Revisiting The Big O - 20 Years Later

by Matthew Roe,

Studio Sunrise is a name that even the most casual anime fans should be able to easily recognize. Founded by former members of Osamu Tezuka's Mushi Production in 1972, they took the medium in a different direction - stories by committee. With productions firmly in the hands of the producers, rather than the primary artists, the company was geared toward creating highly marketable anime for the sake of selling merchandise. Though the studio consists of many branches covering multitudes of genres, Sunrise has remained almost completely synonymous with mecha anime with their advent of Mobile Suit Gundam.

By the time 1996 had rolled around, Sunrise had cultivated a reputation as one of the most successful and ambitious studios working in anime. The massive output the studio was producing (and co-producing) each year is impressive by any standard, though people from all spheres will endlessly debate the sliding scale of quality throughout these productions. Though there were arguably as many failures as there were successes in this period, the collective atmosphere brought about by Gainax's Neon Genesis Evangelion the previous year was that of heavy experimentation and exploring new concepts. Producers were willing to take on risky ideas, and Keiichi Satō, a highly successful character and mecha designer, had one for consideration.

Satō would claim that the true origins for The Big O was a toy concept that had been rejected by Bandai, and after introducing his ideas to the series' future director Kazuyoshi Katayama, the idea evolved into a retro-themed anime with heavy homages to classic giant robot and tokusatsu properties. After a few more attempts, the story was greenlit by Sunrise, and Satō and Katayama were instructed to design more robots to increase the odds of positive toy sales. However, when everything seemed to be moving along at a brisk pace, the pair were split apart to work on seperate projects - Satō designed the characters and was Chief Animation Director for the 1997 television film City Hunter: Goodbye my Sweetheart, while Katayama directed the 1998 12-episode series Sentimental Journey based on the dating simulation series Sentimental Graffiti.

When the designs and central ideas for the series had been solidified, Chiaki J. Konaka was brought on as head writer in early 1999. Konaka arguably became the strongest influence on the tone of the series during this early period, as he and his staff bore the central themes for the narrative while they were outlining the potential 26-episode series. While the main production team focused on creating the anime, The Big O (like most Sunrise properties) was designed to be a multi-platform media franchise, resulting in a manga released alongside the show. Written and drawn by Hitoshi Ariga and serialized in Magazine Z, the manga is a completely separate story from the anime, which led to some eventual confusion upon the series' release, as the manga premiered three months before the show.

Both narratives are hallmarked by heavy film noir stylization and characterization, with many of the principle characters a variation of classic archetypes. However, these elements are magnified and warped through a 1960s super secret agent aesthetic reminiscent of James Bond and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. so our archetypes play out through fantastical villains and improbable high-tech doomsday shenanigans. Nevertheless, the most glaring influence on the characters and narrative was definitely Batman: The Animated Series, on which Sunrise had been a subcontractor for Warner Bros. Animation. From the cityscapes to even the character designs, some parts of the series are so close to their Batman influences that entire sequences from each show could be put side by side with little to distinguish them from one another. This can work equally to The Big O's benefit, as well as be a major detractor, and its efficacy is almost entirely dependent on individual taste.

The story takes place in Paradigm City, a metropolis best described as a towering monument to willful ignorance. To this end, Konaka designed it as an amnesiac city, an entire population who had lost their collective memories from before forty years ago, when a great cataclysm supposedly destroyed much of the known world. The city (which most likely is the remnants of Manhattan island) has evolved into a state of severe class inequity. In this swirl of foggy memories, domed preferential living, and bad dreams we have Roger Smith, our Bruce Wayne for the evening.

A former member of the military police, Smith is a super-wealthy playboy with a pension for snarky smart-mouthing and all-black attire. He makes his way amongst the city's elite and denisons as an odd yet effective negotiator, with an armored luxury car armed with rocket launchers. Prone to far more mistakes and traps than his Detective Comics counterpart, Smith is also aided by his faithful butler Norman Burg, the superpowered android R. Dorothy Wayneright, and his secret weapon - a massive piston-pumping robot, a megadeus called Big O. Often with aid from his former boss Dan Dastun, Smith takes on jobs that usually end up affecting the city as a whole, and push the main cast into discovering who they all really are, and to what had actually happened forty years prior.

The Big O premiered on October 13th, 1999, and quickly the outlined series was drastically reduced to a 13-episode run as it suffered from middling reviews and dwindling audience retention. Though the series was canned after its dismal native broadcast, it was exported to Western markets where American audiences (which included a much younger me) gave the series the success the creators needed. Eventually this newly garnered support persuaded Sunrise to partner with Cartoon Network and co-produce a sequel season in 2003. Also scripted by Konaka, the second batch of 13 episodes would also be greeted by lukewarm ratings and lackluster sales, halting any future animated developments in its tracks.

The first season is highly episodic and plays like a villain or creature of the week, with almost every individual plot involving breaking through the city's collective amnesia and discovering who and what they are. Throughout this journey we encounter femme fatales, bank heists, conspiracies, corporate tyranny, and how everything isn't quite as simple as it seems. By the end of the season we are introduced to the plot devices that help propel the second season down its path, though each one of these elements are shoved so haphazardly into the final episode in so much haste, that it's a miracle if you can determine what exactly is going on. The second season focuses into a single story arc with the CEO of the ruling Paradigm Corporation, Alex Rosewater, becoming the narrative's main antagonist, with a more serious dive into the series' core themes.

When viewing this complete series in the full context of its staggered releases and receptions, it honestly remains today just as mixed a bag as it was when it first premiered. The stylization of the characters, megadeuses, and cityscapes are downright impressive, and possess a deeply fascinating ominous atmosphere, even in the more zany segments. These designs are buttressed by a beautiful musical score by Toshihiko Sahashi, which honestly remains the best he has ever produced (yes, I'm including Hunter x Hunter and Gunslinger Girl). The mecha fights are overflowing with eye-candy animation and striking color palettes, as visually impressive as ever, easily getting a hyped rise out of any fans of the genre.

However, the series has so many homages to earlier and then-contemporary series, films, and tropes that it sometimes bogs down the narrative for the sake of another rib-nudge by the filmmakers. Until the second season, when a bridge between some of the previous ideas start to take shape, the series meanders down an aimless path with very little interesting characters to keep us going. As much as I love how the main trio of characters interact, our protagonist Smith is the dullest and the least seemingly motivated of all of the characters, and almost actively refuses to engage in a dynamic character arc. Events in the latter half of the series do push a few changes in Smith, but considering the earth-shattering revelations exposed in those later episodes, the character should have evolved far more demonstratively than he did. I know he is supposed to represent the unwavering cool of old school noir protagonists played by the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum, but most of the characters that those actors played still had fully realized arcs, and even less screen time to realize them.

This is where The Big O went from being a borderline masterpiece series to an entertainingly disappointing ride. While its designs, fight animation, and music remain amazing, the actual story and our protagonist takes such a backseat to the visuals, that this doesn't even equate to “style over substance” - this is the classic Sunrise attitude “merchandise over style.” We have a sleek product to sell other sleek products, and unlike Gundam, The Big O (surprisingly) doesn't take nearly as many risks with their material that they had the capabilities and license to utilize. While still a striking innovation in late 90s anime, especially in the mecha genre, and still a fun nostalgic sit, The Big O does not hold water nearly as well as I wished it did.

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