I have some significant gaps in the classics of Toonami. I watched most (though not quite all) of Gundam Wing when it first aired. Same with Outlaw Star, and a fair amount of Dragon Ball Z (at least through the end of the Namek arc). However, I never really watched much of Yu-Yu Hakusho, and I never got around to watching any of The Big O. Maybe it was the title of the show – it certainly wasn’t the aesthetic – the retro-futuristic style grabbed my interest. However, it wasn’t until recently that I finally got the opportunity to watch The Big O in its entirety – and it’s an interesting show to unpack.
The show starts off as something like a cross between the Fleischer Superman shorts, ‘60s Super Robot Anime, and as a spiritual sequel to the book and anime A Wind Named Amnesia. The show is set in the semi-domed city of Paradigm, after an unspecified apocalyptic event left all the of the population with amnesia of anything that happened 40 years prior, combined with destruction of many of the records. In this world, memories of anything prior to the wipe are extremely precious. In the middle of this comes Roger Smith, a negotiator (basically a private investigator), who also is the pilot of a giant robot, known as a Megadeus (or “Giant God”) called The Big O.
In the course of the first story, Roger also ends up with an android boarding with him in his mansion – R. Dorothy Wainwright (the “R.” being a reference to Issac Asimov’s Robot novels). Much of the first season of the show – made up of 13 episodes, is a mix of episodic stories, with hints at a larger mystery under the surface, ending in a cliffhanger – one which was left completely unresolved until the success of the first season on Cartoon Network lead to them co-producing a second season of the show almost 5 years after the first aired, with more focus explaining some of the mysteries.
The giant robot action is still there, but this makes for a definite tonal shift between the front and back halves of the show, as the mysteries of the setting come much more to the fore. There’s also a visual shift between the two as well. The art style is the same, but between the two seasons Digi-Cel technology came to the forefront, and you can see the difference between the two seasons – particularly with the current release being on Blu-Ray.
The writing for the series, by Chiaki Konaka, fits in thematically with some of his earlier series, particularly Lain and RahXephon. The story, while also having a fair amount of boisterous mecha action, tends towards the more introspective – to the point that the finale of the series brings the philosophical discussion to the fore and sends the mecha combat to the back seat. It’s not totally absent like with the last two episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion – but it’s not the point, which could be frustrating to some viewers.
That said, the mecha combat we get is very well done. The various Megadeus we encounter in the show move with a tremendous sense of weight, without necessarily seeming ponderous, and while having a degree of speed. I’d compare it to watching a sumo wrestling match. There is a sense of speed there, but it’s directed in a very different way then if you were watching Greco-Roman wrestling.
Stylistically, the show borrows, as mentioned earlier, a lot of visual cues from the Fleischer Superman cartoons – in part because the show in turn was made by staff who worked on Batman: The Animated Series and Giant Robo: The Day The Earth Stood Still, and wanted to do more with that aesthetic. It works tremendously well – especially with the handful of Robot characters we encounter outside of Dorothy.
In all, The Big O is a very different show than most other super robot series in pretty much every aspect, which makes it something that you really should check out – whether you’re a fan of super robots or not.