|The Big O/The Big O II|
I grew up on big robots. From Battle of the Planets to Voltron, my childhood had them aplenty. And, of course, Robotech, the show that took transforming mecha to a whole new level, was the lynchpin to my anime addiction that now is seen weekly via this website. I also like film noir, the classic pulpy '30s detective stories that you imagine in black and white with a slow jazz combo in the background. The Big O is a fusion between the two, taking in these parts and shaking in a bit of the 1920s silent film Metropolis and the animated version of Batman for good measure. But all these great ingredients have somehow made a lousy stew. It has plenty of style, but The Big O has wound up being one of my biggest anime disappointments.
Roger Smith is a negotiator. He lives in Paradigm City, a strange domed world where everyone lost their memories 40 years ago. Though most people have adapted to their lives, the search for the reason behind the loss continues. With the help of his butler Norman, the mysterious android R. Dorothy, and his former police partner Dastun, he mediates between different parties who need his skills. And when things get out of control, he calls upon a robot that he somehow remembers how to pilot...Big O. But before long, his diplomatic skills play second fiddle to his abilities to stop Paradigm City's destruction at the hands of other giant robots called Megadeuces. His destiny may lead him to become the Dominus of Megadeuce (whatever the heck that means), but does he even believe in destiny without memories?
The development of The Big O was rocky, but it explains a great deal of my issues with the show. Though the show's creators planned for a 26-episode run, it was resized before broadcast to 13 episodes, which changed their whole approach. These first 13 episodes were completed and aired in Japan to a lukewarm response. However, Cartoon Network found it surprisingly popular when they aired it in America, and they commissioned and broadcast a second 13-episode season three years after the first season had gone off the air in Japan. (The second 13 episodes are often referred to as The Big O II, but it forms one whole story. I am reviewing them together as one work, but there are differences between the two seasons, enough that I have to occasionally discuss them separately.) Cartoon Network had the option to create 26 additional episodes but did not do so.
From the moment you start watching The Big O, you realize that you are not in a typical anime world. This isn't necessarily bad, but it does take some getting used to. The design resembles the Batman animated series with its strong angularity; everything looks slightly boxy. I don't think it looks wonderful, but it doesn't look cheap, at least. The show has a grungy color scheme, which keeps in line with the noir themes. Meanwhile, the score is all over the map, ranging from big orchestrated numbers for the fight scenes to more jazz tones during slower bits. The opening and closing themes are a waste, though. The show begins with a tune that is a direct ripoff of Queen's 1980 song "Flash Gordon," right down to the droning klaxon alarm and doubled guitars, and the ending is just pap.
There are three central problems with The Big O, errors that destroy the potential of what could have been a great show. The first is that it steals ideas from numerous, better sources. I mentioned the Queen theme and the Batman design scheme, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are bits from the James Bond films, The Truman Show, Dark City, Casablanca, and countless other films and anime. In nearly episode, you can find something else they've taken. I can understand the concept of homage, but how 'bout some originality, guys?
The second problem is that almost every episode (until the wacko conclusion) makes use of a deus ex machina in the form of Big O. Roger finds out too much, gets in trouble with the villains, and comes close to assuming room temperature when he calls Big O to help him. The robot appears from underground (but with no noise or warning, which is hard to explain for a 10-story-tall machine) and saves Roger's butt. And no matter what situation Roger finds himself in, his car/watch/Big O has just the means to get out of it, whether it be rocket launchers, lasers, or other equipment from out of nowhere. Granted, he's a wealthy guy, but I just couldn't buy it. Cats would pay Roger Smith for an extra couple of lives.
Much has been made of The Big O's crazy finale, but the show stops making sense long before Act 26. For starters, the whole premise makes no sense. Memories disappeared 40 years ago, but the main cast members aren't that old! For those in Paradigm City to have learned their trades (which somehow they still manage to know), they would all have to be 60+ years old. How do they know what they do know? Perhaps there was some subsequent event, but if there was, we don't know about it. Other explanations are hinted at but never fleshed out. There are logical inconsistencies everywhere, from the "impossible to hear until he's right beside you" Big O to the background stories of the ludicrous henchmen Roger faces. And there's lot of attempts to make a grander artistic statement -- certain religious iconography and faux Christian phraseology litters the landscape -- but they are window dressing that give us little insight into the overarching purposes of the program. The show is really a giant question mark.
What makes me so frustrated is that The Big O's sole legacy is its main characters. Roger Smith, R. Dorothy, and Norman are worth watching; their interactions often make up for the lack of direction. And to give it credit, the early episodes do wind up giving us a pretty good understanding of them. There are enough character moments in the first season to make it less than a total loss. However, the first season requires the second; in my mind, they cannot be separated. What worked in the first season is mostly absent in the second, though. I found it hard to get through the first season of episodes because there wasn't much plot, but I found it harder to get through The Big O II because the plot was a mess with little else to redeem it. Even the romantic sidebar, the only real relationship angle in season two, falls apart. I would have given The Big O (the first season) by itself a better grade, but the second season's inferior ending has irreconcilably pulled it down. And the reason was the abandonment of the characters. I genuinely grew fond of these unreal animated denizens of Paradigm City who deserved a lot better story than what they got.
I admit that I am in the minority with my opinion of The Big O. There are a few Internet boards out there dedicated to trying to unravel the mysteries of the show and its mindslap finale, and many people there seem to think this show is much deeper than I give it credit for. However, I'm of the opinion that you can debate the meaning of the show forever precisely because it has no meaning -- it completely depends on the viewer. The Big O had a lot going for it, and I must admit it has a few charms, but in the end, it felt like a waste. I've given higher ratings to shows that I didn't like as much, but I only spent an hour or two of my life watching them. For the 650 minutes of The Big O I watched, I should have gotten a lot more back in return.