In the wake of Neon Genesis Evangelion over 25 years ago, the mecha genre has had few standouts. The Big O should have been one of them. It's an anime unlike any other, a blending of Eastern and Western animation trends and storytelling styles to create an easily approachable yet extremely complex tale. What begins as Batman: The Animated Series wherein our rich, perpetually black-clad protagonist solves Paradigm City's problems as The Negotiator, slowly becomes an existential battle, not only for Roger's sense of place in the universe, but the entire city's as well.
The first season of The Big O is mostly episodic. In it we follow Roger Smith, the pilot of a lumbering giant robot called Big O. The city, Paradigm, lost all of its memories 40 years ago but life has continued regardless. Inside the city, domes were built for the rich to live under while the poor are forced to subside outside in squalor. Androids walk among humans and giant robots called Mega Deuces appear seemingly whenever someone remembers something they should have forgotten. In pursuit of those memories is the Paradigm Corporation and its mentally unstable chairman, Alex Rosewater.
The Big O explores memories through episodic vignettes in which we meet an eclectic cast of fun characters such as Dorothy, a sarcastic android; Norman, Roger's butler; Angel, a femme fatale; and Beck, the comedic relief villain. All are memorable and given plenty of time to shine through little moments or even whole episodes dedicated to them. Even the robots have their own personality, with the main machines (called Megadeuces) reflecting the style of the series while other villainous mechas offer campy takes on classic designs (think VOLTRON or even toy robots from the 50s.)
Season two is where this episodic steam-punky noir becomes a different beast entirely. While still chock full of action, comedy, and pulpy flavor, it grows more navel-gazey. Roger begins to question why he can pilot Big O, the nature of Paradigm City, and why exactly no one has memories. As viewers approach the finale...let's just say the last couple episodes are heady and artistic in ways you wouldn't expect from an anime where giant robots punch each other for a quarter of the run time.
I can admit that this series is an ultraspecific amalgamation of weird things I personally like. Giant robots, noir, art deco aesthetic, the Alejandro Jodorowsky-style ending. I specifically divided the show into two halves because I know a lot of people will enjoy season one but have seen how season two doesn't gel with those same viewers. For me, it's a perfect series as a whole, for others they'll get more out of one half or the other.
Backing away from the story, let's talk more about the animation. I've made a couple of references to Batman: The Animated Series and anyone looking at the images or trailer will likely make the same connection (there's also some obvious inspiration from Giant Robo only obvious to the two people who remember Giant Robo). Sunrise was no stranger to Batman as they actually did contract work for that series.
Utilizing what they learned from working with that style, you can see they refined it to suit the purposes of their original narrative. With the addition of the soundtrack (with fantastic tracks like "Stand a Chance" and the ending theme "And Forever"), the aesthetic evokes not just that style of noir but also the camp of old kaiju movies and even shows like Scooby-Doo. All while maintaining a slick, artistic approach to episode construction and direction with one standout, "Winter Night Phantom" (episode 10), being the episode I show anyone on the fence about tackling The Big O. It gives me goosebumps every time.
The Big O is one of my favorite anime and deserves more attention from the anime viewing public. While I will admit there are a few middling episodes that slow an otherwise perfectly paced show, there is nothing about the series I dislike. It's a unique anime that combines a buffet of disparate elements into a fun yet thought-provoking 26 episodes.
Ironically enough "the city of amnesia" in which The Big O takes place will stick with you for a long time after watching.
Rating: 4 out of 4 Stars (RECOMMENDED)
The Big O is available on home video from Sentai Filmworks.