The Big O vols. 1-4
Mike Toole rates it:
Every once in a while, I notice a series come along that contains the proper amounts of almost everything I like about anime, such that it almost feels like the show was made just for me. Giant Robo was one of these shows. I don't know what it is about giant, lumbering robots duking it out in urban environments, but I like it. The Big O has many elements of Robo, but it also has plenty of fresh material of its own (which is largely cribbed from American sources). And once again, I look at the show and feel like the creators were reading my mind when they created it.
At its heart, The Big O is a mystery-- and, much like Dark City, the show conveys its sense of mystery in the entire city where the action takes place. Paradigm City is a city of lost memories, a murky urban landscape of unknowns; an unknown catastrophe 4 decades earlier had rendered the entire population of Paradigm City amnesiatic. But instead of someone like Lemmy Caution patrolling Paradigm City's cracked streets, trying to make sense of things, the viewer is presented with Roger Smith, a suave, seemingly self-absorbed millionaire negotiator. True to his title, he arbitrates disputes, solves problems, and investigates conflicts that frequently steer him towards the shadier elements of Paradigm, the ones that are connected with the unknown Event-- and towards criminal activities. That's where the show's titular entity, the Big O, comes in.
See, it's not enough for Roger to have a mansion, a dry, chipper butler, and a sleek, gimmick-laden sedan. The Big O is a megadeus, a ten story tall robot (which Roger summons by shouting "Big O, showtime!" into his high-tech wristwatch, in a sly tribute to Giant Robo). How this robot came into Roger's possession and how he controls it is one of the show's numerous mysteries. Because of the presence of this mechanical behemoth, every single one of The Big O's thirteen episodes is graced with one titanic giant robot battle-- an interesting way to dress up a show that otherwise relies on desolation and paranoia as story elements.
Roger's pulpy protagonist is the lead in a story with a marvelously ridiculous set of allies and adversaries; his chief friend is the chilly, sarcastic android, R. Dorothy Wayneright (whose name evokes memories of R. Daneel Olivaw in Isaac Asimov's Caves of Steel). Dorothy is a great foil to Roger's sly, overwrought Batman wannabe; not only does she constantly confound him with her blunt, corrosive one-liners ("You're a louse, Roger Smith."), she seems to be grappling with the idea of being attracted to him-- an idea that Roger reacts to at first with hostility, and then with genial confusion. Roger's butler, Norman, will draw comparisons to Batman's Alfred, but he's closer to P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves, in his tendency to take a direct hand in Roger's affairs whenever possible. Rounding out the cast is Major Dan Dastun, a policeman and ex-colleague of Roger, who has ghosts of his own past to deal with, and a constant stream of foes and ancillary characters, from the selfish and obsessive Angel to the crazed, vengeful Schwarzwald, to the smug, diabolical Alex Rosewater. There's a character for all seasons in The Big O; if you don't care for the gentle android pianist, you might be amused by the egomaniacal mad scientist, or the amiable presumed-dead cop, or the earnest sax player.
The thirteen-episode series is excellently paced; none of the episodes really feel like filler. We're quickly and effectively introduced to the main cast within the first four episodes, and each episode (with the exception of the final two) can be enjoyed as a self-contained story. The Big O is also one of the few series' I've seen to successfully pull off an entertaining Christmas episode, which is just one of the many unusual things that make the show so entertaining.
I have to say that I've never seen an anime series where both the Japanese and English casts were so roundly entertaining. David Lucas's reading of Roger is canny and cynical; his counterpart, Mitsuru Miyamoto, plays the role with a palpable sense of sarcasm that makes his performance hilarious, sometimes imappropriately so. Akiko Yajima, normally known for shrill, intense characters, does an excellently deadpan delivery of Dorothy, matched with almost eerie perfection by Lia Sargent, who also directed many of the episodes' dialogue recording. Tessho Genda gives a more satisfyingly gruff reading of Dastun than his English-language counterpart, whom I've yet to identify; conversely, fan-favorite Wendee Lee turns in a more subtle performance of Angel than Emi Shinohara.
Possibly the most unusual aspect of The Big O is its visuals; Keiichi Sato, who's also worked on Ninja Resurrection and some of the more recent City Hunter TV movies, is responsible for both the character design and mecha design concepts; he's actually the real brain behind The Big O, though the SUNRISE TV series is credited, as usual, as being the product of Hajime Yadate, the code-name for SUNRISE's writing staff. His character designs look like a fusion of 60s retro character design-- think original Gigantor-- and 60s pop art, with a liberal dash of Batman: the Animated Series thrown in. The mecha design is similarly strange, combining classic giant robot elements (stupendous weapons, big stovepipe arms and exposed rivets) with weirder stuff, like very strange proportions, intentionally ugly designs, and bizarre weaponry (the Big O itself is equipped with a pair of piledrivers in its arms).
All told, The Big O is a thoroughly excellent series. It's a deft fusion of a moody film noir mystery and an all-out, balls-to-the-wall giant robot slugfest. It's reminiscent not just of Japanese giant robot fare, but of western characters and stories, like Dick Tracy, Sam Spade, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, the classic French film La Jetee-- it's all here, and then some. Every episode is a new mystery for Roger to solve (most of which simply highlight more mysteries), and a new robot for the Big O to defeat. The show's one terrible flaw is that it hasn't yet been finished; the senior production staff have voiced their intention to create a second season of The Big O, but as it stands, the show ends with a huge cliffhanger. Even so, The Big O is one for the books; it's truly one of the most entertaining shows I've ever seen.
Added: Wednesday, September 24, 2003
Related Link: Bandai Entertainment