(Even though I’m still working on Finish or Fail 11, I wanted to get The Big O out of the way first. The GITS SAC rant will continue later. )
This ‘Finish or Fail’ series has been very interesting for me so far, because it has given me the opportunity for the first time to drop shows that I actually enjoyed to some extent. Most of the shows that I’ve dropped in the past were cut within the first couple of episodes just because they weren’t my thing to begin with. The FoF series consists entirely of shows that I have actually wanted to finish for a long time and already know that I enjoy. The shows that have ‘failed’ so far all made it for 8-10 episodes, meaning that, for one reason or another, I actually did enjoy them, but just couldn’t reconcile the things I didn’t like enough to finish.
It’s cool, but it’s also quite sad to do this, because I will often be hit with the biggest disappointment from a series that I really wanted to enjoy. I had thought that Majin Tantei Nougami Neuro might become a favorite on it’s characters and premise and wacky art style, but the episodes that kept getting more boring drove me to stop watching the show. I had similar feelings about The Big O, and this has been the most extreme example to date. Actually, I was pretty damn sure that I was going to drop The Big O after episode 15, but I liked the show so much that I kept trucking through and finally found myself dropping it halfway through episode 20. I will detail to you just what the hell went wrong.
My favorite thing about The Big O is it’s style and the way that the world and characters play into that style. The series is steeped in it’s film noir influences which it uses to superb effect. Roger Smith is the perfect lead for this type of story – a man who seems like he can do it all, but still has character flaws and a personality that is fun to watch without necessarily becoming a vehicle for the viewer to project their fantasies on. The android Dorothy is the perfect sidekick, with her natural deadpan tone and exquisite dialog that constantly has the viewer wondering how much of her mind is robot and how much is, ultimately, human; or if there is a difference. The city with no memories and the characters inhabiting it all entwine so well into the visual style that it creates a thick, palpable tone that defines the show.
What drove The Big O down had a lot to do with the 3-year gap between the first and second seasons (which were meant to be presented as a whole narrative), though I suspect that my biggest issues were lingering all along.
The 3-year skip brought about a change in the general look of the show. It seems to be that the series moved from being hand-drawn to being computer-animated in the gap, and it brings along some differences. While the animation itself is top-notch across both seasons (seriously, good even for a Sunrise show) I couldn’t help but feel that, as seemed to be the case with a lot of the anime in the early years of moving to computers, the animators may not yet have mastered the craft. That, or it was just a different team. The result is a loss of the color scheme that so much made up the visual style of the series. The Big O was characterized by the long shadows, strange architecture, elongated camera angles, and heavy application of gray and drab tones to everything that defines the appearance of ‘film noir.’
In the second season, the setting are all more brightly lit and ‘normal’ looking. The colors are more vibrant instead of muted. Even the character designs seemed a tad odd in the first couple of episodes (in episode 15, there is a short segment where Dorothy is shown smiling. And not even for any particular reason. It felt like a total betrayal of her character) though this got better by episode 16. Not all of the changes were necessarily bad – the mech fights gained much more fluidity and excitement, and most of the show generally looks nice – but not like The Big O. [As a random aside, there was also a strong focus in the second season on matching the characters' mouths to what they say. I can't help but wonder if this is a direct result of the second season being marketed at the Western audience, seeing as mouth-matching is apparently considered far more important in western animation.]
The killing of the noir style unwinds one other major elements of the show: Roger Smith. While the other characters in the series remained interesting, Roger Smith became a much harder character to like when he was dragged out of his ‘comfort zone’ so to speak. As the series moved towards a central plot and forgot it’s noir tendencies, it became apparent just how much Roger Smith was tailor-made to that tone, and how hard it was to take him seriously when removed from it. In many scenes, Roger Smith actually becomes annoying – his stubborn personality that made it fun to watch him take down bad guys is just aggravating when he keeps asking needless questions and trying to fight what he doesn’t even understand when the real villains start talking to him and showing their hands.
But while the loss of that thick style was a heavy blow to my enjoyment, the real problem with The Big O is in it’s plot, and it was already fully planned from the start. I began to feel that the series was going downhill as early as episode twelve when the plot took center stage and, with the exception of the stand-alone seventeenth and eighteenth episodes, it only got worse. I blame Chiaki God Damn Konaka.
Chiaki Konaka has written some of my favorite series, and in the cases that I didn’t like his work, I usually admitted that it was a personal preference issue, but this time I can’t just overlook the problems in this series. Konaka’s strategy for writing the main plot of The Big O seemed to be ‘raise as many questions as possible, and never give the viewer any leads as to what anything might mean.’ During the show’s story-centric episodes, we might learn that the villain has SOMETHING PLANNED or that in the past SOMETHING HAPPENED, but were are neither let into what nor why nor, more importantly, why we should care. There is never an immediate sense of needing to solve the mysteries, because we don’t even know what the answers might bring. Schwartzwald wants to know the truth, and it drives him… but what truth? What is supposedly a lie? What is being withheld from us? I don’t know.
Neither does Roger Smith. He knows that something is up, and that it somehow involves him, but he is shit out of luck time and again on finding out heads or tails of the situation. Rather than digging up answers, or even questions, he only ever digs up the fact that there are questions to be asked – not even what those questions are. What’s more, in spite of the ordinarily great dialog between the main characters, whenever the plot comes up, comprehensibility goes out the fucking window. I swear most of the dialog between Roger and any given villain goes around in circles and then ends with nothing new revealed at all. In one episode, Roger finds the Metropolis book and realizes that there is something out there, and he dramatically asks the book’s author basically ‘so there are questions?!’ and the author replies ‘yes, there are questions!!’ and they even have several interactions like this throughout.
I think the pinnacle of the stupid answerless questions was the fourteenth episode, which had Roger go into some kind of parallel dimension of his city and spends the whole episode wondering why, how, and what the hell is going on. Rather than learn any of that, Roger comes back to his own world by simply realizing that he is Roger Smith, himself, and is living his life, not the life of the him in a parallel dimension. That’s nice and all, but I really would like to know simple things like WHY THE FUCK WAS HE IN A PARALLEL DIMENSION?!
I really enjoyed all of the stand-alone episodes of The Big O, including the ones from the second season. I could have watched a series of just those kinds of episodes in that great style and been totally fine with it, and I might still be willing to rewatch episodes like those in the future. I just wish Konaka hadn’t shat on it by trying to force-feed his usual psycho-babble into a series that simply did not need it.
The Big O – Failed (20 eps.)
I loved the mech fights and old-school designs. I loved the noir tone. Most of all, I loved Dorothy. But that wasn’t enough to suffer such a cumbersome and wholly uninteresting story to the end.