The Big O is a Big Hit

After writing for the cult classic, Serial Experiments Lain, Chiaki J. Konaka took to scripting The Big O, a 26-episode mecha series for the premier studio of mecha anime, Sunrise. However, given Konaka’s now-revered talent of writing bizarre, psychological dramas, this show was anything but ordinary.

Over the years I have come to know it as a stylistic blend of art deco film noir and sci-fi mecha. It took clear inspiration from Batman: The Animated Series, with the original concept by Keiichi Sato likening the setting to Gotham. After the original 13 episodes, however, the show was canceled, or, more accurately, it was given a shortened season by producers.

And then it aired on Toonami in 2001.

The international reception alone pushed Cartoon Network to co-produce The Big O‘s final 13 episodes. The demands of western producers were limited. Sunrise was still animating it and Konaka was still writing with seemingly as little restraint as possible, so long as he added more action and was more forthcoming with the mystery plot.

This is yet another cult classic I have been meaning to watch for a while, considering it seems to be right up my alley. Whether it be allusions to film, or it’s stylistic similarities to my childhood obsession Batman, this review was bound to happen. And yet, I can’t honestly say I was prepared for what I was in for.

I had heard that Chiaki J. Konaka was an odd writer. I’ve had friends recommending Serial Experiments Lain for years for how it predicted the rise of internet culture so ominously. Furthermore, I’ve put off watching Texhnolyze because it looks so disturbing. The Big O is a lot more approachable at the offset to those not expecting anything else.

Paradigm City. The city of amnesia. It’s been forty years since a cataclysm destroyed the world and erased humanity’s memories of what came before. Some live in the domed cities while the less fortunate live outside the walls. In this city of amnesia, brimming with all kinds of mysterious shadows of the old world, Roger Smith performs a much-needed task. He is a negotiator.

After a botched job, he finds himself in the care of R. Dorothy Wayneright, a female android. Together with Roger’s armed butler and mechanic Norman Burg, the three of them take on mysteries in Paradigm, uncovering its secrets, and oftentimes discovering large mechanical behemoths in the process. At these times, Roger relies on his most valuable weapon: the mech known as Big O.

Through his work, Roger finds himself at odds with the Paradigm group, the government of Paradigm city, whose leader has plans to use the technology of the old world to become the god of the new one. Despite this, Roger finds himself working alongside them as often as he works against them.

Much of the mystery throughout this show is the question: what is Paradigm city? Why does it exist? What came before it? And the first half of the series doesn’t do much to answer this question. Much of the beginning of the show is an episodic mystery/monster of the week. Major characters are introduced and plenty of side-characters as well, but there isn’t much of a throughline plot.

At the earliest is where the show can feel jumbled. The concept of combining mystery elements with a mecha show is certainly unique, but early adventures feel like two different stories stitched together. There will be the skeleton of a mystery plot and then the resolution happens through a giant robot fight.

The result is a start that feels formulaic. I would compare it to Star Driver, another show which felt similar at the beginning. However, while Star Driver‘s story built up to these action scenes as the payoff to episode-long introductions to the villains, Big O‘s action feels like an expedited resolution to a more fascinating setup.

All that considered, the action is well-animated and the mechanical design looks awesome. However, I don’t think the action carries a lot of weight until the end of season one when tensions are higher and the use of Big O’s abilities gets more clever. It helps when the antagonists are more active members of the mystery plot. Antagonists like Beck and Schwarzwald are not only well designed but highly memorable villains.

Season two immediately struck me as more forthright in engrossing the viewer in the mystery. It’s much less episodic. Whereas many of season one’s episodes ended with an end slide reading “No Side,” almost every episode in the final half ends with “To Be Continued.” The world begins to expand rapidly and simultaneously deconstruct.

All of that is to say that the story gets a lot more interesting as the mystery plot takes on a more prominent presence, even if it doesn’t explain a lot right away. Additionally, the action improved, either because of that very reason or because I got used to the juxtaposition (could be both, to be honest). The choreography and direction of the fights were more exciting and Big O’s abilities and arsenal expanded gradually.

The Big O is a story about memories: what they mean, how they define us, and how they give meaning to our lives. Similarly, the motif of memories is used to raise questions about the interior logic of the show. In the first episodes, the mechanics behind how Roger can get Big O to wherever he needs it is explained just enough that they never had to explain it again. However, other logistical questions are all are addressed head-on in the show. For instance, how are Roger and Norman able to maintain this large robot?

The story asks why the characters find themselves in their current roles. Did they choose those roles or were they assigned to them? More importantly, does that even matter? A lot of thought is given to how important memories are in shaping who a person is, and the cast grapples with what to think of themselves without memories of who they were and what the world truly is.

Roger Smith, voiced by Steve Blum

Roger is a smooth-talking negotiator who takes pride in exerting a certain level of control over his life. However, he continually finds himself in contention with forces pushing him closer to the truth of the world. For much of the story, Roger rejects that pursuit of truth out of fear, resolving to stop others from causing harm in pursuit of it.

On the other side of the spectrum is Angel, who actively seeks memories, in whatever abstract and vague form they may exist in this world. Both her and Roger question the unknown, but whereas Angel despairs at her lack of identity, Roger finds resolve in that uncertainty and helps her in return. She’s the femme fatale to Roger, but also relatable for how she reacts to the existential.

What snippets of the “truth” that are hinted at throughout the show imply cloning, experimentation, brainwashing, etc. These motifs fuel very bizarre stories of self-reflection that rarely have a clear explanation by the end. It’s what the characters take away from the episodes that make them memorable.

Dan Dastun, voiced by Peter Lurie

Dan Dastun is the honor-bound chief of the military police who, for a while, never struck me as very memorable up until season two. He questions his role as well, albeit more for how ineffectual he feels compared to the main character who’s always kicking ass in a big mech. His introspection leads him down a path of self-actualization that endeared him to me quite a bit. He also hands-down describes the show the best.

This city is like a stage. And we’re actors who have been placed on that stage. Actors who aren’t even told what the plot is and what’s gonna happen next.

– Dan Dastun, The Big O episode 21

It would be a crime to not mention Dorothy. As a machine, she isn’t bothered by the same existential worries that plague the rest of the cast, at least not in a way that registers visually. One of my favorite character types is “robot who becomes human.” It’s a simple character type that has been done to death but nevertheless entertains me. She also clearly finds an identity and drive despite lacking a human heart, something which makes her quite significant in a world of such existential retrospection.

R. Dorothy Wayneright, voiced by Lia Sargent

After gushing about Diebuster‘s ending last week, it feels like I’m being spoiled with good conclusions. The finale of The Big O is brilliant. As the tension builds to the final battle, the curtain is peeled back just enough to paralyze you with the unspoken implications of the world. I would equate it to the ending of Evangelion in how despite the abstraction, it is rather direct about what the ending is trying to say.

The Big O is a story about human nature and how we grapple with the unknown to decide for ourselves what life means to us. It may have been slow going at first, but by the end, I was astonished at how invested I became. Truly a classic that deserves far more praise for the ending alone than the casual praise I have heard for it in passing all these years.

The Big O is available for legal streaming through HiDive and VRV, though bafflingly, only the first 13 episodes are available, which is a raw deal if you ask me. Thankfully, Sentai Filmworks has licensed both seasons on Blu-Ray.

The English Dub is preferred, namely for performances by Cowboy Bebop alums Steve Blum and Wendee Lee who voice Roger and Angel respectively. Ultimately, this show screamed Toonami hard enough that I couldn’t forgo experiencing it the same way it aired in the west. The performances were all-around solid.

What are your thoughts on The Big O? Have I convinced you to give it a watch? Did my review bring back some fond memories? Leave a comment and let me know. While you’re at it, tell me what shows you were surprised to enjoy as much as you did.

Thank you very much for reading and as always, I’ll see you next time!

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