#1 A Better Batman
Roger Smith. A mysterious, well-dressed man who lives in a lavish mansion on the outskirts of Paradigm City. He is what he calls “a negotiator”, a man who sorts out trouble by bringing parties together and resolving their differences. But when peaceful talks fail to bring forth a satisfying conclusion, Smith dons a different guise alltogether.
Secretly, the diplomatic gentleman is also the pilot of Big O; a giant robot with which he defends Paradigm City in a more direct fashion.
The comparison to DC’s Batman is hard to avoid and entirely intentional; strengthened by plot details like Roger employing the help of an eternally-loyal, elderly butler, as well as his tricky relationship with a high-ranking police officer. The Big O takes a lot of inspiration from Batman: The Animated Series, but in my opinion it takes the best of the inspirations and mixes that in with good ideas of its own. For Example, Roger Smith certainly carries the likeness of Bruce Wayne, but his demeanor is much more agreeable and diverse, rather than the constant brooding of the dark knight. In fact, those few times where Roger does take his mysterious persona too far are usually mocked by his companions and rivals alike.
If you enjoyed Batman and particularly The Animated Series, then The Big O will feel familiar in style and writing, but it offers a lot of new and refined ideas, while also trimming the fat from the series that inspired it. I was certainly impressed.
#2 Giant robots
Paradigm City has no shortage of crime, conspiracy, and other evildoers, but it’s also frequently threatened by the Megadeuses. Giant, towering robots, often controlled by villains, but also sometimes acting entirely of their own accord. The local police is woefully under-equipped for dealing with such problems, so Roger lends a hand instead.
Battles between the Megadeuses form the core The Big O‘s action scenes and they are certainly spectacular. Animation was handled by Studio Sunrise, but the Megadeuses feel very different from the mechas of any other Sunrise license. They’re lumbering giants who trot around Paradigm City almost like Kaiju, which is fitting as their fights frequently end up damaging large swathes of the city around them. Attacks also hit hard, frequently causing “realistic” damage to the robots.
An effort is also made to entirely contextualize the functionality of these machines. Their operators use pedals to move them forward, levers to wind up and throw punches, and the rockets, lasers, etc. that are thrown around correspond to buttons and switches. Focus is put on consistency, which makes the anime satisfying for those who love mechanical design in anime.
#3 Psychological theming
While the idea of “Batman with giant robots” sounds goofy on paper, The Big O is actually quite ambitious when it comes to writing. With the anime adaptation being handled by Chiaki J. Konaka (Serial Experiments Lain, Texhnolyze), a lot of focus is put on various psychological themes and the mindsets of the show’s characters.
Without getting into spoilers, the most prominent theme of the stories is memories. Everybody in Paradigm City has amnesia; all knowledge and identity has apparently been reset 40 years prior, leaving the residents to just pick up the pieces and figure out new identities for themselves. This becomes especially prevalent in season 2, which delves further into the mystery of Paradigm City and the true nature of its inhabitants.
Later episodes also deal with existentialism and the human condition, though in typical Chiaki fashion there are a lot of uncertainties to the story that are left up to the audience to discuss and think about.
#4 Neo-Noir style
The Big O is a more modern take at classic, mid-20th century noir films, mixed in with science fiction elements. This would prove to be a divisive mix of themes, leading to the anime fairing poorly in Japan, only to become somewhat of a cult hit overseas.
The noir style is most ovbious in the anime’s stellar directing, which borrows various stylistic choices like camera angles, shading, and even cheesy homages to famous scenes from film. Narration is also frequently used to strong effect and the design of Paradigm City itself evokes that old-timey American feel, which contrasts nicely against the city’s more futuristic aspects like the protective domes. Even Roger’s line-of-work as a negotiator frequently involves him just acting as private detective, which is of course iconic for the genre too.
It’s a unique style for an anime, but combined with the Batman influences it does lead to a show that more closely resembles a cartoon than typical anime of the time. I personally quite enjoyed how different it feels, though those who seek out anime specifically for its visual style may feel left out.
A major side-story across the series is Roger Smith’s involvement with two exceptional women, both of whom come to express some manner of romantic affection for him. One is R. Dorothy Wayneright, an android girl who comes to work at Roger’s estate, who has a surprisingly lovable personality for a character literally unable to express herself emotionally. However, she soon finds competition and develops an envious side when meeting “Angel”, a beautiful secret agent who alternates between competing against and cooperating with Roger on his various missions.
Both these subplots develop in a way that is uncharacteristic for anime in general, but I enjoyed them quite a lot and grew to be especially fond of Dorothy. Her straight-laced nature and snide comments make her unintentionally come off as antagonistic, but her and Roger’s actions communicate a strong bond between the two that occasionally gets some sweet pay off.
That is not to say that I dislike Angel. She is a fantastic character herself and has a lot of great moments with Roger, but even the show itself prefers to focus on Dorothy, with Angel often remaining in the background until she rises to prominence later in the series. Still, her synergy with Roger is more openly romantic and, one would argue, more biologically viable.