The Big O (THE ビッグオー) is a seinen, tech-noir anime series that takes place in Paradigm City, a metropolis that is steeped in mystery. Forty years ago, an event occurred causing a massive memory wipe for all residents of the city. The only thing that is known is that the city used to produce massive robots known as Megadeuses. Enter Roger Smith, a contract negotiator who is hired by various parties to assist them in locating items or individuals of interest, bargaining on their behalf, and many other unique circumstances that usually involves him in keeping Paradigm safe and sound while slowly uncovering the hidden depths of its past.
My house-mate had been trying to get me to watch this anime ever since I told her that I was a humongous fan of Batman: The Animated Series. I avoided it for a long time because I was afraid I wouldn’t care for it, and I didn’t want to be disappointed. I also didn’t wish to disappoint my friend if I ended up hating it, as I’m not typically the biggest fan of noir. However, after watching the first four to five episodes, I feel like kicking myself because she was absolutely right. The Big O is an incredibly rare gem within the anime medium and I’m so glad I finally gave in and picked it up.
The traits that I love about The Big O are exactly some of the reasons why the series probably wasn’t very popular in Japan, and instead has become a bit of a cult title within Western otaku audiences. Some of these include the gorgeous animation style, the perception of how toxic it is to bury our pasts for the sake of our future, and the toss-backs to classic Western media and literary sources.
A couple of common ways I would describe this series include slick and stylish, as well as cool and clever. The animation and city of Paradigm are heavily inspired by Batman: The Animated Series and literary works such as the Robot City by Isaac Asimov and Metropolis. Then there are the character designs and story arcs that resemble chic spy media of the 60s and 70s, like James Bond. Everything is muted with shades of greys, blacks, and whites with a very light splattering of colour for effect to craft a world that is as intimidating with its shadow-draped history as it is with how advanced it seems to be on the surface. It’s an incredibly experimental and derivative artistic style for anime, especially in the late 90s, and while it performed poorly natively, it had a fantastic reception overseas.
At the core of the narrative we have a city that has completely forgotten it’s past. All that’s known is there once used to be an abundance of giant robots, or Megadeuses, and eventually it led to the downfall of a thriving municipality. As we meet various characters that call upon Roger Smith to assist them, we learn via parcels of information and flashbacks that one of the main reasons Paradigm is buried in enigmatic ignorance is in part to major atrocities within their history.
In many ways, I am reminded of Japan during the Second World War and even a time before that, when they were an outstandingly powerful nation that was hell-bent on becoming one of the dominant names of the Asia Pacific region of the world. Very much like other nations preceding and succeeding it (*cough* US and England *cough* slavery and colonisation *cough*), Japan built their powerful identity on the backs of their civilians and those whom they conquered with very little to no disregard for their well-being. Then when everything took a devastating turn for the absolute worse, it was easier to bury some of those atrocities and forget their existence, to try and build a new, rather than be tainted by their past.
The problem with trying to bury something ugly is that it always has a way of finding its way through the suffocating concrete and into the light. Our pasts—the good, the bad, and the in-between—should be lessons on how to become better and more loving, however it’s always used as a manual to improve and tighten the terror than to work to stomp it out, another theme that lingers in the streets of Paradigm like a ghost.
All of this really got me thinking about humans in the 21st century. Given how much we rely on technology on a global level and the myriad excuses we as humans utilise to justify the barbarities we commit for the sake of “technological advancement for the ‘well-being’ of our future,” I can’t help but feel that The Big O is audaciously relevant to current socioeconomic and political climates. I wholeheartedly love it when an anime (or other piece of media) can me think on such an introspective and deeper level. A lot of things we consume should make us think and because The Big O does this so damn well, it’s another reason that I’m completely swooning over it.
Of course, if you’re not into all of this multi-faceted Meaning of Life Stuff (see Stargate SG-1), then I believe the mere art of The Big O will appeal to you. I’ve already mentioned how speculative it all is within this specific platform, and that uniqueness truly makes for a superbly refreshing and special watching experience that can’t be found with most of the anime out there. Plus, there is also Roger Smith, a handsome idiot in all black that takes the strange, combined form of James Bond and Bruce Wayne in supremely entertaining yet satisfyingly snazzy ways.
All in All, I would highly recommend The Big O to folx that like noir (and noir subgenres) anime, were fans of Batman: The Animated Series, and take pleasure from mecha titles that aren’t your standard spacey fare, at least so far. There are two seasons of the anime, and the first can be found on HiDive and VRV (linked below).
Native: THE ビッグオー
Genre: Mecha, Tech-Noir
Season: Fall 1999
Director: Kazuyoshi Katayama
Content Warnings: Violence including gun violence, fisticuffs, and mecha violence. Blood. Murder. Deaths. Kidnapping. Alcohol Consumption. Mild Smoking. Government corruption. Destruction of cities. Brief scene of drowning. Mildly strong language. Cautionary advisory for claustrophobia, cleithrophobia, and taphephobia. (CW for episodes 1-5)
AniList: The Big O
Streaming: HIDIVE, VRV