yourself (a reviewer’s cheap way of saying “I have absolutely no idea and completely confused about it!”). So while the memories are gone, the remains of the old world remain intact, hence the Domes, electricity, cars…oh, yeah, and the Megadeuses (or...GIANT ROBOTS!). Roger pilots the Big O, a black and red Megadeus…that has at least a rudimentary artificial intelligence (or is it more advanced??? That’s explored in the series!). Roger’s supporting cast includes his faithful butler Norman, the droll R. Dorothy Wayneright and the mysterious Angel. Roger is a mix of Bruce Wayne and James Bond, gadgets, style and a “secret identity” as the pilot of the Big O. The parallels between Alfred and Norman are obvious…though Norman is not as snarky as Alfred can be. Angel is the archetypal “femme fatale” of film noir, bouncing back and forth from light to dark, whichever suits her end objectives. And Dorothy? Well…Dorothy is an android…and yet, maybe something more.
The design of the series is a fantastic mix of art deco and film noir elements. What grabbed my attention about it, visually, is that it looked like Bruce Timm’s DC animated universe (and, lo and behold, was indeed one of the influences on the series or so the wiki tells me…in particular Batman the Animated Series) run through an anime filter. It still looks anime, but it doesn’t have the tropes typically associated with it such as the overly large eyes. And the lines are very simple, again, much like Timm’s style…sometimes a little too simple as some of the characters could’ve benefited from just a touch more detail.
With all the themes and design choices mentioned above, well, there’s no shortage of influences, and that goes for the music too. The score bounces around from bombastic for the robot fights, tense for the drama, chipper for the more light-hearted or comedic elements, but what grabbed me most was the haunting piano and saxophone that again invoke that film noir feeling. I guess you could almost consider it Roger’s theme. Speaking of themes, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the opening, which is…shall we say…VERY heavily “inspired” by Queen’s theme for Flash Gordon. Listening to it, one can hear Groundskeeper Willie from the Simpsons “SHHH! Quiet lad! Do you want to get SUED?!?” Yeah, it’s about that blatant. Still, I have to confess that like the Queen song, every time I hear it, I can’t help but smile and start tapping a foot.
So, I owe you an explanation about the second season. When the first 13 episodes of the Big O aired, both in Japan and on Cartoon Network here in the States, well, the final episode ended on one hell of a cliffhanger: hints of genetic engineering, the possibility that someone DID know what happened 40 years ago and that perhaps not ALL life outside Paradigm City had been destroyed…as THREE foreign Megadeuses were marching to attack the City, with only Roger Smith, R. Dorothy and Big O between them.
And now we cut to live feed of my reaction when that “To Be Continued…” came up...
You see, what happened was, quite simply, the show had been cancelled after the first season. It just didn’t perform well in Japan…you know, the home market. However, thanks to the Cartoon Network airings, it was popular outside that home market! And, because this was back when Cartoon Network didn’t suck (that’s a rant for another day), they pitched in to help finance a second season to complete the story.
And there was much rejoicing.
Speaking of that second season, well, I’m sure much has been made of how the story tried to add too much; Angel’s backstory, the Union, what’s happening both above and below Paradigm City and so on. But I stand by what I said above, the story is as deep or as shallow as you choose to make it. And yes, it has the almost-seemingly-standard “really really fucked up” anime series finale. As a reviewer, I’m sure I’m supposed to tell you what it meant to me and what it should mean to you and all that stuff…but honestly? I have no fucking idea. Not a clue.
So…even though the anime bubble has burst, and finding it now might be more than just a little bit difficult, I’d still highly recommend checking it out. From its style, sound and visuals, it’s just a joy to behold. What keeps you interested and watching is the interplay of the characters and the ever-looming mystery of just what happened, all those 40 years ago?
BIG O! IT’S SHOWTIME!!!