Written by Alexander Greco
August 9, 2020
It’s been a long time coming.
Big O could’ve gone down in anime history alongside Neon Genesis Evangelion as one of the best giant mech anime of all time, and even as one of the best anime in general of all time.
However, Big O suffered not only similar flaws as Neon Genesis, but enough other of its own flaws that it is hardly even remembered (ironically). It’s a forgotten relic of the late 90’s and early 00’s: a giant robot anime that tried to fuse neo-noir Gotham-City-style action and mystery with the Modernist techno-dystopia style of movies like Metropolis, Bladerunner and Dark City.
Underlying this neo-noir, Modernist dystopia are questions of existentialism: free will, purpose, meaning, the relationship of the individual to society and the universe, the nature of being. And here, we can begin to see how Big O inevitably failed where an anime like Neon Genesis succeeded. Big O spread itself out across too many themes.
Both shows ran for 26 episodes, both were unique takes on the giant mech genre, and both were incredibly ambitious—delving into depths many “deep” anime only scratched at. The problem with Big O was that it was too scattered, too schizophrenic and too self-aware. Where Neon Genesis never felt like it was trying to be anything other than Neon Genesis, Big O felt like it was trying to be Kafka, Huxley, Orwell, Joyce, Bradbury and Asimov all at once.
Where Neon Genesis had a solid structure, a solid core to it (albeit a structure/core that was difficult to articulate at times, but was at all times clearly felt), Big O feels unstable, loose and uncertain. It’s difficult to even know how one should feel about it.
And, as one final critique, Hideaki Anno is simply a better story writer. Neon Genesis was able to wedge its characters and the central plot into our minds almost immediately, then develop the characters, plot and themes at a perfect pace (until, of course, the very end). Big O just has too much going on: too many sub-plots, too many mysteries, too many revolving-door-characters and standalone story-arcs.
The plot of NGE builds and stacks itself, like the stories of a tower, where Big O schizophrenically assembles the disparate and thinly-associated pieces of a broad puzzle. 90% of the characters appear in only one or two episodes; most individual or standalone story-arcs support the broader plot and themes, but are much more self-contained; and the philosophical themes of the story can never agree with each other on what questions they ought to be asking.
While this style of storytelling—the neo-noir, mystery/detective style of a succession of standalone plots supporting a larger plot—can work incredibly well if executed properly (such as in Cowboy Bebop), Big O was too cluttered to execute it as well as it should have been.
However, I did in fact start this analysis saying, “Big O could’ve gone down in history…” and I mean it. I want there to be no confusion here, despite my criticism, how I feel about this anime.
I love this anime.
Big O has such fucking style, such unique blends of themes and aesthetics, and such memorable, if not at times flawed, characters, plot points, scenes, settings and tone.
God, I fucking love this anime.
Big O was ambitious. In many ways, it was an homage to the science fiction, noir and modernism of the 20th century, and borrowed quite a lot from series like NGE and Batman (yes, there’s a lot of Batman in this show), but in many was its own, wholly unique show, tempered by the style and storytelling of anime.
This show is incredibly fun and unique—the robot fights, by the way, are sweet and plentiful—and the show contains quite a lot of depth to it, as well as good complexity beneath all the not-so-good complexity. And so, with the rest of this article, I will delve into the depths and attempt to come to terms with Big O.
There is a lot I won’t be able to cover. There is a lot you will simply have to experience for yourself and try to understand in your own fashion. But this analysis will hopefully provide a solid framework to understanding Big O.
If you don’t want spoilers: stop reading, go watch the short 2 seasons of Big O, and come back and read this when you’re done.
I will try to keep the initial explanation of Big O as short as I can, but, if you know Big O well enough, feel free to skip to the Literary and Structural analysis. Or, feel free to skip the next part and come back to it as a reference (or just do whatever).
Setting, History and Plot of Big O
Big O is set in Paradigm City, “a city of Amnesia”. There are a number of domes throughout the city: giant, spherical, glass-and-steel enclosures that separate the rich from the poor. The city within the domes is affluent, clean and often beautiful—the parts of cities you see on post-cards or Google-image searches—and the massive domes provide artificial skies and sunlight. The city outside the domes are run-down, dirty and bleak—the parts of cities you see when you actually drive through the cities in post-card—and are fully exposed to the “real sky”, a perpetually overcast sky where the Sun, stars and Moon are never visible.
On one side of the city is an ocean, where hundreds of drowned skyscrapers peak out from the water’s surface. On the other side of the city is a vast, desolate wasteland—a desert where even more of the city’s past is buried beneath the sand (evidenced by images of buried buildings, abandoned military outposts and even a sand-covered amusement park).
It is suggested that there is no civilization outside of Paradigm City—no countries or other cities beyond the ocean and the desert—but there is a mysterious group known as “The Union”, led by Vera Rondstadt, who are comprised of “foreigners”. However, even the legitimacy of these people being “foreigners” is called into question.
There are a number of other factions in Paradigm City in addition to The Union, but the two most important ones are the Military Police, led by Dan Datsun, and the Paradigm Corporation, led by Alex Rosewater. The Military Police act, as the name would imply, as both the domestic police force and the military army of Paradigm City, though they are also work under Paradigm Corp as the corporation’s “watchdogs”. Paradigm Corp essentially controls or rules over Paradigm City and all the organizations and business within the city.
It is remarked at one point that a business Roger is asked to work for is controlled by a parent company, and Roger states that anytime “parent company” is mentioned, it inevitably refers to Paradigm Corp.
The nature, design and isolation of Paradigm City, the perpetually gray skies and the drowned and buried cityscape surrounding Paradigm City are all a result of the City’s past.
No one in Paradigm City can remember anything prior to 40 years ago, though there are many relics of the past—such as the titular mecha, Big O—and many citizens of Paradigm City have scattered or partial memories of the past. While these memories play a large part in the show, they are also a great mystery in the show, even after its conclusion
What we can surmise from these memories, and from revelations throughout the show, is that there was some great and likely worldwide catastrophe 40 years ago. We are shown visions of Paradigm City engulfed in flame. Giant mechas known as Megadeus, or the plural Megadei, are rampaging through the streets or flying through the skies. While there are only three individual Megadei in the show’s present time—Big O, Big Duo and Big Fau, with a number of other “Bigs” that don’ qualify as Megadei—in the memories of 40 years ago, we see vast armies of Megadei.
Hundreds of Big O mechas march through the streets, with hundreds of Big Duos flying through the sky, and at least one Big Fau. On top of this, we see a number of other “Bigs” battling the Megadei, many of which are also present throughout the contemporary story of Big O.
In addition to the Megadei, there are also human-esque androids that have survived from the past. While most of these androids are quite obviously robotic, a few of them, such as R Dorothy Wayneright (one of the main characters of the show). The existence of androids like Dorothy also calls into question who is and who isn’t an android. These androids were constructed in the past, and only a few survivors of the past apocalypse remember how to construct androids. The same goes for the Megadei—only a few people know how to construct or repair the Megadei, and even fewer know what the nature or purpose of the Megadei are.
With the past ever-looming over the present events of Big O, the plot revolves around Roger Smith, Paradigm City’s “top negotiator” (or just, “The Negotiator”) and the pilot of the Megadeus, Big O. While working for a plethora of clients throughout the City as “The Negotiator”, Roger Smith secretly pilots Big O and protects the residents of the City from various attacks and catastrophes, and slowly works to unravel the history and the secrets of Paradigm City.
The protagonist of Big O is, of course, Roger Smith and his Megadeus, Big O.
Roger Smith is characterized as a sort of Bruce Wayne/Batman character: a wealthy individual who possesses an array of technology and resources, and secretly protects the city as the pilot of Big O (which could be argued is Roger Smith’s alter ego). Roger Smith as The Negotiator works outside of the various political and social forces of Paradigm City, and, as the pilot of Big O, works outside the law.
At one point in the rememberable past, Roger Smith worked as a Military Police, but left, presumably, because of the police’s connection to Paradigm Corp and the resulting corruption of the police. Nonetheless, Roger is still friends with and frequently works in tandem with one of the primary officers/commanders of the MP, Dan Datsun.
However, as the history of Paradigm City unfolds, Roger Smith’s character likewise unfolds. It is suggested that Roger Smith is a creation of the Paradigm Corporation. It is also suggested that Roger Smith was one of many “creations” of the Paradigm Corporation from the City’s past, and even, possibly, a member or associate of Paradigm City.
If one reads between the lines a bit, it may even be that Roger Smith himself is an android (and once you see it, it’s hard to unsee it). For me, this is evidenced in Roger Smith’s mannerisms and behavior throughout the show, particularly in Roger’s dialogues with Dorothy. Roger’s speech patterns, logical processes and behavior seems to mirror Dorothy’s own, much more pronounced mechanical behavior and logic.
Dorothy is probably the second-most primary character in the show, though her place in the show is often rivaled with Angel (who plays arguably the largest role in the show’s conclusion).
R Dorothy Wayneright is an android created by Miguel Soldano, who was commissioned to create her by the affluent Timothy Wayneright. Timothy Wayneright presumably had a now-deceased human daughter named Dorothy, whom the android Dorothy was modeled after.
The show begins with Roger saving Dorothy as a part of his contract with Soldano, learning after this that Dorothy has a “sister” who is in fact a giant mech, or Big, who Roger defeats in robot-combat. Dorothy eventually decides to stay with Roger in his mansion and work for him out of gratitude. While initially she mostly does housework alongside Roger’s butler, Norman, she begins assisting Norman with the repair and maintenance of Big O and aids Roger in his negotiation contracts and his giant robot side hustle.
Dorothy is a unique android in several ways. While most androids in the city follow Asimov’s three rules of robotics, Dorothy frequently does not, particularly in her relationship with Roger (though this may be evidence of Roger’s own robotic nature). In addition to her passive aggression and, at times, blatant insults towards Roger, she begins developing a romantic attraction towards Roger, which, to the despair of Dorothy, Roger denies. This also shows that Dorothy is capable of human emotion, particularly jealousy, but she also is shown to possess other human capacities, such as fear, sadness, contempt, self-awareness, and (in one short but glorious shot) smugness.
Dorothy is also one of a few androids who appears on the surface level to be entirely human, and Dorothy has some sort of unexplained connection to Big O. On top of this, she has some sort of empathic connection to other “Bigs” and other androids or machines.
Angel appears early on in the show, going by the alias Casseey Jones, and then later as Patricia Lovejoy. After calling herself “Angel”, Roger remarks that she is a “Fallen Angel”. Angel works for Paradigm Corp, though she seems to have her own agenda. Later, it is revealed that Angel is a part of the Union, which is a group of foreigners living outside of Paradigm City (though it is mentioned by their leader, Vera, that they were actually “cast out” of Paradigm City 40 years ago) who rebel against Paradigm Corp/City.
Angel often works either alongside Roger Smith, or at odds with Roger Smith—their motivations and agendas oscillating between allyship and conflict. However, as the show progresses, Angel and Roger seem to develop a romantic relationship, which is at odds with Dorothy’s romantic attachment to Roger (which at one point results in Dorothy’s aforementioned smugness).
It is later revealed that Angel has two scars going down her back, which is even later suggested to be where “wings” have been “cut off”. There are frequent allusions to Angel being Lucifer, or something equivalent in the story’s narrative. In the show’s conclusion, she becomes the pilot of Big Venus, the fourth Megadeus. Big Venus—Venus being an allusion to the Morningstar, being a name for Lucifer—essentially “resets” the show and returns Paradigm City to the amnesic state it was at the beginning of Big O.
Schwarzwald (“Black Forest” in German) is only an active character in a handful of episodes, but he is a major character in these episodes, and his presence is felt throughout the show—particularly in philosophical narrations permeating the show, even after his death.
Schwarzwald, born Michael Seebach, is the pilot of the Megadeus, Big Duo, and is motivated towards exposing the truth of Paradigm City’s corruption, its many secrets and its forgotten past. In addition towards this motivation, which he frequently gives manic monologues about, he seems to revere the Megadei as godly creations, or perhaps even as gods themselves (the Megadei and other Bigs as gods being a semi-frequent theme throughout the show).
Schwarzwald uses his Megadeus, Big Duo, to combat Roger Smith and Big O, but, while initially having the upper hand, is finally defeated by Roger and “dies” in the event. However, it is implied that Schwarzwald’s “ghost” may still be lingering in the City, still searching for the Truth.
Alex and Gordon Rosewater
Alex Rosewater is the leader of Paradigm Corp, the corporation in control of Paradigm City, and eventually becomes the pilot of Big Fau, the “Third Big” or third Megadeus. Alex Rosewater looks down on the poor population of Paradigm City, who reside outside the domes, and uses the Military Police to pursue his own goals, rather than for the protection of the City. Alex possesses something like a God Complex, and believes himself to be a superior Dominus to Roger Smith (“Dominus” being a term referring to the pilot of a Megadeus).
However, while Big Fau seems to be technologically superior to Big O, Alex does not seem to be as capable of a pilot as Roger and cannot maintain control over Big Fau as Roger maintains control over Big O.
Gordon Rosewater is the father of Alex Rosewater, and in some ways seems to be the ultimate “king” or patriarch of Paradigm City. He was in charge of Paradigm Corp before Alex was, and it is revealed that the construction of the contemporary Paradigm City (the domes, in particular) and the construction of androids was done under Gordon’s rule.
In the present times of Paradigm City/Corp, Gordon resides in his own personal dome where he lives on a large and beautiful farm and raises tomato crops. The tomato crops are implied to be something of a metaphor for Gordon’s creations—including the androids, “humans” such as Roger and Alex, and possibly even the Megadei themselves. After Roger Smith’s first encounter with Gordon Rosewater, Roger begins questioning if he himself “is a tomato”—a creation, crop and commodity of Gordon and Paradigm Corp.
While Big O and the other Megadei aren’t necessarily characters in the same sense that Roger Smith, Dorothy, Angel and so on are, they do play an integral role to the plot and history of the show, and it is frequently implied that they possess some level of sentience. The Megadei and other Bigs are also semi-frequently referred to or revered as gods.
The three primary Megadei are Big O, Big Duo and Big Fau. With frequent allusions throughout the show to Behemoth and Leviathan from Judeo-Christian myth and lore, it has been speculated that the three Megadei are partially symbolic of Behemoth, Leviathan and Ziz, Big O is entirely land-based, which would align with Behemoth, a giant land monstere; Big Duo is capable of flight, with the Ziz being a flying creature in Jewish mythology; and Big Fau is capable of maneuvering through water, with the Leviathan being a sea creature.
While typically not included in the roster of primary Megadei, there is the fourth Megadeus, Big Venus, which, as stated before, could be symbolic of Lucifer. This may also complete the metaphor of land, air and water, with Lucifer often being associated to fire (the “fourth element” of classical philosophy and alchemic writings). In the conclusion of Big O, Big Venus seems to be the force that brings an end to the current iteration of Paradigm City, resulting in the new era of Paradigm City where everyone has lost their memory once again.
In addition to the three/four primary Bigs, there are a number of other Bigs, as well as giant monsters, including (but not limited to):
– Dorothy-1, Dorothy’s Big sister
– The Archetype, a proto-Megadeus that appeared in one of the Schwarzwald
– Bonaparte, a Big controlled by the Union
– The Bigs created by Beck, various Bigs created and controlled by the recurring side character, a criminal known as Beck
– Eel and Hydra Eel, organic Bigs that utilized electricity (which appear both in the contemporary story and in memories of the past)
– Leviathan, a serpent-like mechanical Big that came from the desert
Structural and Literary Analysis
As you may have surmised from my “brief” summary of Big O, there are a lot of details and moving parts to this anime, as well as many things I didn’t mention.
I’ve only “briefly” discussed the main components of the anime, and there are single episodes that could have their own, individual analyses written over them. Just like Big O’s Big Brother, Neon Genesis, there’s too much to comprehensively discuss in one analysis, so—like I did with NGE—this analysis will be a broader exploration of the show, attempting to provide something more like a foundation or framework to understand the many individual components of the show.
Hopefully, however, this will be a shorter analysis.
First, we have to examine the setting of Big O, Paradigm City.
Paradigm City has as handful of major components: its history, its design and the ocean and desert surrounding it.
However, while the design of Paradigm City and the geography it is embedded within are meaningful, the history of the City is most important to understanding Big O.
Paradigm City is a city with amnesia. No one can remember anything about its history prior to 40 years ago, with the exception of a small number of people who can recall fragments of its past in brief glimpses.
At the conclusion of Big O, Paradigm City is essentially reset to its initial state at the beginning of Big O. The City is being rebuilt, and, presumably, none of the characters remember the events that took place throughout the anime. There are implications that Paradigm City has changed after its latest “apocalypse”, with the City still partially destroyed and Angel and Dorothy being shown together, possibly as friends or companions rather than beginning the show not knowing each other.
However, we can also presume that the state of Paradigm City at the beginning of the show was different than the state of Paradigm City prior to 40 years ago, and we can presume that history will repeat itself again.
This, in many ways, is the state of society and civilization as it is now—as it ever is, was and will be in “the now”.
While our history looms over us as an ever-present ghost, or maybe more accurately as a revenant, so much of our history is lost to us. Even the history that we can remember, the brief glimpses of the past that is recorded in our history books, is lost to most of us. We are so caught up in the tides of the present that we forget the lessons of the past.
And with this forgetting of the past, we forget our place in history. Nietzsche described Modern Humanity as begin disassociated from the rest of history, as being unmoored from its past, and so having no clear understanding of who or what they are, what their place, purpose or meaning in existence is, and no understanding of where to move on from here.
With Paradigm City’s past being so shrouded, it’s nearly impossible to understand the ongoing, historical narrative that one is a part of.
It is implied that the Megadei were created, and even mass produced, by Paradigm Corp under the rule of Gordon Rosewater, but what was their function or purpose? Why were they created and what was their function?
We don’t even necessarily know that Gordon and his intentions were evil, as his character is highly ambivalent to the plot and meaning of the show. If we don’t know what happened 40 years ago and why it happened, then how can we understand what is currently happening.
In addition, it is implied that androids, even Roger Smith androids, were created and mass produced by Gordon/Paradigm Corp. What were their purposes? Roger Smith is shown in a flashback as wearing a military uniform while piloting one of the mass produced Big O’s during the great event that resulted in the end of the previous historical era. It is also revealed that Roger Smith as The Negotiator had a contract with Gordon Rosewater prior to 40 years ago, which is contrasted to Roger’s current distrust and contempt towards Paradigm Corp. What was Roger Smith’s purpose?
And what does Roger Smith’s shrouded history say about his current purpose in the present era?
Why does Robert Smith pilot Big O? Why is he The Negotiator? Why does he disdain Paradigm Corp, and why is he constantly seeking the Truth of Paradigm City’s history?
While Schwarzwald in many ways is a foil to Roger Smith, he is also a mirrored image to Roger Smith. Just like Roger Smith, Schwarzwald seeks the Truth, battles against the perceived corruption of the City, and pilots the Megadeus, Big Duo.
Schwarzwald might in fact be the underlying or unconscious manifestation of Roger’s obsession with uncovering the secrets of the past and present, and his motivation to do good for the world. Schwarzwald is like a ghost throughout the show—a spirit that refuses to die, even after physical destruction. Schwarzwald is the manic, unconscious motivations we shroud and repress, but that still emerge from beneath our surfaces in all our beliefs, motivations and actions.
This repression, however, may be healthy. The irony of Schwarzwald’s search for the Truth is how blind he is to his own actions and decisions. Where Roger is tempered by his self-awareness and his awareness of the ethics of his actions, Schwarzwald is reckless and blind to the destruction his own pursuit of Truth and righteous vindication engender upon the innocent and down-trodden.
Here, we can find something I’ve personally been thinking quite a lot about lately: the relationship of moral values and the resulting actions and motivations.
Schwarzwald is obsessed with uncovering the Truth and executing vengeance upon Paradigm Corp/City. These are his highest values.
However, while these values are important to Roger, they are subordinated under his desire to protect the citizens of Paradigm City. Whatever Roger’s past is, whatever his purpose and role in Paradigm City was and is, he is driven by his current moral obligation to protect the City.
Roger even mentions on several occasions that he is not defined by the past—something Gordon Rosewater also mentions. Gordon at one point says that he hopes one of his creations can break free of its pre-ordained purpose or role, and decide its own fate.
Still, it is ambivalent whether this is accomplished or even possible.
If Roger was a soldier and Megadeus pilot prior to 40 years ago, as well as a Negotiator working under Gordon Rosewater, and if Roger became a Military Police member before once again becoming The Negotiator and pilot of Big O, then has Roger simply returned to his prior role? And will he return to this role with the resetting of society?
Has and will Roger always be a soldier, Negotiator and Megadeus pilot whose role in the grand narrative of Paradigm City always been to protect the citizens of the civilization?
And one final, and quite obvious note, on Paradigm City and Paradigm Corp is the name itself, “Paradigm”.
The original and primary definition of a paradigm is as a pattern, a reoccurring set of events or circumstances, or an underlying structure.
Plato used the idea of a paradigm in his metaphysical notion of the Demiurge creating reality from a model or pattern.
Merriam-Webster defines a paradigm as “a philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school or discipline within which theories, laws, and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated; broadly: a philosophical or theoretical framework of any kind.”
When speaking more cynically about a paradigm in the context of society, government, law, etc., the paradigm of a society is essentially the ruling ideology, the ruling narrative or the ruling way of thinking and being. While the definition of paradigm is a complicated one, the use of paradigm in Big O in all its complexity may be intentional.
In this way, Paradigm City may be a City of Patterns, a City of Eternal Reoccurrence. But, Paradigm City may also be referring to the ruling ideology that permeates a society or culture.
The Paradigm, on the surface, may be the oppressive and dominant paradigm of the City’s rulers and elite—the paradigm created by Alex and Gordon Rosewater. But underlying this, the Paradigm of Big O may be the cyclical pattern of history, and the cyclical pattern of roles that individuals play in that history.
Roger’s paradigm is that of protector and Negotiator—mediating between the citizens and the higher powers of Paradigm City.
In concordance with a paradigm is a paradigm shift, a revolution in the ways of thinking. While this idea of a paradigm shift originated and is used more in the sciences—with Einstein and Darwin being two of the biggest examples of people who caused a paradigm shift—the idea can be applied to nearly anything with an ideological, legal, social or philosophical framework.
In Big O, the paradigm shift is the shift in society Alex Rosewater and Vera Ronstadt both seek.
Alex Rosewater as the figurehead of Paradigm Corp seeks to cleanse the city of “undesirables” (poor people, essentially, but also foreigners and others) and create a better, more perfect world. Vera Ronstadt as the figurehead of the Union seeks to destroy Paradigm Corp and create a world that accepts the “undesirables”, and possibly even where the “undesirables” are in power.
It could be argued (though it would be a pretty reductionist argument) that these two forces and their desired paradigm shift are equivalent to the two primary political forces, particularly in Western society: Liberalism and Conservatism. However, the term “Liberal” has been somewhat bastardized as of late, so a better comparison would probably be: Progressivism and Conservatism.
At their ultimate examples, Communism and Fascism (in many ways similar, but still the hyper-products of far-left-wing and far-right-wing politics), we see direct parallels to Paradigm Corp and The Union. The Union seeks a grand levelling of a society, essentially calling for a destruction of culture where the disempowered rule, and Paradigm Corp seeks a grand cleansing of a society, essentially calling for a Holocaust of those outside the ruling culture where the empowered rule.
Angel, who works both for Paradigm Corp and the Union, and is frequently allied with Roger Smith, sits squarely in the middle of this Paradigm Shift, and inevitably is the driver of the final Paradigm Shift resulting in a New World, or new iteration of Paradigm City. She is the pilot of the Big Venus, the Morningstar—the Lucifer or Light-Bearer of the apocalypse who brings about and oversees the final battle of the revolutionary moment.
Not only this, it is (confusingly) revealed that Angel is the daughter of Vera Ronstadt and/or Gordon Rosewater—the Matriarch of the Union and Patriarch of Paradigm Corp/City. Angel worked throughout the show on both sides, working both for Alex Rosewater and for the Union.
And Roger Smith is the Negotiator, the person mediating between these two political forces. Roger is both a wealthy, powerful elite himself and is the protector of the average citizen, and he ultimately stands as the savior of Paradigm City. Roger Smith mediates between the various conflicting forces of society, and, in the end, confronts Angel as the revived pilot of the Morningstar.
The destruction of society and culture is stopped, the average citizen and the down-trodden are saved, and the cycle of history begins once again.
Now, there is still more to get into here, and this is in part where Big O starts to fray.
There is still the matter of the androids—of Roger as an android/tomato—and the Megadei. While these do fit within the underlying theme of the reoccurring conflicts and the revolutions of society, they can distract from this underlying theme, both philosophically and narratively or as events/plot points in the show.
So, the androids. The androids are creations of the state, creations of Paradigm Corp. In the end of the show, there are a few moments that imply everyone might be an android, or at least that it’s impossibly to really know who is and who isn’t an android. This could mean that everyone is a product of the state—everyone is a tomato, or a crop that is grown and harvested by the ruling class of society.
Roger, for example, often goes into existential spirals wondering if he is in fact a tomato, and this, connecting back with the cyclical paradigm shifts of history, gets into a question of free will.
Free will has always been a topic that comes up with Artificial Intelligence or Robotics of any kind, and one of our biggest fears is that sentient machines will rise up against us. Maybe this is the same fear that those in the ruling class have of those they rule: they will gain a higher sentience and self-awareness, causing them to rise up against those in power.
However, free will in Big O is more nuanced and much more personal than this. It isn’t necessarily about political movements, it’s also about us as individuals. Do we have free will? Or are we pawns in the machinations of culture at large?
For Roger, are his actions free? Or is his role in society pre-ordained by history and by contemporary culture?
There’s some ambivalence here though, because perhaps having this role in society is necessary. While Roger’s actions both reset the cycles of history and return him and everyone else to a more blissfully ignorant state, he does in fact save Paradigm City—moreover, the innocent people of Paradigm City.
And, there’s even more ambivalence here. Who is actually in charge of these roles? Who is in control of the narrative? Alex Rosewater certainly isn’t in control of the narrative, or in control of the roles people play in the narrative. If he was, Angel and Roger wouldn’t have “won” (or whatever you’d call what happened).
Gordon Rosewater certainly doesn’t seem to be in control of anything by the end of the show. Vera isn’t in control. Angel isn’t in control. Roger isn’t in control.
So what is in control? What is the paradigm or source of the paradigm that pre-ordains the narratives and roles of society? Is this simply “how things are”? Is this simply how things always were and always will be?
And of course, to follow Roger’s personal desire and Gordon’s desire for his creations, will it ever be possible to break out of this paradigm?
And would we want to break out of this paradigm? What would happen if we did? What would that reality be like?
And how could we break out of this paradigm without actually being an unknowing participant in the paradigm?
Is the act of trying to break free of these pre-ordained structures, narratives and roles in fact a part of the paradigm itself? Is the act of trying to obtain free will a part of what creates, drives or perpetuates the paradigm?
And finally, the Megadei.
Borrowing a bit from my Neon Genesis analysis, the Megadei and the other Bigs can likely be seen as a number of things, but, most relevantly, the Megadei are like transcendent manifestations of various aspects or forces within the paradigm.
The Megadei and the Bigs are manifestations of the various conflicting forces, ideologies, motivations within the grand narrative of Big O.
Big O is the manifestation of Roger and Roger’s motivations:
– Big O being the “Behemoth” or land creature is “grounded” or terrestrial, rooted in the reality of everyday people and everyday existence
– Roger seeks to protect the people of Paradigm City; Big O is the ultimate protector of Paradigm City
– Roger seeks to mediate between the various forces of Paradigm City; Big O is the vehicle that meets Big Venus in the end to “compromise” on a new society or reality
– Roger seeks free will and the ability to act as his own individual; Big O is that power, or at least what gives Roger the ability to act as his own individual
Big Duo is the manifestation of Schwarzwald and Schwarzwald’s desire to seek the truth and strike vengeance on Paradigm Corp/City. Big Duo is literally “above it all”, Big Duo is capable of flight, and is capable of reaching heights that are impossible to reach for the other Megadei. Schwarzwald is also blind to his own actions, blind to what his manic ambitions to him and others. The final destruction of Big Duo flying into one of the lights at the top of the dome alludes to Icarus, and mirrors Schwarzwald’s desire to see the truth of the artificiality of Paradigm City. Schwarzwald as a ghost or spirit might be manifested in the “resurrection” of Big Duo later in the show.
Big Fau is the manifestation of Alex and Alex’s motivation. It is gaudy, it is technologically superior, and it is used to bring about the destruction of the undesirable aspects of Paradigm City. In addition, Alex throughout the show believes he is in control of everything, including Big Fau, but in the end is just a pawn himself. Big Fau acts on its own accord, and seems to control Alex more than Alex controls Big Fau.
The list goes on.
Beck’s Bigs are gaudy, useless, lack the capabilities the other Bigs have.
Bonaparte, the Big controlled by the Union, is an amalgamation of various other Bigs, just as the Union is an amalgamation of various foreigners of different backgrounds, lower class individuals from different walks of life, and even androids and human-android hybrids such as Alan Gabriel.
Big Venus is a manifestation of Angel as “the fallen angel”, as the central figure in the paradigm shift, and as the child of two conflicting political forces (the creation of God that eventually opposes God and brings about Armageddon), but also more literally as the Morningstar, as the light heralding the new day (the new day being the new cycle of history).
The Archetype is the manifestation of the unconscious and unconscious forces, but also of the past and the underlying influence the past has on the present.
The Eel, Electric City as a blue collar residence eventually used by the Union; the Construction Robot, working class hijacked by the Union; Chimera, the horrors of science; Osrail, the revenant of revenge; Eumenides, a Big used for assassination/vengeance.
The Megadei and the Bigs are all the manifestations of some grand, underlying force of society. They are a collective of individuals who share an ideology or common motivations, or they are an inevitable force of culture and society, which emerges as a grander force or active agent.
The only exception might be Big O, as Big O might be more of a manifestation of individuality itself. However, even if Big O is this manifestation of individuality (Roger the “Negotiator” being the Ego of the psyche), Big O might be a manifestation of the collective desire for individuality present in society.
And while I could go on for several thousand more words on giant robots, this is a good place to stop.
Big O, like its Big Brother, NGE, is a dense, complicated and opaque anime.
There’s a lot to digest, and it doesn’t give its secrets away readily.
I remember watching this show as a wee lad and being both incredibly excited by the giant robot fights and incredibly confused by everything else. But, even as a young lad, I knew there was something to this anime.
As an older lad, I still love the robot fights and am still incredibly confused by everything else, but I think less confused.
The show is definitely underrated, and I don’t think it or many other giant robot anime have been given the proper acknowledgement or understanding they deserve. The metaphors I’ve discussed, both in this analysis and the NGE analysis, of robots being manifestations of socio-cultural, individual and potentially metaphysical forces and realities are grossly under-analyzed and under-appreciated.
Still, Big O doesn’t do itself any favors.
I’ve simplified the show quite a bit, and so it might sound like I’ve got Big O pinned down, but I really don’t.
Big O feels like it contradicts itself, or that it’s confused as to what it’s trying to portray, but the show is such an elusive tangle of exposition and events at times that many of these internal contradictions and confusions are nearly impossible to even pin down.
It might simply be the execution in parts of the show, and the show did have a somewhat rocky production at times, but so did Neon Genesis—so do most shows and movies.
It could be that Big O was trying to do too much—to be too much—and that the show became too cluttered with its own aesthetics and its own ambitions.
It could also be that I’m a dull, incompetent, uncultured swine who doesn’t understand the nuances of modernist neo-noir/giant-robot/vintage-sci-fi fusion anime, and I’ve certainly taken this into consideration.
Still, I do think the best way to see where Big O went wrong is to look at where Neon Genesis went right.
Both shows are incredibly complicated, dense and opaque, rife with tangled philosophy and psychology, and both possess a large cast of complex characters.
However, Neon Genesis had a solid focal point or central plot-mover that moored the complexity of the show: the battles between Eva and Angel.
Big O doesn’t have this focal point to the same degree.
The show is about Roger Smith working as The Negotiator, and all the shenanigans he gets into. It’s also about Roger Smith protecting Paradigm City with Big O. It’s also about Roger Smith uncovering the truth of Paradigm City and its past. It’s also about Roger Smith’s conflict with Paradigm Corp and Alex Rosewater. It’s also about a lot of other things.
While Neon Genesis had many sub-plots, tangential exposition, and labyrinthian character development, the entire show, from start to finish, was focused on the Eva-Angel conflict, which, ultimately, was about the Third Impact.
The events of the past were the result of previous Impacts, the present events were the inevitable steps leading to the Third Impact, and the finale of the series was the Third Impact.
While, yes, the various focuses of Big O were all centered on the apocalypse of the previous era, and the finale of Big O was the new apocalypse that brought about the next era, these were all too disassociated from many of the events of Big O. It didn’t feel centered, and Neon Genesis was very powerfully centered on the Eva-Angel and Third Impact plot.
Maybe Big O was too opaque. Maybe it didn’t give us enough information, and the information it did give us was hand-fed and little was left to the imagination. The pieces of the puzzle were always present in Neon Genesis, and we were given the freedom to put a few of the pieces in ourselves; whereas the pieces of Big O’s puzzle were like disparate islands that eventually (kinda) came together in the end, but only by the hands of its creators.
Big O is nonetheless a terrific anime. It’s flawed, but everything is flawed.
The confusion and schizophrenic plot development of Big O might just be the confusion and schizophrenic state of modernity as it is. Big O is cluttered: life is cluttered. Big O is confusing: life is confusing. Big O is scattered, the pieces don’t all fit perfectly, and a few are missing: have you figured out life yet?
And flaws aside, when the pieces of Big O are put together, they’re absolutely brilliant. What the creators of Big O tried to do—and the things they did do—were incredible and impressive.
Flaws aside, Big O is a fun fucking anime. The setting of Paradigm City is wicked cool; the constant mystery mixed with the action mixed with the retro-modern aesthetic is A+; the characters can be a lil’ flat at times, but they’re still great and very memorable; and the giant robots and monsters are sick, bruh.
Fuck the philosophy.
Fuck the psychology.
Fuck the mythology.
Fuck the “But, what does it mean?”
Giant. Fucking. Robots.
Watch this anime.
One thought on “Forgotten Relics and a Schizophrenic Present: An Analysis of Big O”
I like that you put some thought into it, but the ‘flaws’ you see are simply actual historical narratives you have yet to discover. This thing is deep. I watched it when I was in college and thought as you do… oh my was I wrong. Trust me, take this shit down and look way deeper.