If you were a child in the late 1990s or early 2000s you might remember an anime that aired on the original Toonami programming block called The Big O. It aired next to hyper-popular shows like Dragonball Z and was canceled halfway through it's planned 26 episode arc.
Japan did not like the adventures of Roger Smith and R. Dorothy Wayneright enough. In July 1999, it was competing with the likes of season 2 Cardcaptor Sakura, season 4 Detective Conan, season 8 Crayon Shin-chan, Ebichu, and Medabots. Also, Great Teacher Onizuka, Turn A Gundam, Power Stone, Monster Rancher, and a posthumous adaptation of nekojiru's work (Check out the movie Cat Soup).
That is the hardest season lineup of anime to compete against I have ever seen. And that's not even half of the full list! Those first shows are responsible for many of my personal childhood memories, and the last four range between mediocre to super good adaptations of franchises that already had clout in Japanese popular culture. The Big O flopped and aired two years later on Cartoon Network. Today the series is mostly forgotten, sometimes remembered for it's ambiguously poor ending and the intro song being a Flash Gordon ripoff.
After watching season 1 in its entirety I can say that it’s close to my favorite anime of all time. At the dawn of the century there existed a Bruce Wayne from Batman: The Animated Series where the apocalypse happened and his memories were wiped that nobody cared about.
The show is a masterful story anyone familiar with the traditions and symbolism can recognize. Are you a fan of the 90’s animated Batman or James Bond? What about Cowboy Bebop, Astro Boy, or Neon Genesis Evangelion? Did you enjoy Nier: Automata, L.A. Noire, or Bioshock? How about Godzilla, Metropolis, or Watchmen?
Then you have to check out this mecha anime! There is a relationship from this show to all of those IPs and it's easy to prove, some in the first two episodes.
I'm going to spoil episodes 1, 2, and 8 to make this point. I could do every episode but that would be a long article! I also spoil some Batman: The Animated Series. I watched this anime in English because it's an exceptional dub. I personally prefer subtitles.
Every episode of Big O is written to be a phenomenal film-noir sci-fi story. I would put these episodes on par with my favorite Ray Bradbury short stories in terms of thoughtfulness in metaphor and symbolism. If you have the inclination, I implore you to watch the first two episodes before reading. Or watch the whole show and come back, I’ll wait.
To understand what makes Big O an exemplary anime we need to establish what makes an anime good. So let's talk about comics and animation in post-WWII Japan!
Comics in Japan are a tradition dating back to the 17th century, but modern manga starts around 1950. A Drifting Life is an amazing piece of literature on the topic. It's an autobiographical manga by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, who grew up in the Osaka area. It’s a journey through his young adulthood up until the student revolutions of 1960 and details the cultural devastation from which manga arose.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed by the US in 1945 and over 200,000 people died and two Japanese cities were decimated. After the country surrendered unconditionally to the US, SCAP Douglas MacArthur was tasked with reforming Japan into a country with pro-American values. This How’d It Happen? History video has a lot of details regarding the US occupation but here's the relevant background info:
Post-WWII Japan is worlds away from the prosperity America found in the ’50s. Nobody has enough to eat. Everyone is struggling to survive; Tatsumi’s brother has been sick with pleurisy for almost a decade and his dad resizes US rations for more products to sell. The 200 yen Tatsumi earns from sending comic strips to the newspaper is enough to feed 3 people dinner. Children growing up had very few things to do for fun. While Americans were enjoying slinkies, play-doh, and silly putty in newly invented suburbs, Japanese children gathered in the streets to watch puppet shows and spent a small fortune on train fare to buy comic books, which could at least be resold or passed around to friends.
American culture was infiltrating Japan at the same time, something the country has a history of resistance to. Disney and other American animation had crossed over before the war and utilized a distinctly western style. Movies that played in Japanese theaters provided cultural fodder for works like 1956’s Black Blizzard. Tatsumi was inspired by an American pulp fiction story, as well as The Count of Monte Cristo, and wrote the story over 20 days on a “runners high”. He read American stories and watched American movies, and wanted to tell stories like those.
While America was experiencing the Golden age of animation, Japan dove into science fiction. Osamu Tezuka, inspired by Disney films like Bambi, crafted comics serialized in the national children’s newspaper Yoshihiro Tatsumi read. His work inspired a generation of children starved for entertainment (and also food). While attending medical school in the late 40s he wrote Lost World, Metropolis, and Nextworld. His work exploded with Kimba the White Lion and the first appearance of international icon Astro Boy, a child robot built to defend the world from evil. Tatsumi sat with Tezuka in a roundtable discussion when he was only 14 but by then he had been writing comics for years. A Drifting Life's Tatsumi and Tezuka are both dedicated artists that obsess over honing their craft.
Astro Boy became a global success because of the universality of the story. It’s the tale of a scientist mourning the loss of his son by building a robot replacement. He is sold by his original creator to a circus and rescued by the Minister of Science. The series is set in a universe where robots live in harmony with humans. Little Big Screen’s video details some of the details
“Despite being for children, the manga some very heavy topics, including discrimination, weariness of technology, and warning against abusing it’s power, and the fickle nature of humanity itself. With the success of the manga, Tezuka started to turn his eye towards animation. He founded the company Tezuka Osamu Productions, later renamed to Mushi Productions. With this company he made a small, 10 minute Mighty atom pilot to show to Fuji television…
...Of course, Tezuka himself always had some mixed feelings about the show. On one hand he was very proud of it. On the other end, as it got bigger and bigger, he was no longer able to work on it as much and he often felt that the show got out of his hands. The story itself was simplified than what it was in the manga and Tezuka always felt that he lost some of the morals and the more complicated storytelling. And on top of that it still wasn’t making enough money for mushi productions to continue, so Tezuka had to turn his eyes to the West.”
Tezuka went on to cut a deal with NBC worth almost 4.4 million USD today, which got eyes on Astro Boy in America.
Around this time, Yoshihiro Tatsumi founded the tradition of gekiga. Traditional manga had always been made for children. However, the stories Tatsumi wanted to tell were influenced by great American films like Casablanca and Rebel Without a Cause. Gekiga became a term for what can be paralleled to the American “graphic novel”. Complex stories involving murder, crime, and versimilitudinous situations were popular and sold in stores as “rentals”, which made them affordable while the economy recovered. While none of Tatsumi’s works reached a level of popularity like Tezuka’s, the stories inspired the legend to make his own gekiga magazine in the 1960s.
The eventual collapse of Tezuka’s animation company was the impetus for Sunrise Animation.
The studio started in 1972 and was founded by former members of Osamu Tezuka’s failed business. 1979's Mobile Suit Gundam forever changed the face of anime with its epic tales of space colonization and intergalactic politics, four years after Space Battleship Yamato. Legend of Galactic Heroes and Space Adventure Cobra continued the tradition through the 80s.
And In the 90s, we got some of the most popular sci-fi anime series of all time.
Remember Cowboy Bebop? Outlaw Star? Gundam Wing? Sunrise in the 1990s was making phenomenal content, and they were a prolific studio at this point with multiple hit shows airing per season. Early in the decade, they were also involved in the American production of Batman: The Animated Series. Sunrise’s Studio 6 worked on episodes like “Off Balance”, “I Am The Night”, “Heart of Steel Part 1” and “Heart of Steel Part 2”, “The Cat and the Claw Part 1”, “The Clock King”, and “The Man Who Killed Batman”.
The success of this version of Bruce Wayne has a lot to do with storytelling and writing. This video from WhatCulture details a few of the highly successful episodes and how their stories evolved the Batman mythos.
“With Kevin Conroy providing the definitive voice of the caped crusader, and mark hamill as the joker, it was filled with gritty, grown-up storylines and balanced with a careful animation style that showed a real love for the source material. It takes a great deal for a cartoon to appease fans both young and old, but Batman : The Animated Series utterly nailed it. “
...Despite what you might think when first viewing the animation, the show isn't all about smashing up baddies. It's a character study in what makes Bruce Wayne tick.”
Seven years later Studio 6 would take those episodes, throw them in a blender with Cowboy Bebop and Metropolis, and make The Big O.
Did you know the animation studio that invented Gundam is also the one who made Darling in the Franxx?
Somewhere in the middle of that, The Big O happened.
Anime has a problem; the storytelling has earned a bad reputation. Taking a look at a series like Big O requires an appreciation for context. Culturally, Japanese stories often involve thought-provoking questions about what role technology has in our lives. The end of the world is a threat to be fought against, and robots/clones/androids can save us! Tezuka’s Metropolis, Astro Boy, and other popular series like Gigantor or Mazinger Z laid the foundation for this.
(Hmm. I wonder if people in Japan had any kind of personal connection to the mass destruction of their society by technology that wipes out their national identity?)
These ideas are not only foundational in anime, but Western sci-fi as well. The 2001 anime film version of Tezuka’s Metropolis took inspiration from a 1927 german film. I, Robot, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? pose questions readers have been engaging with for a long while. What does it mean to be a human being? Can humanity be built, even out of cold, lifeless machinery? What the hell is an electric sheep?
Gigguk’s video “The Fall of Mecha” details many issues that mecha anime has today. The biggest mecha release of the last ten years, to him, is the Netflix Evangelion re-upload. Big mecha anime this decade like Guilty Crown, Darling in the Franxx, and that new Macross thing are not particularly good.
“And that kind of sums up my enjoyment of mecha this decade. It hasn't been one of awe and amazement. It’s the same kind of enjoyment you get from watching the trashiest reality TV show about people who every week find new and original ways to f*ck up their lives in a way you thought could never top the previous week. Something encapsulated by every new franchise Sunrise tried to make. Being the mecha studio, the biggest original Sunrise mecha this decade was probably Valvrave the Liberator which looked like Sunrise looked at Code Geass and said “what if we just take all the ridiculous plot twists from Code Geass and make a show about that?”
I think fans can agree anime has a problem with originality. (One word: isekai.) So what makes The Big O an amazing story outside of the genre?
The overarching plot of the show can be evaluated using Film Noir/Batman tropes, and the success of The Big O requires an understanding of the show’s subversions. Here are some tropes I see in the main cast:
Structurally, this is straightforward, and before every episode starts, I understand this setup. There’s a villain-of-the-week every episode and the main characters will be in peril but will ultimately succeed. Like 90’s Batman, Big O’s success as a story has a lot to do with the writing. Batman: The Animated Series won its Emmy for the characterization of Mr. Freeze, who historically has been just a dude with a freeze ray. Mr. Freeze’s tragic cryogenically frozen wife made a comic book villain relatable. The Clock King and The Man Who Killed Batman did the same thing; they took traditional superhero enemies and gave them deep motivations.
A well-written story has to have characters people understand and like. Let’s look at Adam's channel YourMovieSucksDOTorg for some clarification. His opinions on 2019's Detective Pikachu will set up what I’m looking for in Japanese IPs with a detective story structure.
“I guess that despite it technically being a kids movie, this is more geared towards adults who are susceptible to nostalgia bait. I mean, sure, it was pretty cool to look at a pokemon appear on the screen and be like, ‘i member what that pokemon is’, but what I’d like to consider is how you would feel about this film if you weren’t already attached to this universe. Think about it; if this were the first instance of any pokemmo property would anyone like this movie at all?
...the script was just bad. The best I can say about the writing is that the film actually did have some sort of structure. It met the bare minimum requirement to being an actual movie, I guess? But of course it’s completely derivative and unoriginal. There are annoyances and conveniences littered throughout the entire story. Nothing makes any sense and things just happen because the script needs it to happen.
Yeah I know it’s a kids movie, you’re right, I also think it’s a kids movie but it’s also very dumb.”
Contrivances in stories are somewhat difficult to rationalize and anime, in particular, has this issue in spades. But there’s a rationalization for every contrivance in Big O if you take the series as an homage. The film-noir setting ties into the sci-fi post-apocalypse anime tropes, which creates a perfect universe for stories: Paradigm City.
Roger Smith is a "negotiator", which is a slick way of saying he solves problems like a detective and it’s weird, but everyone in the world forgot how society worked anyway. He wears a black suit and sharp shades, carries briefcases of cash around, and secretly owns technology that saves the day. He has no superpowers and never kills. He is a gentleman, and Dorothy is never sexualized or disrespected for her appearance by Roger. He discounts her opinion because she's a less-than-human android, not a human being with normal emotions and feelings.
Roger Smith peels potatoes with his butler. He loses fights, often. His insights sometimes wind up being incorrect. Dorothy saves his life on many occasions, including the episode we'll be talking about next. He's charming but never chauvinistic. His dialogue with Dorothy often makes Roger look like a fool, a subversion because he's the main character but also the narrator (very film-noir). Also, Roger is not the main character. The show is 100% about R. Dorothy Wayneright.
!!!!! SKIP THIS SECTION IF YOU WANT TO AVOID SPOILERS !!!!!
The origin of R. Dorothy Wayneright is as tragic as it comes. She’s an android with a dead girl’s memories implanted in her, created in the image of her creator’s granddaughter. He makes her perform on stage for him in a red ball-gown and the implication here is that he's a creep. After the creep is killed she is abandoned, unwanted by the man who she remembers to be her father. Roger Smith takes her in as a housekeeper, and together they discover the secrets of Paradigm City.
R. Dorothy Wayneright's entire existence up until Roger Smith has been one of servitude, possibly sexual. It’s not even clear if she’s met another woman, let alone android. Her consciousness began with a set of alien memories and captivity. But throughout the entire show, her humanity is proven over and over again; it’s hilarious when she's putting Roger in his place. The questions she asks Roger never have a straightforward answer and she is never once confused. She empathizes with the enemies Roger fights, starting with the giant mech in the first episode.
R. Dorothy Wayneright's frame weighs hundreds of pounds, so she cannot use the elevator or be kidnapped easily. She has no facial expression and her speech is monotonous. This raises tons of unanswerable questions about Dorothy's identity, personhood, and agency: Is her consciousness similar to one of a human? Are her implanted memories as real as the memories she creates organically? What choices can androids make when they are discriminated against as people?
Well, she can adopt a cat.
!!!!! SKIP THIS SECTION ALSO IF YOU WANT TO AVOID SPOILERS !!!!!
In Episode 8, Missing Cat, a jewelry store is wrecked and the owner is missing (Catwoman anybody?). The only thing the police seem to care about is her missing dog, who they say is worth more than the entire yearly budget of the military police. I should mention this is the only society left in the world thanks to the apocalypse so that budget is pretty high, they got missiles and stuff. There is a body-horror creature found in the fountain and then a title card.
Dorothy finds a stray cat. She brings it home and it knocks some stuff off Roger’s desk, including his favorite hourglass.
(I’m pretty sure this implies that clocks do not exist in this universe because I do not remember ever seeing one, and Roger Smith’s watch that calls the giant robot doesn’t even tell time. If you think too hard about this the cars and other tech make this nonsense but it’s never going to be important this season. Worldbuilding is weird and fun and a big enough catastrophe can/will destroy the very foundation of your knowledge.)
Roger Smith tells Dorothy that the cat’s definitely owned by someone and worth a lot of money. Dorothy says the cat was calling out to be rescued and tells him that when the owners come to get it he should negotiate for the cat. That’s his job, after all. The owners show up after Dorothy has a montage of bonding with the cat.
The important note during these scenes is that Roger thinks Dorothy is bonding with the animal thanks to her implanted memories. But Dorothy never emotes like a human, physically or vocally. She is not sad that the cat has to be returned. She merely tells Roger to do what he’s good at so she can keep it. (She’s a commodity to be bought and sold and so are pets.) Dorothy clearly enjoys her time with the cat but her expressions tell the audience nothing. The cat even gets a cute little tuxedo! Typically, a female film-noir character might show sadness over having to give up a precious animal but Dorothy’s confidence is never shaken. During the montage, she discovers the memory of a tune to hum.
When the owners come to get the cat Roger offers them money but there is no price they will accept. The couple tell Roger that they consider the cat to be like their own son. Roger tells Dorothy that the owners are here and she should hand the cat back herself, as a gesture of goodwill. She immediately goes to do this when the villain arrives. There is no hesitation from Dorothy, she knows that it’s the right thing to do. Roger does not mansplain the situation or goad Dorothy into action, but instead sympathizes with her sadness and negotiates a compromise.
So the villain shows up in a Cowboy Bebop-looking spaceship and murders the couple, who seem more than willing to jump in front of a giant gun for that cat. Dorothy and the cat are kidnapped by the giant mechanical claw and whisked away to a secret laboratory under what seems to be the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
The villain, who treats Dorothy like subhuman mechanical trash, has invented genetic modification through a discovered memory. He can create life and has gone mad with power. He is obsessed with creating the perfect lifeform and surrounds himself with test tubes full of failed experiments. Dorothy is fearless and having none of it; she only wants to know where the cat is.
Roger Smith shows up and we get to meet the kaiju. It’s the cat. The villain has fused the cat into his giant monster to make it a more powerful watchdog. Roger calls up Big O and prepares to murder it, but Dorothy tells Roger not to kill the cat because the cat is actually a human soul.
The layer of story that subverts all the tropes this episode relies on is that the cat is literally the couple’s son. They paid the scientist to turn their human son into a pet worth millions upon millions of dollars. When Dorothy found the cat, she had a connection with it because of their shared experience. They are both inhuman creations with feelings that cannot be traditionally communicated.
The villain wanted to kidnap the cat back to “punish” the couple for their heartless decision, which is a deep motivation for a maniacal creation scientist. Dorothy calls out to the soul of the cat and recognizes the humanity in its horrible chimera form. The villain threatens to kill Dorothy, giving the creature two motivations to turn on his creator. It does. As the conflict is resolved Dorothy receives a pet from its tentacle and tells the creature to come and live with them. It walks into the burning building and kills itself. Dorothy never cries, but it does start to rain.
The end of the episode is Dorothy walking by the same place she found the cat. Her face has not changed but she still knows that tune. She asks Roger where he thinks the tune she hums comes from, her implanted memories, or something else?
Roger says that ultimately, it doesn’t matter because it belongs to her.
And robo-badass R. Dorothy Wayneright’s response?
A short silence. A “Thank you.” And she exits the camera shot. The music cuts.
If you are looking for a story that has a definitive conclusion, do not watch Big O. It isn’t a perfect anime and it will not be for people who dislike ambiguity. Because of how the show got canceled there is a lot of worldbuilding that I feel could have been done better over a longer time. The way they pronounce “megadeus” in the dub is the most distracting thing ever. The music is good but repetitive. The animation is as good if not better than Cowboy Bebop, but it’s still anime. The ending of season 1 is a cliffhanger but when you know the show got canceled midway, that is somewhat excusable. I personally enjoyed the ending but I’ll talk about that when I get around to season 2.
Overall this is a show I will recommend to anybody who likes good storytelling in animation. I do not consider myself an expert on anime, I have just watched a ton of it growing up and I read a book or two. But I love this show, and I hope that you’ll check it out.