The Big O: Act 01- Roger the Negotiator
It’s time to get back into the swing of things after a full week-long break from reviewing anime series. I’ve decided to return to it with a comprehensive commentary on one of the most legendary, mythic, and stylish anime series of my childhood: The Big O. Like the last two series I reviewed on this blog, Serial Experiments Lain and Digimon Tamers, The Big O is a Sci-fi series written by one of Japan’s most talented screenwriters of the anime medium: Chiaki J. Konaka. And like all anime series that can qualify as amongst my favorites, it is a work of sublime visual quality whilst simultaneously dealing in myth, metaphor, futurism, posthumanism, and the power of the human spirit.
‘My name is Roger Smith. I perform a much-needed job here in the city of Amnesia.’ The city of Paradigm, a vast metropolis wherein urban decay and obscene wealth live side by side in an uneasy proximity. A city, partially domed, and protected thereby from the sands of the infinite deserts surrounding this technological bauble. Smith is a Negotiator and drives along within his car toward the outskirts of his city where he plans to meet with Beck, a small-time criminal who has kidnapped the daughter of a rich industrialist and inventor, named Soldano, and plan to return her only in exchange for a large sum of money. As he rides off toward the checkpoint, the sun catches the lenses of his black sunglasses momentarily, and in that moment the hollows of his eyes are revealed to be mechanical. Although human, there is some deeper truth to the identity of Smith, not merely a physical reality as Other to humanity, but as ontologically different from what he seems to be.
A solemn Jazz soundtrack of keys and saxophone plays out throughout many of the show’s more somber moments as a reflective etude signalling viewers to at once live the moment with the characters or scenes in the show, as well as to take on a critical distance and the emotional-logical pain of separation and isolation, of Otherness and alienness that is the core feature of human life. When Smith reaches the meet-up point, the exchange goes off without a hitch. Until, that is, Soldano rushes up to meet his daughter Dorothy and reveals to Smith, just as Beck and his lackeys ride off with the money, that this Dorothy is merely an android (though an extremely realistic one). Smith, confused by the situation, but always professional, pulls out a remote, which activates a drone mechanism within the briefcase that has the effect of causing it to return to him through the air. But before Soldano’s money can be recovered, Beck’s men shoot down the briefcase in mid-air, which results only in the case opening and losing its cargo in a nearby bay.
Throughout this sequence, the film noir influence on the series becomes immediately apparent. From the Jazz soundtrack to constant tenebrism and encompassing darkness in the palette of scenes, high angles and sideways dutch angles to heighten the tension of the approach between the Negotiator and those with which he plans to make an exchange. Add to this, the feelings of paranoia, fear, and claustrophobia attendant upon moving through such a dark, dank, closed in city, a city of Amnesia wherein everyone’s memories of forty years prior and all that came before were wiped clean on account of the mysterious Event, and this is the perfect stamping ground for our cop-turned-private eye protagonist. Later, it will become apparent that a second influence on the series was the Batman animated series of the 1990s as Smith is a rich playboy with a large mansion and inheritance, a great black sedan, tons of gadgets with which to fight back against the forces of evil, a butler who is in on his secret, and even an a good cop who helps Roger along the way.
As our noir protagonist roams the city in his attention-catching black sedan with a built-in protected mode, he finds himself in a small bar where The Informer gives him the lowdown on almost any information he needs, for a price that is. He tells Roger that Soldano has apparently gotten his hands on a ‘memory fragment’ (a Big O term that could potentially mean a piece of information like a book or schematics for an ‘ancient’ technology as well as real memories, prophetic dreams, or nightmares dredged up from neuroses preceding The Event). The Informer also alerts Roger to the possibility of Soldano using this memory fragment to create ‘illegal items.’ Roger leaves the bar and drives back to his flat in his sedan, musing on the oddity of a civilization like Paradigm wherein few can even repair old technologies and none are ever built, a civilization without a history that manages to survive.
When he arrives home, his butler Norman Burg alerts him to the presence of a young woman visitor in the parlor of his home. It is here that we learn the first of Roger’s rules: ‘Only lovely young women can unconditionally enter this mansion.’ But when the girl turns to address Roger, she is revealed to be the android Dorothy who demands Roger take on a protection job for her. Roger wants to refuse, but Dorothy will take no for an answer. The situation becomes more confusing when Dan Dastun, Roger’s old police chief, arrives and alerts Roger that the police’s independent investigation into the whereabouts of the real Dorothy Wayneright eventually concluded that Soldano has no daughter, and never had a daughter in the first place.
Roger decides at this moment to leave once more and seek out Soldano for more information. Dorothy insinuates herself into Roger’s journey by tagging along in his car for the ride. Along the way, he prods the android a bit by asking the existentially charged question: ‘What would an android call its creator?’ Dorothy doesn’t respond, though her silence speaks volumes and indicates a deep displeasure brought on by the probing jab. When they arrive at Soldano’s factory, they find it destroyed and Soldano lying within an observation room dying, bleeding out. He speaks a few words before his voice fades and his final message dies is delivered to Roger alone, not even the viewers being privy to these deeply personal final addresses. However, what we are privy to is this message: ‘I never wanted to build it…. for them.’
Norman calls up Roger on his com device and alerts him to the presence of a Megadeus (or Greek-Latin derived ‘Great God’) mecha destroying the city downtown. Dorothy asks Roger why they came here to see Soldano, and he responds that he was hired to do a job, to find the real Dorothy and ensure she is safe, and even though the client is dead it is not within his code of professional honor to cease his assignment before completing it. As Dorothy and Roger speed off in the direction of downtown in the black sedan, and they close in on the disturbance, they are stopped for a short time by a police checkpoint where Dorothy notices an old man standing off-sides who she calls her father.
Finally, the two arrive downtown in West Dome No. 5 where the mecha, which Dorothy recognizes as her sister Dorothy-1, the prototype twin of herself, is raging and fighting against the police. At this point, Roger calls upon his secret weapon: the Megadeus Big O. It rises from beneath the city upon a large rail system and ascends to the surface. Roger enters the cockpit, which proclaims itself ‘Cast in the Name of God’ and deems Roger a worthy Dominus (or Latinate ‘master’) with the phrase ‘Ye Not Guilty.’ He engages the enemy and bursts an incapacitating mega-arm piston blow through its very core, the solar plexus, delivered with the verbal relish ‘Bye-bye Dotty!’. The android Dorothy below is near the action and Dastun tries to protect her, but only ends up potentially killing them both as Dorothy-1 falls seemingly right on top of them.
And the mysteries are no closer to being understood now than they will become at any point during the first season of this series. But as in all great works of narrative, the joy is not so much in the revelations of the denouement, but of the journey toward this conclusion. And the more labyrinthine that journey, the better.
Cast in the Name of God,