Shelf Life The Big O
by Paul Jensen, James Beckett,
You've probably already heard about the technical troubles we've had on the site lately. One side effect is that any Shelf Obsessed submissions that were sent to the Shelf Life email address over the past few days won't reach me. If you're thinking of sending in photos of your collection, please hold off until everything's working normally again. In the meantime, let's take a look at this week's releases. Welcome to Shelf Life.
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The Big O
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Shelf Life Reviews
James takes a look at a returning favorite from the early Toonami days this week with the recent Blu-Ray release of The Big O.
The younger readers of this column may not remember this, but back when Toonami aired before the ungodly post-midnight hours and was primarily aimed at the after-school crowd, The Big O was a pretty big deal. Notably, it was popular enough in the states that Cartoon Network even stepped in to help co-finance a second season in 2003 when the Japanese audiences didn't quite take to the first one. It's not too hard to see why it was such a hit in the States at first, too: the stark, gothic designs of Paradigm City look like something out of Bruce Timm's Batman: The Animated Series, and Roger Smith was also something of a dead ringer for many of our favorite comic-book heroes. He had a square-jaw, a sleek sense of style, not to mention a boatload of money and a faithful butler. The giant robot and kaiju battles retained the show's culturally Japanese spirit, but from the start The Big O was destined to be a crossover hit for the early 2000s anime fandom. While the second season didn't grab audiences the way the first did, The Big O has remained a fond memory of many people who grew up in the Toonami Era, myself included. Now that Sentai has finally managed to work out the show's complicated copyright issues and release a proper Blu-Ray collection of all 26 episodes of The Big O, the only question left to ask is whether or not it holds up almost twenty years later.
I'm very happy to say that it does, for the most part at least. It's definitely a product of its time, and the old-fashioned art style and rough animation might not appeal to all of this generation of anime lovers. Still, this is a stylish, confidently produced, and quite satisfying blend of Hollywood noir and the best aspects of old mecha and kaiju series. People might be more familiar these days with series director Kazuyoshi Katayama's work on King of Thorn, but for my money this remains the best project he's worked on to date. From episode one to the finale of the second season, Katayama and his crew know exactly what kind of story they want to tell, which gives The Big O a sense of personality and identity that I personally find lacking in a lot of the more modern mecha series. It's no coincidence, by the way, that the show bears such a resemblance to the aforementioned Batman cartoon, since many of the crew at Sunrise studio helped produce that series back in the early 90s.
Despite the obvious influences of DC Comics' most famous hero, though, The Big O is very much doing its own thing. The first season is focused primarily on telling vaguely interconnected standalone tales, and while Roger and Dorothy get bits of character development here and there, most of the plot's heavy lifting is done in the heavily serialized second season. This is where Roger takes an active role in solving the mysteries of Paradigm City, and things get much more heady and abstract from there. While I can see how this left turn into hard-science fiction and more identifiably “anime” tropes might have alienated some of the show's fans, the second season is my personal favorite. Despite being cut short due to low ratings, it manages to deliver a complex and satisfying arc with a satisfying ending, stumbling only once or twice along the way. While I'd be the first one clamoring for a slickly animated reboot of the series, the story we get here is great just as it is. It's a little messy and perhaps a bit overly ambitious, but nothing ever goes off the rails enough to ruin the show completely.
The production values may be lacking in modern technological niceties, but The Big O uses its direction and generally gorgeous aesthetic to make up for the dated animation. The backgrounds of Paradigm City are uniformly dazzling, and the character designs manage to be memorable while remaining fairly simplistic. Composer Toshihiko Sahashi has been a mainstay in the industry for years now (fans of the original Hunter X Hunter adaptation or Full Metal Panic! may recognize him), but this is some of his best work ever. His fluid, jazzy score manages to capture that meshing of Eastern and Western cultures perfectly, and is one of the highlights of the entire production.
Sentai's Blu-Ray release does everything it can to preserve The Big O's best qualities, and it succeeds for the most part. Being a product of the SD era, the boxy aspect ratio and grainy footage was never going to look all that great, but that's to be expected for a show that's almost old enough to buy a drink here in the States. The one major flaw of this set would be the fact that the original opening themes have been replaced with the one composed by Rui Nagai in 2007 for the DVD release. This is unfortunate, to be sure, but not enough to devalue the rest of the set.
Outside of some staff interviews and the usual trailers, the key feature most people are going to appreciate is the English dub, perfectly preserved from its Toonami/Adult Swim days. Being one of the earlier dubbing efforts, there's obviously plenty one could nitpick here. The translations can be loose at times, and some of the awkward line deliveries and pronunciations can end up producing some unintentional laughs (Megadeus, for instance, is always pronounced “mega-deuce”, which my inner twelve-year-old can't help but chuckle at).
That being said, this is one of those dubs that has been burned into the brains of any kid who watched the TV promos on Cartoon Network one too many times, and I can't help but feel like its quirks only add to the charm of the show. Steve Blum's take on Roger Smith is as iconic as any of the other work he's ever done, second only maybe to his role as Spike Spiegel, and all of the goofy scripting in the world can't take away from the unadulterated coolness he injects into the series. This is one of the few instances where I think the dub is the way to go if you want the authentic Big O experience, but take my opinion with a grain or two of nostalgic salt.
Simply put, The Big O is a classic, and the fact that it's finally gotten a proper release is cause for celebration. If you don't have the stomach for 1990s style mecha shows or the general goofiness that comes with any older series, I'd say you at least owe it to yourself to give the show a chance with a rental. For anyone trying to supplement their shelves with one of the best anime of the early 2000s, The Big O is a must own.
That wraps things up for this week. Thanks for reading!
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