Anime Review from the Vault: The Big O

(Posted to my Facebook page on May 20, 2015)

“CAST IN THE NAME OF GOD. YE NOT GUILTY.” – Big O

The Big O is an anime that has been on my radar (of sorts) for a very, very, VERY long time. How long? Well, I remember seeing commercials for this show during Toonami, as it was set to air on Adult Swim after Toonami. Of course, being a kid I was not allowed to watch Adult Swim and it was past my bedtime, blah blah blah. Well, since I’ve been trying my best to really reeducate myself with anime (Both new and old. Seriously, in the past few months I’ve burned through like three or four different animes and that’s a lot for me) and this one came to mind. Another big reason is that my favorite voice actor, Steve Blum, plays the main character, so I had to give it a watch.

The Big O centers around Roger Smith, the top negotiator in Paradigm City. As he puts it, Paradigm City is a city of amnesia, as no one in the city has memories from before 40 years ago. One day, everyone (including the androids who also populate the city) simply lost all their memories. Life continued to go on, however, as people still retained enough vague memories of what skills they had in their previous life, language skills ect. to continue to function as a society.
Roger himself has memories that allow him to pilot a massive, powerful robot called “Big O”, a type of robot called a “Megadeus.” Despite also sounding like something that happens after a week of eating nothing but Taco Bell, these machines are somewhat a mystery themselves and hold more power than all of the police or military in the city.
(This next paragraph has some spoilers for episode 1. It’s a bit of an extended plot summary. If you don’t want these spoilers, just skip this next paragraph.)
On the first assignment of the series, Roger has to negotiate the rescue of Dorothy Wayneright, daughter of a famous doctor in the city. The negotiations seem to go well, but the doctor insists that Roger gave the ransom not for his daughter, but for an Android. It’s later revealed that the real Dorothy Wayneright is actually dead, and the android was constructed by her father, who dies later in the episode. Dorothy eventually takes up a position as a “maid” for Roger, working alongside his butler Norman Burg.

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s talk quality here. The animation is crisp and has sort of a noir-style that is complimented well with some excellent jazz tracks. Honestly, the animation and the style of the anime itself draws from a lot of different sources, but those which immediately are apparent are James Bond, Batman, and Cowboy Bebop (This one especially, sharing two voice actors with it!). So, that’s basically what we’re working with: Batman with a giant robot. How can it go wrong? Well, it kind of does, and it’s not easy to put my finger on why exactly it kind of fails. Well, “Fails” is a strong word. This is not a bad anime, but it was a struggle to get through some episodes, and it was frequently either unengaging or flat out boring.
The anime is split into two 13-episode seasons. The first season is a sort of episodic season, each episode mostly disconnected from the others and simply focusing on individual cases that Roger picks up. The second season is much more connected, focusing on solving some of the mysteries of what the Megadeus’s are, why everyone is missing their memories, Dorothy’s significance and other confusing crap that I ultimately failed to follow.
The reason that this show struggles to keep me engaged is that it has a very, very inconsistent tone. The beginning of each episode (At least in season 1) plays out something like a drama or a comedy, the middle features more of a noir-style mystery show or even some mild horror elements, but the end always, repeat: ALWAYS devolves into a giant robot fight. Big O just seems so out of place here that it’s almost laughable when the creators try to find a way to crowbar in a giant robot or a monster for Big O to fight by the end. The fights are cool, well animated and all, but I just find myself scratching my head and saying something like “Weren’t we investigating a kidnapping five minutes ago?” This show needed to decide if it was going to be noir-style mystery or a mech-combat anime, and it decided to take a half-measure, hurting it greatly.

The main cast of characters is one of the stronger elements of this show. As mentioned, Roger seems to share some traits with Spike Spiegel, Bruce Wayne, and James Bond which makes him a pretty slick character (At times). Dorothy is robotic and emotionless, but she is an android, so it fits. As she attempts to rekindle her human side and form a deeper relationship with Roger, it can almost get touching and tragic how the two seem to care for one another but can never really be together because of the whole android problem (For those quick to try and point out how it worked out between Krillin and Android 18, 18’s name was a misnomer and she was actually a Cyborg. Also, Krillin is still to this day fist-pumping about that). Norman is less of a Alfred and more of a Lucius (The Morgan Freeman character, for those who forgot his name and just started calling him Morgan Freeman like everyone else). He maintains Big O, he makes good jokes and in a pinch can help the hero out, but he’s just as supporting of a character as he needs to be. There’s also another girl named Angel (Voiced by Wendee Lee, another of my favorite voice actors who I swear is in every show where Steve Blum plays a lead role), shrouded in mystery and ends up playing a central point of the plot (And a stupid ending, which I’ll talk a little bit about later). Then there’s Dan, a cop who used to work with Roger when he was on the force. He’s the by-the-books good cop who is always trying to catch the bad guy. He just sort of serves as a foil for Roger and a way to explain certain parts of each episode, but since the police force in the city more or less accounts for nothing when a giant robot shows up, I did get a decent chuckle when Dan brought up the fact that the police is pretty much useless in those situations. Actually, it ended up being a bit of a sticking point for him and helped to strengthen his resolve in the end to help in any way he could, even if it meant putting his life on the line. Honestly, he was a pretty great character and I wish we had more episodes featuring him primarily (There was only like, one).
Additionally, there were some really forgettable villains. Seriously, they’re pretty much just a bunch of Batman villains but not nearly as well written. Also a dude who’s Lex Luthor but not nearly as well written. Sigh.

And now the story… god, the story. I’m not sure how The Big O manages it, but it can be both childishly simple and epicly complex at the same time. On one level, it has the episodic structure, which you think would be simple enough to follow since it has to keep each story short and concise, with Roger taking a job, following leads and finding out what he needs to complete his job. However, like I said, the fucking robot complicates things because the writers need to find a way in EVERY EPISODE to find a reason for Big O to fight a robot or a monster. This leads to very convoluted stories and doesn’t allow us to focus on the characters or the mystery as much as they should. It’s the equivalent of picking a lock, getting half of the tumbler open and then smashing the door open with a sledgehammer anyways. Both subtle and over-the-top at the same time… I’m sorry Big O, but you can’t have it both ways! I really would have liked it if they had an episode or two where the robot could stay home and we could have a legitimate mystery episode, but that never really gets to happen, unfortunately. It killed the tone every time and held almost every single episode back.
We also get into great positions in the show when it becomes “Hey, remember me? The villain from episode 4?” and I get to say “Yeah! Hey, it’s you… you… old dog you! How could I forget that time when you… uh, kidnapped the android girl? Attacked the city? Stole some memories? Am I getting warm?” Yeah, like I said, the story has a hard time keeping you engaged and the villains aren’t very memorable, which makes it all the worse when the show starts calling back to these old villains. And like I said, this is a short anime, and the fact that I’m forgetting these guys in a couple of episodes whereas I can remember every single villain in Fairy Tail 80 episodes later in detail says something about how engaging the show really is.
Season 2 gets a little better because, as a more continuous story, it becomes a little easier to follow what’s going on and it does a bit of a better job of following the characters… until the ending, of course, which is convoluted, vague, confusing, and worst of all, fails to make me care about anything that happened up to that point. I got legitimately excited in the last few episodes because I felt that they were building up to something huge that would blow the whole series open, make me reevaluate everything and enjoy the series a lot more, but what happened was having my disappointment utterly solidified.
There are also a lot of weird… I don’t want to say plot holes, but they’re elements that we never explained very well. For example, in the first few episodes it was implied that Dan doesn’t know that that Roger is the pilot of Big O, and that it’s sort of a secret identity for him. Then, about halfway through season 2, Dan seems to know that it’s Roger without any sort of “Revelation” episode where he figures it out. I thought that would cause some huge tension between these characters, since Roger is a former cop and current vigilante and Dan is the hard-nosed cop, but they just sort of glance over it. Maybe Dan knew from the beginning, but if he did, the show did a horrible job of conveying it. Another example of potential for great conflict that fell right on its face.
Like I said, pretty much ever way this story ended left me confused and not sure exactly what happened/what the writer wanted me to think happened/why I should care/what the point was. A shame, because this anime had some real potential; I wanted to like it, but it made that a lot harder that it should have been.

In the end, The Big O couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. There were chances for some really strong stories here, be it focusing on the mech-fighting aspect, the mysteries, or the characters, but the writers could never figure out exactly what they wanted it to be, and it ended up as a jumbled mess.
I’ll be honest, when I was right around episode 20, I was ready to give the anime a 3; boring but average, with enough cool fights, music, (main) characters, and animation to keep you entertained, but that crummy ending after all the mysterious buildup just really killed that possibility. Worst of all, I cannot stress enough how much of an effort it was to sit through this anime. I just wasn’t enjoying it most of the time and unfortunately, that’s one of the most damning things I can say about an anime. Cast in the name of God. Ye not good.

I give The Big O a 2 out of 5.

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