Reviews: The Big O

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Attractive and Awesome: Deserved at Least Five Seasons
Big O is an anime designed with a western audience in mind, built to be an interesting mix of Batman TAS, classic Film Noir, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, with Gigantor/Tetsujin 28 and classic giant monster movies stapled on for extra decoration. By all rights it should be a fucking mess, right? Wrong. Everything is assembled with such love and care that it produces a damn fine mech anime that feels distinct from it's peers.

Taking place in the stylish Paradigm City, 'the city of amnesia', the negotiator known as Roger Smith is often tasked with solving the myriad problems always cropping up throughout the city. Assisted by his one-eyed butler Norman, and the snarky emotionless android Dorothy, he comes across everything from other giant robots, insane mech pilots and... a giant sentient Christmas tree. That's where the titular 'Big O' comes in, a 30-meter tall megadeus armed from head to heel with powerful weapons from a forehead laser to the piston-powered punches that can wreck just about anything.

Two seasons worth of episodes, filled with smooth jazz, kickass action, bountiful Mind Screw and the most badass combat music you're liable to hear. The story keeps ambiguous with just what the hell is going on in Paradigm City, but it's the good kind of ambiguous rather than the shit kind. You're given just enough strands to follow so that you can forge your own theories.

The only downside is that, well, two seasons long. It really deserved more, or at least some OVA's to tie up some loose ends. I'd settle for anything more. But as it stands, the episodes that do exist are very much worth the watch.
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The Super Robot Genre Wishes It Was This Classy
From the director of Serial Experiments Lain, we are presented with The Big O, possibly the strangest giant robot show ever to exist. And use the term "giant robot show" very loosely, because though that is what it is advertised as, most of the episodes have little to do with the robots themselves, instead focusing on protagonist Roger Smith's work as a "negotiator". Negotiating is exactly what it sounds like: he is a neutral who goes between one party and another to exchange information or money, but in actuality, nothing is ever as it seems, and often Roger's sleuth skills are necessary. As such, the robot fights can and do feel shoehorned in at times, but I prefer to think of them as the thrilling climax to the hunt for a perpetrator.

The art and animation is excellent. I hear it is done by the same person who did Batman The Animated Series, and if it isn't, his influence certainly shows. It looks much more like a Western cartoon than the anime it is. The soundtrack is absolutely glorious. I was hooked from the first time I heard the slow jazz of Brick Ballades in the opening scenes, and the theme song is hilariously reminscent of the theme to Flash Gordon. Everything fits the mood perfectly, especially the epic fanfare that plays during Big O's appearances. The voice acting and script are superlative as well, especially for a dub that aired on CN.

The series uses an Omega Cast: there are only 8 major recurring characters: Roger, his Battle Butler Norman, his android partner Dorothy, his old friend from the force Dastun, Big Bad Alex Rosewater, mysterious Femme Fatale Angel, and Alex's father Gordon. There are other recurring villains, but few make a difference, though their appearances are entertaining.

There are two seasons, the first being mostly Roger solving various cases, and the second adopting a Myth Arc that evolves into such a Mind Screw that Anno would be jealous. All throughout, the series manages to be witty, action-packed, and full of style, making this a show I would highly recommend to those who want a more sophisticated Super Robot Genre experience. All 3 of you.

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Stylish, but ultimately not compelling
The Big O is something of an anomaly in anime. Sure, it might seem like just another Super Robot show, but it actually stands out starkly because of its art style and cultural frame of reference. All those comparisons to Batman you read are largely accurate; Roger acts a lot like Bruce Wayne and the setting strongly evokes Gotham City. It captures the essence of the early 1900s very well, with a superb jazz soundtrack and lots of nice Art Deco architecture. The character designs don't look like anything else in anime. In fact, it's a thoroughly Western show, probably one of the most Westernized anime I can think of. If you didn't know this was anime, you probably wouldn't guess if you saw it dubbed. (My guess is that this is why it was more successful in America than Japan.)

But you can only get so far on style. The character designs are actually very ugly, and I was taken aback at how stark and almost grotesque some minor characters are. It seems almost like the artists were unsuccessfully attempting to mimic an American aesthetic. More pertinently, the premise just isn't very interesting. It always keeps going back to how "everyone in Paradigm lost their memories" but it seems more like a way of establishing a noir-ish aesthetic than anything. It's mostly episodic, and when the main plot does emerge, it's unclear and Mind Screw-ish. Finally, and I know this might sound like blasphemy - I think this show would've been better without the "Megadeuses." I much prefer Humongous Mecha to superheroics, but everything always gets way cheesier when Roger "pulls out" the Big O, as the music switches from smooth jazz to triumphant fanfare and the usual Super Robot tropes shatter the Film Noir ones.

The Big O is an interesting and unusual experiment in a very un-Japanese field, and I love the score, but in the end the show didn't grab me, and sadly when the series ended I felt like I had wasted my time. But it might be worth a watch late at night, if only to drown drowsily in the heady mood it creates.
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