In Defense of “The Big O” Finale (anime)

Spoilers galore ahead; this is a meditation on the last episode of the series

“The Big O” has come under fire by people that initially appreciated it. To quote Wikipedia:

For some reviewers, the second season “doesn’t quite match the first” addressing [sic] to “something” missing in these episodes. Andy Patrizio of IGN points out changes in Roger Smith’s character, who “lost some of his cool and his very funny side in the second season.” Like a repeat of season one, this season’s ending is considered its downfall. Chris Beveridge of Anime on DVD wonders if this was head writer “Konaka’s attempt to throw his hat into the ring for creating one of the most confusing and oblique endings of any series.” Patrizio states “the creators watched The Truman Show and The Matrix a few times too many.” The reviewer at Japan Hero does not think the payoff was worth it, writing “the audience had been waiting on pins and needles for so long, and practically every episode upped the tension and suspense at least a little bit, if not a whole lot, and then we come to the big IT-moment, and… well, there it is. For me, it was honestly a little of a disappointment.”

Any anime/sci-fi work has to be examined in terms of the counterfactuals it develops and the questions it raises. The counterfactuals – “what if” questions – arise from the strangeness in any given story.

1. In “The Big O,” Paradigm City lost its memory forty years ago and seems to be the only viable place left on Earth. Our hero within the city is Roger Smith, a “negotiator” who acts like a lawyer and a private investigator rolled into one. The character is clearly patterned after Bruce Wayne, complete with an “Alfred” type butler, a mansion, and an expensive toy few know he pilots: a giant robot (“Big O”) used to combat threats the military police of the city cannot handle. Roger handles cases for people in tough spots, and is drawn into the quest for the truth of what happened forty years ago only by outside forces, including various memories that come back at the wrong moments with full force and paralyze him.

The technology of the robot determines the entire series. Smaller, regular human-sized androids act – and as we learn through R. Dorothy Waynewright – feel just like people. The larger robots, not just Roger’s but the others that appear throughout the series, we come to realize are sentient, and also struggling with fragments of memory.

Moreover, it is said explicitly by the fascist (literally – he owns the Paradigm corporation that runs the city) ruler, Alex Rosewater, that the power of the robots allows one to determine what is just and enforce that notion. The series continually refers to giant robots having the power of God; the three major robots, Roger’s, Schwartzwald/Gabriel’s, and Rosewater’s, all pass judgment on their owners: “Ye Not Guilty,” “Ye Guilty,” and “Ye Not.” We can assume the robots have some fragmented notion of what is just, at least: in acting with a pilot, they represent something more, even if what they represent is failed or incomplete.

2. The technology of the robots determines everything. If you can create a destroyer of worlds that is sentient, what else can you create? A lot of fans object to the ending of the series, where we discover the world is one big set, and that the reason why people are having hell with memories is that the memories were prerecorded using sets and TV cameras for maybe all of them. It seems like postmodern absurdity: can’t we just get back to big robots fighting? After all, we have a series of Communist robots (3 from the “Union”), a fascist robot (Rosewater’s), one that symbolizes the tyranny of public opinion (Schwartzwald) and is modified later to represent a base desire for power (Gabriel’s). Big O itself is explicitly repaired by a team of Paradigm’s own citizens at the end, and defended by those same citizens when appearing to lose the final battle. Why did we have to get smarter than the political metaphor?

The answer is that Paradigm City is an entirely man-made world, with men having crafted other men. The crudity of just giving people memories – roles-in-life – like you would give trick-or-treaters candy is precisely the point. No amount of human foresight in the series can respect human freedom generally: one of the funniest things about R. Dorothy is her initial disdain for religion, and yet the series continues with religious imagery even up to its final moments. In an entirely man-made world, God matters that much more: the fact people suck at playing God demonstrates His necessity, the fact people can prevent others from destroying everything His Providence.

So the postmodern imagery isn’t postmodern, in my book: the Phoenix, the Big Robot that can do as it will with the template of the whole, is the ideal robot the other ones are shadows of. The generic cast of the series – the city is “Paradigm City,” the characters are intoduced to us in one sequence as “negotiator,” “android,” “butler,” “officer” – makes it clear this is the situation we’re in. We may not have giant robots, but we have nuclear bombs. If we want a civilization to disappear entirely, we can do this. We also have, through mass media, the ability to shape memory however we want.

Roger’s existential crises, which seems to occur at the most annoying times, are the key to unlocking him as a hero. He’s engaging in self-reflection despite the fact he only displays a fairly mindless andreia – being courageous, being a “real man” in Greek – most of the time. Reason is almost exclusively the province of R. Dorothy. But she falls in love with him first: in a world without a history, literally constructed by technology, there is no “nature” to contemplate except through the noble. And Roger, for all his faults, is very noble.

3. The entirely man-made world still has Providence within it because of a memory that all share. The character known as “Angel” is utterly useless, unable to commit any act of violence (save one) even though she’s an agent for the Union. The initial creator of Paradigm calls her a “memory” at the end, and says she’s not human. She ultimately gets to determine what the next city will be, even as Alex Rosewater tries to destroy it all for his own gain.

She’s completely head-over-heels in love with Roger, but it is pretty clear that Roger is in love with R. Dorothy by the point she’s really hitting on him. If she is a memory – and certainly Dastun feels a kinship with her, and the coldness of the Union towards her might consist in its never having truly existed – then she’s in a peculiar situation. Her arising – I submit she is the memory of “being loved,” nothing less – is precisely because Roger and R. Dorothy have feelings towards each other. Yet she has to be spurned because of that very fact. In the final shots of the series, she’s behind a smiling, probably human Dorothy in watching Roger drive away for the day’s work. And yet she truly held the power of God.

Playing God isn’t as much fun as it seems to be for many of us: if you do it right, you don’t get to be anything. If you do it right, what you get is to watch others do right.

16 Comments

  1. Wow, great ideas and lots of philosophical schemata that I have no clue about! My brain hurts. :O I never really got into philosophy, so a lot of that stuff is way over my head, heheh.

    My memory is hazy, but I remember watching Big-O during the first run and the rough impression that I got was that the megadeuses represented paradigms – philosophies, political movements, religions, belief structures, etc. All paradigms and constructs such as music, literature, organizations, cultures, etc. retain a trace of the “memories,” life experiences, and beliefs of their creators / founders / members.

    For example, Shakespeare lives on through his works, as does Jesus, or Hitler, or Gandhi, etc. Each paradigm / construct has a distinctly unique “flavor” / personality / “will” of its own.

    To pilot / lead / control a megadeus requires a resonance / empathy between one’s own memories / ideas and the subliminal, collective will of the paradigm that they seek to command (synchronization?). Not everyone is worthy to be a champion for their cause and may be rejected. However, I suppose it is also possible to wrest control by force to some degree and override the Will of the institution, movement, etc. or to cobble one together from different movements.

    Along this line of thinking, all things in Creation (including individuals) contain some residual trace of “memories” since the beginning of Time. The Will of the “Creator” and the primordial Chaos continue to drive and permeate thoughout reality – perhaps like a wound spring driving a watch.

    I haven’t watched the show in a while, but I believe that in the final episode, Angel was given a choice between the two fundamental, opposing paradigms in the universe – absolute affirmation and absolute negation. Or maybe not. Heh.

    Anyway, I never really tried piecing all of the details together. This was more of a “gut feel” kind of thing. There’s so much more that I probably missed, like the whole “free will” thing and the nature of Time, lol. Still, I remember it was fun watching each episode and then logging into the forums to chat about it. Man, great memories! :D

    (Sorry about the long comment. Then again, given the complexity of the themes, it’s very hard to keep things short.)

  2. oh yeah, forgot to say that all things may retain a trace of ancient “memories” going back to the beginning due to the whole chain of causation thingy or whatever.

    (meh. my original comments all got wiped the first time, lol. i hate it when that happens.)

  3. Is there anyway we can save Big O?

    Initially, the creators had another thirteen episodes in mind after Act 26, but it never got the green light. They were told intentionally by Cartoon Network, who funded the second season, to leave the finale ambiguous in hopes of it being picked up again, hense the confusing ending.

    After nearly five years of the seeming break-up of Big O fan militants hoping to fight to bring up a third season, it seems hopeless now. Is there anyone out there that are willing to help save it?

  4. no,no,no don’t you see at the end of the show where angel was watching the monitor, what she was watching was a memory, the whole series was a memory of what happened 40 years ago, how they tore up the city and what did, the whole series 1 and 2 was the memories of what happened. watch the last 2 episodes again and you will see.

  5. I watched the episodes over and over. At first, I had missed a couple and ended up getting confused. However, once I re-watched, I followed through this. I am huge on scifi and I thought it was a nice mix on classy 40s versus Batman, versus ‘the meccha’ use, and some time concepts.

    The sentient robots are something that quite a few anime authors/artists tend to turn to. It makes it seem more human and more relatable to the viewer/reader.

  6. There was a flashback in the series where Roger was dead inside Big O. I remember it being underwater as well. Same was about to happen to Roger again ’til Dorothy saved him. I believe that the cycle is self-repeating and a destructive event resets time. Or I could just be high and have no clue what I am talking about. But I do feel the ending left more questions than answers revealed. Another anime without a definite ending.

  7. I was pretty impressed by the robots, I thought they were cool. I got kind of worried about the writers though around half way though season 2, I thought their heads were going to explode from the stress of forcing so much philosophy into batman piloting sentient robots which are killing each other, but it was still enjoyable.

  8. i just remember the first episode of season 2 being out there. roger goes into a alternate reality were hes a bum and he says that he will playu his part as a actor. a trippy episode that setup up the strangeness of the second season. this show plus weed is greatness. i finished it 2 years ago it stiil gets to me. TOMATOES!

    at least i still have lost

  9. ■ricky on June 6th, 2009 4:38 am
    “Another anime without a definite ending.”

    The reference to the ‘one truth’ in the anime is a dead give away. Western thought is constructed upon linear thinking. Eastern Thought is based upon circular thinking. In the the east they know that everything is circular having no end and no beginning. This anime reminds me a lot of Gasaraki. It leads the viewer into a narrow corridor and the viewer’s anticipation is due to the effect Western thinking has on the brain believing that ‘we are going to get somewhere.’ A concept touched upon by one of the greatest philosophical minds of the 20th Century Alan Watts. “You are all there was and ever will be.”

    If you are upset with the ending it is because you are stuck in a narrow corridor looking for the ending. Everything is a play on words. The matrix literally translates to the word for great mother in the Navajo language. The Native Americans understood this too. People cannot be ‘con’trolled if they know the ‘one truth’ that we are all energy and that energy can neither be created nor destroyed.

    Just a little food for thought here as well. The English language is the language of free radicals, so next time you are bored in this thing we call eternity just look for every word that has a ‘con’ in front of it. It will tell what beliefs, ideas, ‘con’structs are false beliefs, etc. I.E. ‘con’stitution, ‘con’sciousness, ‘con’trol—there are no such things in the universival mind (eastern thought or thought of the whole being which is vague) only in the ego of men (western thought or thought of the individual which is very specific but narrow) do such things exist! To understand anime you have to understand yin and yang concepts.

    The Ying Yang symbol, like much of Taoism, can be difficult to comprehend for westerners, because western philosophy has its base in platonic duality. In our dualistic system, there is good and evil, right and wrong, left and right, heaven and hell, Jesus and Satan. ‘BIG O and BIG FAU’ So when discussing philosophy, westerners tend to break things down into either/or. Something is either good or evil. Moral or immoral.

    Eastern philosophy as a whole is not dualistic. There is no supreme God, nor any ultimate evil. It is a much more organic viewpoint of the universe.

    The Yin Yang does NOT represent good and evil. An easterner would tell you that too much darkness is blinding, but so is too much light. However, do not construe this as morally ambiguity, they do not associate light and dark with good and evil. In fact, in Eastern philosophy, the color white is the representation of evil, since white represents emptiness. But white is also the color of purity, which is consistent with the organic nature of eastern philosophy.

    The light and dark of the yin yang represent the masculine and feminine. The light is the masculine, which represents reason, logic, intelligence, action, and cold heartedness. The dark is the feminine, which represents passions, emotions, wisdom, non-action, and rage. The Yin Yang represents the ideal harmony between the two, which is complete balance between one’s masculine light and feminine dark.

    Taoism may have some folk shamanistic aspects to it, but philosophically Taoism is non-deistic. Without a God that issues moral proclaimations, actions become defined not according to adherence to a canon, but according to circumstance. In Taoist religion, demons are not necessarily evil, they represent playful abandon, which in human action can either be cruelty or joviality. As opposed to Christian dualism, Taoism has much more in common with Aristotilean ethics, which preaches that there is no set in stone laws of ethics, only the ends which the action undertakes to achieve, and the means which one uses to achieve the ends.

    Another important aspect of Taoism is action vs non-action. That does not necessarily mean ambitiousness vs laziness; a taoist would say that there are times when action needs to be taken, and there are times when non-action needs to be taken. A proverb in the Tao Te Ching states “The way to settle muddy water is to do nothing”. This also applies to politics, which early Taoist philosophers were heavily involved in. According to the Tao Te Ching: “A poor ruler is someone whose actions are despised by the people. A good ruler is someone whose actions are loved by the people. The best ruler is someone whose actions go unnoticed by the people”. So a taoist might say that Warren Harding’s racket would be an example of a bad leader, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal social programs would be an example of a good leader, and Calvin Coolidge’s refusal to sign new laws and his habit of spending hours of the day in inactivity would represent the best kind of leader. We love Franklin Roosevelt for his actions, but Calvin Coolidge was probably the better president because he did not choose to interfere with the people’s lives.

    The concept of non-action as a means of improvement is a central concept to Taoist politics as well as taoist ethics. The wise man carefully weighs when it is time for action and when it is time for non-action, understanding that both action and non-action can lead to either improvement or disaster.

    I hope I didn’t get too long-winded, but Eastern Philosophy is radically different than Western philosophy and there are a lot of important differences in mindsets that need to be discussed when talking about the yin yang.

    And perhaps in keeping this all in mind you can see that the series BIG O was actually about “you” and your choice just like when Roger is sinking to the bottom and he realizes everything was his choice to begin with. It had nothing to do with the ‘con’structs of his world. This is the ultimate understanding of free will and living in the NOW–infinity. As long as you are guided by choice that adheres to you past or future, belief system, etc. You will always be trapped by the situation that seems ‘real’ The only thing that is real is “you” and “you” are infinite just like the universe around you. The stage in BIG O represents the limitations of your “mind” not the creators of this story. Great Posts to All!

  10. From the begining Angel was the only real spectator adn Roger was playing the main role. The fact that his catch-phrase was “Big O, Action” eludes to fact that he was acting, but he was an actor in charge of his destiny. The one tp keep the story going was the man in the bar who had all the truth of the story who was later found out to be an android. The world itself was never a world.

  11. It’s not a matter of Eastern “worldview” nor Taoism. The Japanese had endings for their stories long before any of this contemporary nonsense came along. Anyone claiming it’s a cultural difference that makes Westerners “not understand” open endings thinks much to highly of his own intellect. We get them just fine, but we think they are total cop outs and we don’t like having our time wasted so some dipstick can rely on sequels for his unimaginative crap.

    No matter what theory you choose to help you deal with this awful story telling, Roger is a gay robot. Doesn’t age, isn’t a clone, doesn’t like hot blonde chicks. Gay robot PERIOD.

    We all know from the first season finale that Roger has some serious mental issues when confronted with his own mortality.

    We also know that Paradigm City, and possibly the whole world, is a socialist Hell hole ran by some twisted psychos.

    Poor Angel.

  12. Wait, I was totally following you until you mentioned Dorothy’s disdain for religion and the Megadeuses representing Tyranny, public opnion, etc etc. I seriously don’t buy that.

    I like your take on the ‘power of Gods and sense of justice’ that the Megadeus contain. I didn’t catch on to that, but its not hidden behind a lot of walls and hurdles you have to logically jump through to get to that conclusion.

    Talking about the religious imagery: as an aside, the man who wrote the Evangelion plot stated that all the religious imagery (and title, even) was really just because it looked appealing. That it never symbolized anything. In the west, we tend to over analyze this and look far too deep into what the creator probably threw in as an aside.

    Which is why I’m weary of over-analyzing plots.

  13. I’m going to bring this back some how! Or die trying! How and where do we tell Cartoon Network to bring back Big O and put it on toonami! Adult swim should be a separate channel given its adult content, and stop taking from the good child-young teenagers friendly Cartoons! This show needs (NO) “DESERVES AN ENDING WHERE DOROTHY MARRIES ROGER”!!! Enough said. Where do I sign!?

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