The Big O (Za Biggu Ō) [Boxing Day Review]

The Big O (Za Biggu Ō) 1999

You can no doubt predict exactly what I’ll say about episodic storytelling by now, right?

This almost sums up the palette used throughout.

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.)

5 Stars

(A few images to follow)

A merry time was had by all.

Appleseed (Appurushīdo) (1988)

Appleseed (Appurushīdo) (1988)

I think you could argue that some classics hold their status by virtue of reaching certain storytelling spaces early, by being perhaps more influential rather than brilliant in their own right.

I’d argue that the 1988 OVA adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga fits that mold pretty neatly, since so many tropes, settings and ideas have carried forth well into the present, yet the film itself has its limitations.

Of course, the Appleseed manga is probably more key in terms of the influence I’m talking about (and obviously Akira before it) but the OVA is still part of the storytelling tradition that puts certain conventions and characters into the fore.

And while there’s certainly cyberpunk elements re: technology, rebellion in oppressive societies and augmentation, the film reads more like a Hollywood action blockbuster if you strip away those typical cyberpunk or science-fiction elements.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing either, that’s part of the fun for me when I watch it – it’s not unlike Lethal Weapon set in the 22nd Century!

So for me, what can I say represents Appleseed’s best parts?

Maybe the ‘time-capsule’ aspects – that ‘old-school’ anime character design which was usually a little rounder of face, with visible noses and sharper use of shadow, along with what I consider the wider, more generalised US influence – the big hair, 1980s workout-costuming, a montage sequence and a saxophone and light synth-soundtrack.

Add to that robotics, guns and explosions and a clear, linear ‘police-hunt-terrorists’ storyline and you’ve got Appleseed. Even Briareos and Deunan have a bit of a buddy-cop dynamic going on – though any such character interactions/development (or exploration of the social system in Olympus) tend to take a back seat to the action and tech. (There’s bits of humour here and there too but again, it’s not the focus either).

In fact, another joy for me tends to be seeing how the future is imagined both in terms of how society is organised and how technology might evolve – and Appleseed has both fascinating ideas and amusing moments common to a lot of 80s and 90s cyberpunk: especially when it comes to the office settings or communication technology.

Here, computers are massive, police still print on paper and phones have only reached ‘video’ and yet military tech and cybernetics are light years ahead. Audiences probably appreciate a good deal of familiar things in future-settings though, and predicting the future must be so, so very difficult. I tend to think speculative fiction writers do get it right pretty often too.

Where the OVA suffers in my opinion is due to some truly clunky dialogue and the missed opportunities to reveal more detail about the world and characters, something a series might have solved, but the movie still packs a lot into its runtime and I tend to prefer it over say, the 2004 adaptation, though nostalgia clearly plays into that feeling.

If you’re curious about the film’s place in the timeline of cyberpunk or maybe Shirow’s work in general, then you’ll probably pick up a few familiar themes and ideas – I remember feeling like the multi-leg tank was a clear precursor to GITS’s spider tank.

And speaking of that robot design and influence, I think some Boomer designs from Bubblegum Crisis might be a nod to Landmates and other robots in Appleseed, which is the kind of detail I tend to enjoy noticing because it reminds me just how interconnected storytelling tends to be!

4 Stars