The Mike Toole Show
O Big O, Where Art Thou?
by Mike Toole,
Twenty years ago, something remarkable happened: One Piece started airing on TV in Japan. Wait a minute, that's not what I was gonna talk about. I'm here to talk about what happened twenty years ago the week before One Piece started! On October 13th, 1999, on the cable network WOWOW, a new TV series from Sunrise called The Big O had its premiere. With visuals obviously influenced by the hip 1990s Batman animated series, a coterie of city-smashin' super robots, and names and settings clearly grounded in western sensibilities, it seemed more than likely that this exciting new series was going to show up in the booming North American anime market sooner or later.
We didn't have to wait long. Almost exactly eighteen months later, The Big O made its debut on Cartoon Network, on April 2nd, 2001. One interesting twist is that, while the thirteen-episode series ran weekly in Japan, Cartoon Network programmed it for its Monday-Thursday afternoon Toonami block. A mere three weeks later, fans thrilled to the show's epic conclusion, as the hero Roger Smith took his robot out to meet threatening new adversaries, and slam! A stark black and white title card appeared onscreen, bearing the legend: To Be Continued. Fans were mystified. Was there more? If there wasn't more, would there be more, you know, later? Folks started poking around for answers; some of those folks ended up on the website of series writer Chiaki Konaka. On a page dedicated to The Big O, Konaka commented, in English, “As for the second season, production doesn't begin yet for the present. However, the staff has will toward production… I appreciate Mr. Michael Toole. He supports THE BIG-O in America and offers useful informations.” Wait a minute, what?!
As it happens, I got on The Big O hype train early, and so on the twentieth anniversary of the series debut, I thought it'd be fun to talk about The Big O's rare power, and to share a couple of fun stories. By the time that Bandai Entertainment let slip that they'd be releasing the series stateside (they announced this in fall of 2000), I already had a copy of the first Japanese DVD in hand. For most shows, I was willing to be patient and wait for a US release, but everything I could learn about The Big O in this pre-streaming, pre-even-digisub era (believe it or not, The Big O got some episodes fansubbed... on VHS!) told me I had to have it immediately—so I started ordering the DVDs from Japan.
The Big O did not disappoint me. It had a cool adult hero in a sharp suit, named after handsome TV detective Roger Smith. It took place in a sterile, ominous future New York City, a place with no memories, caught between the past and the future. It wore its influences, the likes of classic mystery films and swingin' 60s spy TV shows and tokusatsu yarns, on its sleeves; even the intro somehow managed to evoke both Queen's Flash Gordon theme song and Tsuburaya's Ultra Seven opening sequence. On my old website, Anime Jump, I put up a page for the series in the fall of 2000. I wasn't thinking about getting ahead of the buzz, I just saw something really cool and wanted to share it.
A few months later—I'd like to say January of 2001, but maybe it was before Christmas—Bandai Entertainment started sending out marketing collateral—mostly a quick press release/description and some key art. The description included almost an entire paragraph lifted straight from my Anime Jump preview page; ah, finally, I'd broken into the industry! Actually, the presence of my writing came as a surprise to me, but I had a pretty good idea what had happened. See, it's awfully tempting to think of the anime business as this well-oiled machine, staffed by straitlaced professionals with excellent resources. Nope, it's a total pie fight! When that press release had to be drafted, Bandai Entertainment's marketing team didn't have any information on the series or any materials at all, except the logo and a few key images. Consequently, they just grabbed the text from my site and pasted it, with the idea that they could circle back and rebuild the summary in the company's style before the release went out. They… kinda forgot to do that second part. I reached out to them, more curious than anything, and the affair was smoothed over pretty quickly. But if you plug my original description from the above page into Google, to this day you'll find creaky old retail listings using the same text. There are quite a few stories like this one, too—bemusing tales of company staff, absolutely needing to have an advertisement or trailer ready for a convention or magazine, and just winging it. My favorite example of this is a wonderful and very early Eureka Seven teaser trailer in English, featuring a monologue by main character Renton Thurston… voiced not by the character's eventual actor Johnny Yong Bosch, but by Bandai's old marketing manager Jerry Chu.
But where'd The Big O actually come from? It came from Giant Robo. Back in 1996, a gifted young designer and keyframe animator—seriously, he was just 31 at the time!-- named Keiichi Satō was wrapping up his role on Giant Robo. He had done some keys and guest mecha designs for episode six. Sato had some misgivings about the project—in later interviews, he described working on Giant Robo as not what he'd expected—and was ready to move on. But before he left, he showed episode director Kazuyoshi Katayama something cool—some drawings of a new robot he'd been making. Sato had the usual path to success in mind for this new robot, The Big O—he wanted to develop an anime series for it, all in service of selling toys. But Sato's toys wouldn't be for kids; his idea was centered on the toys being expensive, elaborate die-cast affairs for adult collectors. Katayama, knowing a good idea when he saw one, encouraged his colleague, and started pitching in image boards and story ideas of his own. Soon, the two men brought their proposal to Sunrise, who greenlit the series idea and teamed them up with screenwriter Chiaki Konaka. Beyond the central figure of the robot, Sato's idea for the series was all about going against what had become the norm for robot and mecha anime. This robot series, rather than focusing on an angst-ridden teen pilot, would feature a mature, grounded adult protagonist—someone so cool that both kids and adults alike could seize on them as a role model. The show's setting and color palette would be sophisticated, but a bit muted. The dialogue would be similarly sharp and worldly and subtle, and would be delivered by a protagonist and antagonist played by noted stage and screen actors, rather than career seiyuu. Motifs and references would be lifted from Sam Spade, from ITC television fare like The Prisoner and Thunderbirds, from Batman: The Animated Series and Ultraman. The screenwriter Konaka thought of his protagonist, a canny ex-police officer turned corporate negotiator, as similar to Josef K, the protagonist of Kafka's The Trial—a cynical man in search of answers, which won't reveal themselves to him.
Konaka didn't just contribute the first season story structure and write some of its key episodes—he's the true creator of R. Dorothy Wayneright, Roger's perpetually unimpressed lady android sidekick. (The “R.” indicates that she's a robot person, and is lifted straight out of Asimov's Caves of Steel.) “Before I joined the project,” commented Konaka, “There was one sketch of "the android girl who lives with Roger." But the Dorothy of the TV series looks nothing like that design. Dorothy's personality, style of speech, and everything about her was completely of my creation.” Konaka's got a tricky reputation as a storyteller, with some odd left turns in some of his anime works, but you can't argue with his contribution here.
By the time The Big O started airing on Cartoon Network, I had already reached out to Konaka, who had his own website, complete with an English version. (That site is still present, and largely unchanged, to this day! My name is even still mentioned on the Japanese side.) Not only did I interview Konaka about the series, he expressed some interest in the brand new English version—so I showed him some clips, which he duly shared with his colleagues. Remember, this was in 2001, when capturing and sharing video online was kind of a hell of a thing. In my case, it involved taping a broadcast of the series on VHS, and then using a TV tuner card with rudimentary capture capabilities to create 320x240 MOVs, which were shared via FTP. The screenwriter was particularly taken with Lia Sargent's performance as Dorothy, and wondered at how eerily similar she sounded to original seiyuu Akiko Yajima. In speaking to Sargent subsequently, the actress said that she'd carefully used Yajima's performance as a reference. “I love Dorothy!” enthused Sargent, who eventually directed the dub of series two. “I wish I thought more like her.”
At this point, my weird little Big O microsite was growing rapidly; I went ahead and added sections for episode summaries and interviews, fan art and fan fiction. (By far my favorite fanfic submission was an ambitious yarn that saw Roger and The Big O teaming up with Styx frontman Dennis DeYoung. In this story, the mustachioed, debonair DeYoung has his own Megadeus – the aptly-named Mister Roboto! This ludicrous concept carried on for several chapters, which the writer piously updated and commented on in the forum. Obviously, we encouraged him! I still think about that damn fanfic sometimes.) Fans buzzed, not just about the recently-aired season one (“I keep listening to the ending song,” confessed a teen girl on the forum. “Do you guys think it's about Roger and Dorothy? Are they in love??”) but about the possibility of a sequel. Konaka had affirmed that, while the series had ended on a cliffhanger with no immediate plans for new episodes, the staff was hopeful about picking it back up if there was enough interest. For my part, I encouraged fans keep watching and talking about the show, and to write physical letters to Bandai Entertainment. What else could we do? Anyway, if you were wondering why I got the Konaka shout-out all those years ago, that's pretty much why.
Eight months after the furor over this exciting new series and its infuriating lack of an obviously-needed second half finally started to die down, in February 2002, I got an email from Konaka with the subject line “Good news from Japan.” Had our online chatter and letter-writing worked?! Well, sort of—animation producers take input from fans seriously, but that's not always going to be what tips the balance. In this case, a guardian angel interceded—a guardian angel named Mike Lazzo, who was Cartoon Network's VP of programming for Adult Swim at the time. Lazzo liked the The Big O, and at one point asked his Toonami/Adult Swim lieutenant Jason DeMarco to float the idea of co-producing new episodes to their partners in Japan. Bandai Visual and Sunrise agreed, and so the team got back together for season 2. Once the news of season 2 went public, director Kazuyoshi Katayama commented in an issue of the quarterly science fiction magazine Uchusen that messages had piled up from American fans with a very specific request: you must make another season of The Big O. Hey, he was talking about us!
In fact, my personal Big O odyssey more or less ended with me sitting next to Mr. Katayama at Anime Central 2003, trying to goad the director (who'd affected an ingratiatingly snarky air; earlier, in an anime directors roundtable, he'd traded good-natured jabs with Please Teacher! director Hiroaki Gohda about the relative popularity of their respective shows) into divulging some interesting secrets and stories about season 2 just ahead of its US premiere. I got a few; most interestingly, while Konaka had said that there were always thoughts of a sequel when season 1 was produced, Katayama disagreed. The show's original planning documents had specified 26 episodes, but it was pared down to 13 by the time production started. There would have been time enough to hastily assemble a coda for Roger, Dorothy, and Paradigm City, but instead Katayama directed his staff to create the cliffhanger ending, knowing that a sequel wasn't definite, or even particularly likely. In the director's mind, the To Be Continued cliffhanger was not a gamble or an enticement, but rather sort of a prank, and a stylistic twist in keeping with the show's pulpy influences.
However, the most important revelation we learned from Mr. Katayama that weekend came after the festivities had passed. See, in Japan, most folks don't keep big yards with manicured lawns attached to their homes. Anime Central 2003's after-party took place at a home with a big lawn, and that gave another ACen guest, character designer Hidenori Matsubara, an idea. “This is a nice yard,” he remarked to Katayama, “you should ask our hosts if you can mow it.” Images like this, courtesy of old-time Anime Central staffer and post-con party hostess Julie L., are the kind of stuff that really keeps my cynicism away when I engage with this dumb hobby of ours. What do you think Mr. Katayama is saying here? Is it “BIG MOW… SHOWTIME!”? Or perhaps “BIG O… MOW-TIME!”…?
When The Big O returned to Cartoon Network in 2003, it picked right back up from the cliffhanger. But it felt a little different—the show had made the jump from cel animation to digipaint, and the character designs had some tweaks as well. Most notably, while Chiaki Konaka had drafted the series outline for season 1, but only written select episodes, he wrote the entire screenplay for season 2. The result is a show that still trades in action, impeccable art deco design, and lots of goofy science fiction references, but is noticeably more meditative and weird. In interviews, Konaka spoke of a desire to explore the characters more than their robots and surroundings. Did this revised approach sit well with fans? It didn't seem that way, unfortunately, because season two of The Big O didn't really seem to connect to anyone. It underperformed on Cartoon Network's late-night Adult Swim program (the first series had aired during the day on Toonami, but the newer season's edgier, more complex stories were obviously intended for the late-night block), to the point that Adult Swim's trademark interstitial text patter complained a bit about the lack of interest from viewers. This was not helped by the show's final episode airing, which actually happened a week late due to a zany mix-up that involved episode 20 being re-run instead of the expected finale premiere, or by an ending that felt both abrupt and weirdly noncommittal.
I was curious about the ending, but by this point, Konaka had politely asked for a cessation in fan mail, because he'd gotten thousands from overseas Big O fans, and he didn't speak English all that well. I'd also been corresponding with the show's translator Dave Fleming (he's the guy on the far right in the panel photo a few paragraphs up, next to fellow pro translator and doujinshi scholar Dan Kanemitsu, Mr. Katayama, and some dumbass in an Arsenal jersey) about the new season, and he said that, by his impression during their correspondence, Konaka had wanted to write a proper, definitive ending. Cartoon Network, on the other hand, were asking the season to be open-ended in case it pulled good ratings. We got an ending that kinda tried to be both of these things. But a third season of The Big O was not forthcoming, and I'd say it was because of this gap—not just a gap in expectations between scribe, producer, and audience, but also the fat gap in time between seasons one and two. But there's no way around that; a thirteen-episode TV series still takes 12-18 months to plan and produce, and by the time Big O season 2 debuted, a lot of fans had simply moved on.
Despite that, despite the sixteen years since we've had new Big O episodes, and despite my old Big O site having long since gone to the internet graveyard (this amazing site, a 20th anniversary project by a particularly ardent Big O fan and e-buddy of mine, will hook you up), I find my thoughts returning to the series frequently. Part of that is because we've recently gotten one of those snazzy Steelbox box sets of the show on Blu-Ray, but it's also because pretty much the entire production team is still working, including both Japanese and US voice casts. Heck, just a few years back—wait a minute, I mean eight years back, jesus—Big O creator Sato slipped a little Roger-and-Dorothy tribute into his series Tiger and Bunny, giving episode 16 heavies Rotwang and Cis the same voice actors. There's also a fair bit of Big O media that never headed west, including a manga spin-off, a novel, and most interestingly, a stage play written by Konaka, which you can read in English (translated by Dave Fleming) on his site.
Also, I keep looking at the past year's release calendar, which has sported new sequels to decade-plus favorites like Code Geass and FLCL. Pop culture has settled into this weird duality where we keep getting new stories, but also the same stories keep coming back around. Should we petition Cartoon Network anew for more Big O episodes? After all, a 6-foot statue of The Big O itself, in all of its Megadeus-y glory, still stands guard outside of Jason DeMarco's office. (Bandai Entertainment commissioned it to be used exactly one time at Anime Expo. These things usually get thrown away, so good on DeMarco for saving it!) I'd welcome the return of this series and its sublime and action-packed fusion of the Batman TV cartoon, Giant Robo, Ultraman, and French new wave cinema. If nothing else, maybe we could get a table read of that stage play by the English-language actors. Does that sound good to you, readers? Maybe we could write some letters.
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