You can no doubt predict exactly what I’ll say about episodic storytelling by now, right?
I’m definitely a fan of it – but The Big O ticks a lot of boxes for me outside its mostly episodic structure too.
First, there’s the slowly unfolding mystery in an unsettling but familiar city, then there’s androids, revolving villains, a dramatic multi-genre OST and finally; retro-looking mecha placed within a very 20th Century aesthetic – the mash-up is fantastic.
Having said that, if you don’t enjoy (almost) madcap mixes of conventions and genres, you probably won’t end up liking The Big O too much.
Despite the strong Batman/James Bond feel to the series, and despite the noir detective stuff happening on the surface, I still think that there’s enough dissonance and enough of the philosophical maybe, to deter folks who prefer a focus on a single genre or tone.
But again, that’s one of my favourite aspects of The Big O – that and the stylish character designs and art deco visuals.
I’ll take a shot at exploring the premise just quickly:
Roger Smith is a negotiator/investigator living in Paradigm City, known as the city of amnesia (for reasons which I won’t spoil). There, he is eventually pulled into the mystery of whatever event wiped everyone’s memory forty years ago, aided by former client, Dorothy – an advanced android.
To hopefully evoke a sense of tone here, I want to mention one person involved in the production – Chiaki J. Konaka. As with all collaborative arts, I think it’s cruel to point to only one person, especially in a review, but I think if I mention Chiaki then that might give a few clues as to the tone and direction of this series – especially the second season.
If I step away from my rhapsodising about the series for a moment, I’ll maybe get enough distance to point out some things that I didn’t love. Firstly, Roger is kind of a jerk and essentially mistreats Dorothy for nearly the whole series. And speaking of Dorothy, if you take a look at what she can do in the first two episodes for example, she is truly under-utilised by the story.
I believe more than a few people agree that Season 1 tends to be stronger than Season 2 (actually, I only took screencaps from S1 mainly due to time).
Three or four years later and the animation quality does get a boost for the sequel season, but for me, the powerful mysteries established in those first thirteen episodes aren’t all answered as satisfyingly as I’d hoped. (I also wished that Swchartzman got a little more screentime somehow, as I tended to really enjoy him and his monologues!)
In contrast to my comparative disappointment with the second season, there were still plenty of things that I continued to think about afterward. More, the audience does get a few answers in time, along with one reveal that had nearly as much impact as the stunning ending of episode 13, for me.
Okay, so now that I’ve finally reached this point in the review, I think it’s time to wrap things up – until my next post, where I want to try a bit of visual analysis on episode 3 of The Big O.
In the meantime, I hope I’ve made you at least a little curious about this ‘old’ anime! (It’s been in my top ten for a long time and I don’t see it leaving any time soon, but it did slip down a rung on the ladder at one point.)
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Excited to (finally) get my second OWLS post up and running – we’re looking at ‘Folklore’ and the Supernatural for August – thanks again to the team for the opportunity to jump in 🙂
Witch Hunter Robin (2002)
Witch Hunter Robin was released right around a ‘heyday’ for live-action Supernatural television. In the late ‘90s, shows like Sabrina,Charmed, Buffy, Angel and the X-Files were reigning kings here (doubtless in the US too) and I think traces of those shows are clear in this series.
On the other hand, in anime, the Supernatural sub-genre has probably been more consistently popular, independent of US trends, but Witch Hunter Robin has plenty of European mythology and ‘US crime show’ mixed into its Japanese setting. You could argue, perhaps that it’s a bit like another Sunrise anime, Cowboy Bebop, in that respect (only).
And there are definitely a few production aspects that lock Witch Hunter Robin into that time-period too, but while one of them is a mark against the show, I’m considering most of them as drawcards, rather than issues 😀
Okay, so here’s a tiny note on the premise: the series follows young witch-hunter Robin of Italy, as she adjusts to the STN-J, a sophisticated and powerful organisation tasked with capturing rogue witches… and innocent people who have yet to manifest their powers.
Now, since I tend to think of myself as maybe slightly favouring Concept over Execution, I really enjoyed the PKD ‘pre-crime’ aspect to Witch Hunter Robin. And while what happens to witches and ‘seeds’ in the series is sadly similar to what authoritarian governments continue to do to minorities, I’d have loved a bit more critique of that system… still, it’s hardly glossed over.*
Visually, the anime makes me think of a slightly grimier noir. It’s an aesthetic that I could maybe argue that Grunge helped popularise, and which extended into the 2000s… or perhaps I’m reading too much into that, and it’s more apt to consider it as something director Murase Shukou likes to use?
In any event, if you enjoyed that and certain other things about his works (like Ergo Proxy, Gangsta and even Genocidal Organ) well, they also appear to varying extents here in Witch Hunter Robin. Especially I think, a fondness for shadow, of dark coats, mysteries and ‘slow’ pacing.
So, I just alluded to the pacing, and in terms of the ‘main’ storyline – you will have to wait a bit for it to really kick-in. There’s a fair establishing phase where ‘monster of the week’ plots provide the action and world-building, and only small hints of the big picture, interspersed with quieter moments for Robin and other characters.
The series does build up to something big, but depending on your general familiarity with science-fiction and supernatural tropes, I think you’d see most of those things coming. But I was hooked on the characters and the tensions between them so that was no problem for me.
Most folks in the team have their secrets and even some of the minor characters too, and so there’s definitely time spent there, which I liked. In fact, my favourite episode or moment was probably the one focusing on ‘Master’, the cafe owner – and if I think about it now, he probably makes a bigger impact than a few of the leads.
So, as I sometimes do – I’m switching to dot points in a hopeless token gesture toward brevity:
Unpacking and dealing with some of the issues and discoveries Robin and her partners faced did seem compressed toward the end, and so I can see that as a flaw, even if it didn’t bother me too much personally.
Robin herself is kinda morose, though she’s not without spark. But her (maybe) obvious depression is sort of echoed elsewhere in the series, and so I definitely consider it a feature rather than a bug.
It’s interesting how little in the way of dialogue Robin has in some episodes, you have to read into a lot from her expressions, which are also repressed.
While this isn’t a typical action anime, I noticed that the animation for those scenes at times didn’t always feel fluid compared to other shows.
CGI. Above any other issue here, I suspect a modern audience might have trouble with this one. It definitely adds to the general grimy and downbeat tone of the series, though most of it has aged quite poorly. Just two years later, things would be looking better in say, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, but neither anime resembles a new series with a high budget. Maybe it’s part of the charm for me, but it’s fascinating to note this would have been cutting edge in 2002. How fast technology moves, right?
The aspects around witchcraft, folklore and lineage was something I would have liked more of, and maybe that could have happened with a second season… but on the other hand, I like where Witch Hunter Robin ended too.
Character design stood out for me, as did costuming – even Robin’s courier moments. Mostly, I suspect I enjoyed all the ‘coats’ – not just your classic dark trench for the STN-J, but Robin’s more complex outfit or Nagira’s white fur, which really catches the eye.
Nagira himself quickly became a fav too, especially when Amon seems to occupy the role of ‘jerk’ for a little too long.
The opening song was pretty ace, very much of the era, and within the series itself I liked the sombre piano to Robin’s theme. While I mostly remember that piece, there’s also Flame which is plenty dramatic.
And finally, it’s recommendation time!
You’ll see that I’ve rated it the series a ‘5’ but that’s me – if you’re not me, which is pretty likely, then you might not enjoy this as much as I did.
Especially if you have trouble with old CGI or pacing that’s more Mystery than Action, or if you are drawn to more upbeat lead characters. However, if you like other works of Murase Shukou, noir-influenced supernatural shows, leads who are not precisely ‘open books’, then this might just appeal.
*[Bit of a spoiler perhaps] Nagira, who appears as the Yakuza lawyer, and who operates essentially as a criminal, is the one advocating for and protecting ‘seeds’ in Witch Hunter Robin.
And in an all too common reflection upon real life – you have a large corporation with government-level surveillance and a militant arm, which is obsessed with order and control, and thus ‘becomes’ the true villain.
And while Robin at first works for them, and maybe believes in their mandate, she eventually comes to rail against it all, with Nagira’s help.
Here’s a few examples of where the CGI reveals its age:
And now a few extra shots because I wanted to add them, basically 😀