Written by Richard Brown
Let’s play the connection game for a moment. What do Batman: The Animated Series, Giant Robo, and Serial Experiments Lain have in common? The answer is this anime, the Big O. But is it any good?
The Basic Plot
Paradigm City has amnesia. An unknown calamity 40 years ago took the memory of all its citizens and destroyed most of the world. In this world lives Roger Smith, a negotiator with the final word in strong-arm tactics, the giant robot accurately named The Big O. His success rate is perfect, but an odd kidnapping case leaves him with the android R. Dorothy Wayneright in his employ. However, this is only the start of things, as the forgotten past is beginning to manifest in dangerous ways.
The Big O is something of a curiosity, an example what can happen when two cultures intermingle. It is an anime series that largely failed in Japan, only to gain popularity in the West, sufficient popularity to resurrect it for a sequel. Back in the day, Sunrise worked on Batman the Animated Series, and this led to this anime, which includes staff from the Giant Robo OVA. As such, you half expect Batman to turn up, as Paradigm looks Gotham City after a war. However, I don’t want to over empathise or miss-sell the similarity, the Big O owes its feel to the Film Noir genre (old detective movies and pulp fiction), the same source and ancestor the Caped Crusader draws from. It’s basically a series of mysteries; wherein Roger is employed to investigate something by a client, only to find the situation is more complex than it appears. As you might expect, it can be a dark or somewhat sad series at times, but there is a sense of humour here. Roger is stylish and professional in most things, but Dorothy completely bypasses this, being immune to his charm. The interplay between the two is good comedy and the series produces the occasional moment of true awesome. So, yes, it looks a hell of a lot like Batman, but that’s not exactly a bad thing. The 1990’s animated series was a classic, and it’s very rare we get anything like that in anime, and Big O carves out its own identity with commendable speed. If you doubt this, wait until you see the Christmas episode.
As it stands, some 90% of a typical episode sees Roger investigating his latest contract, and this aspect works pretty well. The other 10% is when the Big O appears, and represents the most classically Japanese elements of the show. Contrasting with the with the general Film Noir feel, are the mecha aspects, that are actually rather colourful and distinct, and this where the Giant Robo similarities start to show through. The titular Big O is big, lumbering and physically powerful. Its massive forearms signal exactly what type of combat we see in this series, we simply don’t get the speed and grace of many other mecha creations, what get instead is lots in the way punching and grappling. Its definitely entertaining, but not without some problems. While fairly unique, the mecha scenes in some ways seem superficial and unnecessary. In at least three episodes, I felt that the robot wrestling was there because the creators felt some action was needed to placate the audience, not because the story required it. The concept of a gumshoe does not sit especially well with the concept of the “Megadues”, the animes slightly steampunk, slightly Shinto robots. This conflict is probably the reason why the series failed in Japan, with expectations for the anime being different in its homeland, whereas the West went “Woot! Batman with robots!” and didn’t notice this issue at first.
The Mystery of the Missing Plot
Now, what should have bridged this gap would have been the animes on-going plot. Unfortunately, the series was cancelled when a vast, vast majority of plot points were nowhere near resolution, when it was still episodic. It’s only at episode 13, that we get a real hint what’s going off, at which point the series finishes. Big O is not an especially complex or obtuse series, it’s just a lot of the stories tend towards mystery plots and foreshadowing for things that don’t happen. Yes, this is the point where I tie Lain into this review. The head writer Chiaki J. Konaka went on to write Lain, but I wouldn’t hold this against Big O. This is anime is, far, far, far easier to follow as is it not an exercise in mindscrew, although certain elements do seem similar to Lain, most notably the structure of episode 13. (The sequel, the Big O II, does actually go into mindscrew territory, which is beyond the scope of this review, but you may wish to bear that in mind before watching the original.) On a more fundamental level though, the series doesn’t feel quite “right” somehow, like there’s a few pieces missing. This can be blamed on the cancellation, and excused by the sequel, but at the end of the day that isn’t the problem. The Big O is an experiment, and it’s not a complete success.
The appeal of this series is twofold; it’s a mecha series that looks different and feels different. The western styled visuals and an attempt to merge two very different genres makes for a compelling series. Unfortunately it never lives up to its potential. At the end of the day, the series is episodic and incomplete, which is a shame because there are periodic flashes of genius.