I’ve mentioned, often enough, the different kinds of music employed in The Big O by composer Toshihiko Sahashi to develop a mood, heighten the tension of a moment or to play as incidental accompaniment to a moment, and to serve as a pastiche of those cultural forms that influenced the show. However, the most glaring piece of music in the series is the opening track, which I have not hitherto discussed at any length. The chorus of the song, which plays in its shortened minute and a half version in syndication, is replete with obvious aping of the Queen-composed theme from the 1980 American Sci-fi production of Flash Gordon.
But if you listen to the full track online, you will find that much of the remainder of the song’s operatic nature and rock and roll style is in keeping with the post-Glam Rock glam of Queen musical productions like Seven Seas of Rye or Bohemian Rhapsody. The effect is the boldly, and even haphazardly, make the point from the very get-go that The Big O is as much a pastiche of the Japanese Giant Robo genre, Kaiju films, and Tokusatsu shows, as it is a pastiche of Western influences like American music (Jazz, Rock and Roll, Classical, and early Electronica) and Sci-fi. And personally, the piece is my favorite opening theme of any anime, scratch that, of any TV show period.
That said, Underground Terror is something of a labyrinthine affair whose mysteries could be mined for months, and over hundreds of potential pages. So if I’m to strike some gold, I oughta get to it now. The episode opens to the image of a broken watch lying in a pile of rubble on the ground, presumably beneath Paradigm City itself. The city is an ontological quandary, a place with no history and no memory of its past, and thereby of a city beyond time. The broken clock is a visual signifier, to my mind, of this basic state of Paradigm as a place out of time. A voice speaks: ‘Let’s just say, if what happened forty years ago didn’t exist, man would still be a creature that fears the dark. Fear comes from not knowing. He then averts his eyes from that fear and acts as if he never had any memories of his life, of his history from the very beginning.’
The point here being that the denizens of Paradigm’s dank streets, its dark hollows fear mining their memory banks for information about the Event. And as such, they have averted their eyes and decided it better not to seek out the truth, better to remain in the dark and become acclimated to it, as a defense mechanism, and have eventually become atrophied in the process, like the Mole Men, who can no longer surface and view the truth lest it blinds them. The voice is pessimistic about the plight of his people to rise out of the Platonic Cave without being forced to do so. And as a seeker of the truth, he has taken on the persona of the Philosophical Warrior who fights not only to realize the truth of the past, but to bring this truth to those he protects, whether they want it or not.
The scene shifts to an old house in a district of the domed city that is set for demolition and eventual reconstruction with new domiciles for the fossorial hominids of Paradigm. An old woman resides within the home and explains that her son lost his memories of her when the Event occurred forty years ago. She has remained in this home all this time in the hopes that his memories will return and he would one day be able to track her down before she died of old age and heartbreak. Now, she must move. Roger Smith has been hired to ensure that records are easily available of where she has relocated to, in the off chance that her son attempts to track her down one day. Another man is in the room with them, an employee of the Paradigm Corporation who has a job for Roger Smith. He is to go to a specific rail-car terminal to learn more about the job, which presumably pays exceedingly well. Otherwise, Roger wouldn’t be caught dead working for Paradigm.
Once there, he finds within the station a reproduction (or the original?) of a Salvador Dali Gala Angel painting in which the clouds at her feet transmogrify into terrifying columns of atomic dust ala his Nuclear Mysticism. The painting, representing something akin to a world ending event and the inherent beauty in such a visual image as well as the metaphor of an act leading to a new beginning, resonates intensely with Roger, who studies it for a while. His own angel, Angel, appears behind him. She speaks with Roger and explains that her new alias is Patricia Lovejoy and that she now works for Paradigm Press. She needs Roger to track down an important reporter named Michael Seebach, who has been off the grid, missing, for three months, and whom the company wishes to present a large severance check to in exchange for his final manuscript. If Angel is the femme fatale who prefigures the next Event, the man they spy along the way, riding past in a deluxe rail car, Alex Rosewater, the CEO of Paradigm Corp, will prove to be the god who initiates that end. At the mansion, Dorothy stands by a large table, constantly turning over sand timers in an effort, symbolically, to prolong this next Event’s arrival.
The next image: a drip of water falling into a small pool. ‘Do you think man can survive cut off from his memories of the past? He, having no idea how long he’s been there or where he’s from, and what he’s connected to?’ If you know the about the ending of this series, then you will understand what I’m getting at in this next point. If you don’t, take it as poetic pop philosophy psychobabble. All beings can extend no further in memory beyond the point of their emergence into this world. All worlds, including our own, are potentially a Paradigm City. Some are just more filled out with detail and with information handed down about the past (which will always be suspect), and with fewer holes in reality. The world a Simulacrum, the holes of Paradigm mere memories, the gaps in our own appearing only at the quantum level, but both revealing an ontological incompleteness at the core.
Roger first visits Dan Dastun for information on Seebach. He finds that the guy hasn’t paid his taxes in three months and has left behind his wife and child. However, he has not checked out of the domes. And someone has been renting an apartment in a squalid area of town under his name. Roger visits the building and finds something akin to the Bradbury Building of Blade Runner, and a den filled with papers and odds and ends not dissimilar to J.F. Sebastien’s pad. Therein, he finds a text within the typewriter that has just been written moments before his arrival: ‘I’ve lived my life as a newspaper reporter. I uncover the truth, write my articles, but then I learned all too well that a mere reporter like myself can’t ever get to the truth in this city. It is nearly impossible and it’s unsure. No one here is even interested in learning the truth. A truth that must be known, but I want to know! I want to learn what must be known.’ The points earlier explained about philosophical marauding into the Cave and ontological incompleteness become more strongly evoked here.
By the door, gasoline begins to seep into the room and Roger smells it just as Seebach lights it and engulfs the room, and most likely his manuscript, in flames. He manages to escape by jumping out of the room’s window and using his wristwatch grappling hook feature (ala Batman) to prevent falling and to reach the roof of the building. Across the way, on the building opposite, stands the first real arch-villain of the series. Bandaged from head to tie after some egregious incident in his past, this figure reveals that he was once the man known as Michael Seebach and now goes by Schwarzwald. Roger remarks that this name means Back Forest in German. I remark that the Black Forest is the perfect symbol for the philosophical warrior who, like Martin Heidegger before him (who indeed was the philosopher of that domain), roams a place close to culture, close to history, close to one’s roots, and thereby close to the wellspring of one’s being. Schwarzwald as a persona is one meant to unify oneself with that quest of the 20th century’s greatest thinker who came as closely as one can to the deepest questions of ontology without retreating into madness.
Schwarzwald’s last words before retreating into the blackness of the night stick in Roger’s mind: ‘You’re a corrupt dog on the city’s leash!’ And it’s true he has been acting in this capacity, has worked for Paradigm on two occasions in two weeks. When he returns to his mansion, he reflects on this and how he must now ‘dig up the truth’ and ‘face the darkness within.’ Dorothy joins him and tells Roger that her ‘father’ was merely a craftsman and did not understand the core mechanics of her design, of just how she thought and acted and worked. Now, aside from reflecting about himself as a potential double of Schwarzwald, he ponders the existential questions surrounding artificial intelligence and his growing feelings that Dorothy is something more than a mere android, more than a mere machine programmed with zeros and ones, switches and levers.
He departs the next morning and enters the subway tunnels beneath the city. No one wants to travel down here, not even robbers despite there still being store fronts and many goods to be looted. They fear that the ghosts of the their pasts, of life before the Event may emerge to haunt them, and that the truth may be to painful to bear. The Big Ear (The Informer) once told him that people lived down here, some by choice and some by necessity. But even farther below this level is another access tunnel and a long ladder, which leads to a place no one has any knowledge of (except for Schwarzwald). Roger ventures here and finds that the walls become less dilapidated and more new the farther he goes, that the world below here seems archetypal, perfect, untouched, and back to the point about ontological incompleteness in a simulacrum, not completely designed, too smooth, and lacking detail like grime. Eventually, he ventures too far for even his rational mind to hold on. Roger is paralyzed by fear, falls a few flights downward toward the concrete ground, completely limp, and thereby unharmed. The bodies of ghostly humans pass him by in the tunnel and he passes out.
When he finally awakens, the ultimate chapter of this saga (more thematically and symbolically dense than anything in TV anime this side of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex) begins. Roger finds himself within a field of flowers, his head lying on the lap of his mother. The sequence is so idyllic and consequently impossible within the context of Paradigm City that it hearkens immediately back to 1982 and the Unicorn Dream Sequence in Blade Runner, which indicates to the viewer that Deckard may not, in fact, be a human being at all. Instead, we learn there and later through Gaff’s knowing Unicorn origami that Deckard’s memories are artificial. Here, we learn likewise that Roger’s memories are artificial. This is a key to the meta-textual and meta-narrative brilliance of The Big O insofar as this rabbit hole leads one to believe that Roger, like Deckard, may in fact be an android himself. However, the show’s creators, knowing this revelation would lead astute viewers toward this conclusion, present it only as a postmodern red herring. The final truth of the series is all the more revolutionary as a consequence.
When Roger comes to, he finds that he is within the tunnel, and his head is reclining in the lap of Dorothy. She asks, ‘Did you just say momma? As in your mother?’ He becomes defensive partially as a natural human response, and maybe partially because he recognizes the impossibility of this vision being a memory, and of himself being a normal human being. As a dark electronica theme plays and almost induces fear, paranoia, dis-ease, angst, and terror in the viewer, Roger asks Dorothy if she understands terror. She changes the topic and explains once more that she feels things and that even her creator could not understand how or why. Roger, feeling perhaps particularly vulnerable in this moment of ontological dread, tries to explain to Dorothy that each and every being is unique and impossible to fully understand. In this moment, his sentimentality rears its head. Dorothy ignores his words as potentially mere darts and jabs disguised as olive branches, which would ultimately cease reaching across the aisle and end up rearing their ugly head as anti-android prejudice and an unwillingness to recognize her worth as a living, feeling being.
At the end of the tunnel is a chasm. Dorothy enters it, with Roger not far behind, and the two come across a large abandoned city. A large Megadeus, which Roger inexplicably recognizes as the Archetype of Big O, reclines within a pile of rubble on the city’s edge. Perched upon its shoulder is Schwarzwald who pontificates to his two visitors on the power their society once possessed before the Event and how at one time, a Megadeus was ‘nothing special,’ how he himself would master one as a dominus if only his memories would reveal themselves to him, would become disclosed and exit the psychological Cave of his mind to enter into the conscious realm. As Dorothy approaches the Megadeus, it hails her and uses her to somehow breathe life into itself through a particular set of code that she is made to vocalize. As Schwarzwald sets up an attack against Roger with a series of alcohol-soaked bandages, the machine lurches forward, and at the point of lighting the bandages, Schwarzwald is instead burned. He retreats to a corner of the room, seemingly to watch the remainder of the battle and potentially to die.
Roger, meanwhile, calls upon his own Megadeus, Big O and upon piloting the semi-sentient machine, with Dorothy in the cockpit alongside him, begins to fight the much stronger, more agile Archetype Megadeus (whose movements are reminiscent of a berserk EVA Unit-01). As the thing knocks down the bulkier modern Megadeus, its primal force overwhelming the later, ‘complete’ model, Roger and Big O stare into the veritable abyss of Being from out of which they emerged. Dorothy does likewise, and seems to register true fear for the first time as the claims the impossibility of this being’s existence and denies that it could be related to her in any way, shape, or form. Luckily, as an ‘incomplete’ being, the Archetype Megadeus has no special weapons beyond its brute strength with which to cut down its modern opponent. Big O has a chest cavity full of heavy-duty explosive weapons, all of which it launches into the chest cavity of its opponent, defeating it in the process and simultaneously ripping a large hole in the ceiling above and making the archetypal city viewable from on high.
As Roger stands atop his balcony late that night and reflects on the oddness of Dorothy as an android, seemingly coming to terms with the fluidity of the concept human or of sentience within his own world, the shadowy CEO of Paradigm Corp, Alex Rosewater, speaks of how good a Negotiator Roger truly is. And off, somewhere within the recesses of this city outside history and time, water drips within a pool and the Black Forest would-be liberator of men toward memory lives.
Cast in the Name of God,
Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1952 film, Ikiru, is one of his most critically appreciated and well-known films worldwide. He created the film at a time when existentialism was in vogue as a philosophy, but did not intend the film to be an openly existentialist text. Kurosawa was always influenced by Dostoevsky pretty heavily, however, and his proto-existentialist current runs throughout Ikiru, which translates into the intransitive Japanese verb “to live.” How one ought to live is the primary focus of this film, and inspiring others in the post-World War II world of disintegrating foundationalisms and diminished meaning to find their own ways to live and to flourish was Kurosawa’s stated didactic goal.
The film portrays a bureaucrat who works of the public works program in his city. He has worked for his company for 30 years and has as of yet not missed a single day of work, but he is starting to feel ill and after getting the run-around from his local doctor about his ailment, he realizes that he has stomach cancer. And he most likely has less than six months to live as well. This figure, Kanji Watanabe, is a droll, boring piece of bureaucratic machinery, but once he learns of his impending death, he rebels and misses work, goes out on the town, gets himself a young girlfriend, and tries to find the solutions to his problems at the bottom of a bottle of sake. He sings of life’s brevity and meaninglessness and haunts club after club in an attempt to erase the reality of his condition from his conscious awareness, but is ultimately unable to do so. You can’t stay drunk perpetually.
Watanabe is portrayed by a Kurosawa regular: Takashi Shimura. Shimura had previously acted in Kurosawa’s feature film debut Sanshiro Sugata, as well as most of his other films to that point. Throughout his career, Shimura would act in around 200 films, around 21 of these, or about 10% in total, were Kurosawa films. When one thinks of Kurosawa, often the often Toshiro Mifune comes to mind. But in fact, Mifune only acted in 16 of the auteur’s 30 films. Shimura is the constant actor in this filmography and should more readily be the face and character we recognize first. He was able to portray a terminally ill, downtrodden man in a manner that allows the viewer to emotionally connect with him at all points in the film. His reflective song, “Gondola no Uta,” is sung from a low, ghastly register more at home in a ghost story or Kwaidan than in a contemporary social picture like Ikiru. But the song, the spectral figure of Watanabe, the snow, and the realization of all mise-en-scene elements together with a thematic content that hits home for all audiences- how should one live?- makes the film into a dramatic tour de force verging on cinematic tone poem status.
The story derives much of its inspiration from the short story ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ by Leo Tolstoy. In that tale, a Court of Justice official lives a life of drudgery as a bureaucrat who works to escape the meaninglessness of existence and the annoyance of his entitled family members. But one day he takes a fall and lands on his side. The fall breaks no ribs, but he is put into a critical condition and bedridden by the fall, which triggered and revealed a deeper ailment akin to the stomach cancer of Watanabe in Ikiru. The bureaucrat has lived rightly and realizes the full import of his illness as ultimately senseless and arbitrary. But as he weakens over the course of the next few months, he reflects deeper on pain and suffering and death and comes to understand that he has lived an artificial life devoid of passion projects and dreams and hope. He has masked the meaning his life may have developed through paperwork and labor and only upon death, learns that an authentic life is now out of his reach.
Watanabe similarly learns that pain and death are meaningless on a large scale. He also realizes that he has been living an artificial life and that to lead an authentic life he must use his last days to contribute something to society through his work. His personal subjective meaning derives from altruism (though it need not in all cases) and he decides to help clean up a cesspool in one of the city’s neighborhoods and to work within the bureaucratic channels to build a park in its place. His single-pointed focus, persistence, tenacity, and dedication to his cause allow him to boldly stand up to local politicians and to yakuza bosses. To work without letting anyone’s negative feelings getting in the way, because his time is short and he has no time to harbor hatred for others or to even consider how others think of him.
His efforts are rewarded and his park is built. By staring in to the face of death and keeping it as a focus for his action, he was able to achieve what philosopher Martin Heidegger called Being toward Death. This Being toward Death allowed him to overcome the bureaucratic rules that usually call for doing as little as possible and not stepping on the toes of superiors. It allowed Watanabe to discard his concern for the opinions of the Them to instead achieve what he wanted before his own death. This Being toward Death also gave his life a directionality and subjective meaning through his personal goal of creating the park and in this way, achieves Albert Camus’ definition of meaning as anything that keeps you from killing yourself. Watanabe had previously been drinking himself to death, and in fact, did seem to take a few weeks off of his lifespan in the process. By Being toward Death his new goal allowed him to quit his time in dive bars and focus on constructive goals.
At the end of Watanabe’s life, he sits upon a swing in the park at night. His spectral presence swinging in the snow is a phantom who has completed his goals and no longer finds it necessary to roam amongst the living any longer. He dies there, all the while singing Gondola no Uta:
“Life is brief.
Fall in love, maidens.
Before the crimson bloom fades from your lips.
Before the tides of passion cool within you.
For those of you who know no tomorrow,
Life is brief.
Fall in love, maidens.”
And in the wake of his death, his coworkers reflect on life’s brevity and the fact that life can end at any moment. That “any one of us could suddenly drop dead.” But as they return to the office, bureaucratic rules return and nothing gets done. The human spirit dead for rites in the life of Watanabe, only to be recalled again anew by one afar, away and unknown to us now. Maybe you?
Realism in narrative is a form shorn of the fantastic. An attempt to regard the world as it stands, without interpreting it. The success of this mimetic enterprise rises or falls on the objective similarity between the world-as-experienced by all and the world-as-constructed by the the artist.
But we inhabit no archimedean point, no God’s-eye view. What one sees the world as, ultimately, reflects nothing of its objective existence, and only that of its existence as perceived, as experienced, by individuals whose perceptions are themselves socially and biologically determined; fated. One does not choose the bare social and biological facts of one’s particular existence. Rather, we are all thrown into the world without any choice of our own; thrown into situations wherein our supposed free will, our volitional content, means nothing.
Cormac McCarthy’s realism is a transgressive, gritty form invested with savage images of a world with no essence; besides, perhaps, the inevitability of suffering (Siddhartha’s dukkha?). It is a postmodern realism that interacts with a western biblical tradition and a romantic elegiac tone, all the while subverting both through his representation of a world divested of orthodox spirituality where natural existence is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
McCarthy’s masterpiece, “Blood Meridian,” is a narrative imbued whole hock with a transcendent, gutter realism. In chapter five, The Kid and Sproule survive a massacre, but must sojourn across the wasteland toward civilization (though civility they will not discover) to survive. They come across a tree, festooned with pussel-gutted infants:
“They stopped side by side, reeling in the heat. These small victims, seven, eight of them, had holes punched in their underjaws and were hung so by their throats from the broken stobs of a mesquite to stare eyeless at the naked sky. Bald and pale and bloated, larval to some unreckonable being. The castaways hobbled past, they looked back. Nothing moved.”
To my mind, few passages evoke such a raw, nihilistic realism. What is your realism? How do you view the world and from what standpoint do you judge it? What do you fancy this “unreckonable being?” Leave comments below, I would love to hear from you.
“We do not speak Language-Language speaks us.”