The Big O: The Cult Mecha Noir Series Turns 20

Paradigm City is a place without an identity. Little else is thought to lie beyond the city's limits but a wasteland where the rest of the world once was and, following an incident that erased everyone's memories decades ago, no one can remember if anything was ever out there anyway. It's on this bleak canvas that The Big O, which premiered 20 years ago this month, paints a stylish and slickly produced story, handsomely directed by Kazuyoshi Katayama.

Unlike Paradigm City, The Big O is anything but unidentifiable: Batman meets Blade Runner with giant robots. Suitably, the series looks to the past to create a more distinctive future, much like Shinichrō Watanabe's Cowboy Bebop: Just swap space cowboys for film noir detectives and hunk-of-junk spaceships for ancient, monolithic robots. Rather than the messy-haired Spike Spigel, The Big O's cool-as-ice star is the debonair Roger Smith. He's dark-haired and dark-suited; he comes with his own butler -- Norman Burg -- and he drives a flashy, black sedan. He is anime's answer to Bruce Wayne if that wasn't apparent from the description alone, and like Bruce Wayne's crime-fighting alter ego, Roger provides a "much-needed job here in the City of Amnesia" as a Negotiator -- a middle-man between the police and organized crime. Sunrise, the studio behind The Big O, was one of many that worked on Batman: The Animated Series, so the strong resemblances in characterization and visual style are deliberate tributes.

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Rather than pull on a cape and mask, Roger episodically lowers himself into the cockpit of a mechanical behemoth called Big O. Big O, and other similar robots, are known as "Megadeus." Their origins predate living memory, which doesn't go back considerably far due to the mysterious, memory-sapping "Event" 40 years prior. This is where The Big O's influences cross from American vigilantes and hardboiled detectives to the Japanese mecha genre. Megadeus' have less in common with the streamlined 'bots in Neon Genesis Evangelion or the brightly colored, space-bound ones in the Gundam franchise. Instead, they're more closely related to the genre's roots in Tetusjin 28-go (better known as Gigantor), a deliberate choice by designer, Keiichi Sato, who loves "all things nostalgic." Big O is a clunky, unwieldily beast with a stoic expression; a gentle giant to the occupants of Paradigm City, who, like Tokyo's population in many a Godzilla movie, have become accustomed to their home becoming the site of a towering Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robot brawls every now and then.

As well as the one-eyed Norman -- who serves mainly as the Big O's chief mechanic, though isn't adverse to fetching Roger a late-night snack after a hard night of Negotiating -- Roger is assisted in his vital civil duty by an adopted android called Dorothy Wayneright (as if the Batman influence wasn't clear enough). While Roger is machine-tooled to be likably charismatic, Dorothy's deadpan wit and introspective stare make her, by far, the actual most likable character of the series. Her maid's uniform indicates that she's Roger's inferior but their spunky sparring matches prove she's more than an equal match for him. "You're a louse, Roger Smith." Sparks fly between the pair constantly, only to be dampened by the reminder that, like Blade Runner's replicants, Dorothy's human casing may create a convincing illusion -- but illusion none the less. Much like Brent Spiner's performance as Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Lia Sargent, who provides Dorothy's English language voice, does a great job at layering just enough emotion into the character's stilted, robotic voice to make you, and Roger, wonder about the ghost in the machine.

The Big O

Alongside them is the usual cast you’d expect to find in any noir tale: Angel, the femme fatale on a covert mission of her own; Dan Dastun, Roger's old connection to the police force; Schwarzwald, a former journalist consumed by paranoia; Alex Rosewater, a businessman with aspirations of evil grandeur and his henchman, Alan Gabriel, the pinstriped, murder-bot foil to Dorothy.

What prevents The Big O from just becoming a shallow echo of all the things it rips off, though, is its execution of them: the dramatic framing of characters by the camera; moody lighting; angular cityscape and Roger's voiceover narration all create the perfect tech-noir -- or, "mech-noir" -- atmosphere. For any kid watching the series when it premiered on Toonami in the early '00s, it was likely their first exposure to any of these genres. In fact, the show was far more popular in the west than it was in Japan, possibly because of its heavily Westernized style and influences. As a result, its first season's episode count was slashed from a projected 26 to 13.

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In his production notes, screenwriter Chiaki J. Konaka noted the "tremendous response among American anime fans" saved the series from complete cancellation without an ending: Cartoon Network petitioned the studio for a follow-up and American audiences' wishes were granted. Though released as two separate seasons, Konaka viewed them more as two acts of a continuous story, with Episode 14 picking up as originally planned right after Episode 13. Despite this, the second season does feel like a departure from the first, with fans and critics noting -- negatively -- at the time, a more "downer" tone in Roger's voice and an even more clouded aura of mystery settling around an already conspiracy-clogged narrative.

The Big O

Much like Evangelion's notoriously divisive ending, The Big O tries to have its existential cake and eat it too in its finale, the result leaving most viewers coming away with their stomachs still rumbling for something more satisfying. The Evangelion comparisons don't stop there, either: both began life as platforms to shill robot merchandise from the companies that ordered them, only to far outgrow this job in ambitious, Lynchian ways. "We are making The Big O that we want to make and see ourselves," Konaka firmly stated. Considering he was also the main writing power behind 1998's cyberpunk, psycho-horror, Serial Experiments Lain, The Big O's sudden descent into overwrought philosophizing should probably have come as no surprise.

The final similarity The Big O bares to Evangelion, other than their shared cult status, is how difficult it was for audiences to get hold of them after their initial broadcast. While The Big O fans, or those looking to get into the show for the first time, didn't have to wait as tortuously long as Evangelion's, when Bandai Entertainment -- The Big O's North American licenser -- shut down in 2012, the series was in danger, much like the City of Amnesia itself, of slipping from memory entirely. Luckily, Sentai Filmworks came to the rescue, though it still took a further five years for it to see a Blu-Ray release.

Is The Big O perfect? Absolutely not. But, few things get to become cult classics without their blemishes and, two decades later, there's still plenty of gloss and sheen to admire.

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