One of the more popular animes seen on the Cartoon Network, a second season of The Big O has hit the airwaves. The Big O II: Paradigm Lost, as a DVD, is virtually identical to previous releases; while the content is slim and the tone of the show has changed somewhat in the second season, fans will be delighted to see Roger Smith back in action.
Facts of the Case
Paradigm City is a city of amnesia. Nobody can remember anything about themselves, the city, or anything else going further back than 40 years, when everyone suddenly awoke, without any memories. Slowly, the people learned how to use electricity and rebuild their society, and things seem to be running smoothly now.
But what happened to Paradigm City? A desert surrounds the city, laden with broken buildings and the crumbling remnants of…what? Is Paradigm City the only city left? Or has Paradigm City always been alone and isolated?
Roger Smith is a "negotiator," one of the best in the city. If you have a problem, you can enlist his services to solve it. Kidnappings, hostages, bomb threats, crisis, protection, you name it—Roger is a very capable man. But there is more to Roger than meets the eye. He is the pilot of Big O, a gigantic robot called a Megadeus, a relic from the past that he has the skills to operate. The Big O defends the city from threats and invasions from other Megadeuses that seem to plague the people of Paradigm City and show up from time to time to cause trouble.
The end of the first season ended mid-climax—top negotiator Roger Smith was fending off the attack of three strange robots bent on destroying Paradigm City. He was losing the fight, things seemed bleak, and then suddenly, the show was over.
In this, the second season, Roger Smith awakens in Paradigm City, but everything has changed. He is a homeless vagrant, and everyone seems to have his or her memories. There are no domes, his fabulous home is actually a public bank now, and nobody recognizes him. His watch, which controls the Big O, is a broken piece of glass. Is this the "real" world? If so, what happened to the city he knew? Did it ever exist?
The mystery of Paradigm City is far from over, and Roger Smith is back, anxious to find the answers—his fate seems to depend on it. Can Roger unlock the mystery and return to the Paradigm City he remembers?
It wouldn't be much of a show if he couldn't, now would it?
The technical term to describe the curiosity that is The Big O is denoted as a "reverse cross-cultural fertilization"—that is, a Japanese cartoon influenced heavily by a stylized American animation, not the other way around, which is far more common. It takes no animation guru to pick up on the influence; The Big O, stylistically, is the Japanese version of Batman: The Animated Series, and in fact, many of the animators worked on said production.
Sadly, the show was cancelled after 13 episodes in Japan due to budget constraints and general lack of interest. But the show was successful enough to revitalize with American money, for air on American networks. So enter the second "season," AKA The Big O II, a new run of animation co-produced by the Cartoon Network for air on Adult Swim.
Most Japanese programs have been revitalized, re-assimilated, and resold (often decades later) for American consumption (think anything Japanese you have ever seen on television or at the movies). But it is much rarer for an American-influenced Japanese anime that was cancelled in Japan to suddenly get a new influx of funding from a cable channel in America to produce a new season, because fans can't get enough of it on the other side of the world.
It would be like, if in a year or two, a Norwegian cable channel called up Joss Whedon and paid him to make new episodes of Firefly, just for Norwegian cable, because the Norwegians loved it so.
This kind of thing does happen, believe it or not. (But, to clarify, I have no idea if the Norwegians love Firefly or not.)
It took me a while to get into The Big O. When I first saw it a year or two ago, I didn't think much of it; while it looked nice, it felt too stagnant, too dull, and almost childish, especially compared to some of the other anime Sunrise was producing. The mystery of Paradigm City, while a cute twist, seemed tacked on, uninteresting. It took a while to grow on me, but I found myself coming back into the series with growing interest. It had style. When I learned of the second season coming into production, I perked up my ears with growing interest.
Things are a little different this time around in Paradigm City. The esoteric first episode leaves more questions on the table than it answers, and its surrealistic bent is quickly abandoned to get back to its roots—the good ol' robot smashing action of the first season. Rather than each individual episode being an island to itself, as in the first season, The Big O II is a continuous narrative, slowly building towards an inevitable climax, where all the answers to Paradigm's City mysterious amnesia will, theoretically, be resolved once and for all.
The visual style has changed, slightly; Paradigm City is far more lush and detailed than previously before, the robots much more spectacular and intricate. The show looks fantastic—its striking visual appeal has always been one of its strongest points. The colors are vibrant and almost comic book like. The DVD transfer does look fantastic, with immaculate colors and black levels, but I had issue with the occasional softness of the picture, and the jagged edge artifacts on high magnification. For an anime, it looks lush and vibrant, but anyone watching this DVD on a high-end television may notice the jaggedness in the black lines. But this is a minor technical detail—this DVD looks incredible, and the problem is not nearly as noticeable as with other animated features on DVD (Futurama, for example, is 10 times worse).
The audio on The Big O II is a wonderful thing indeed. Three distinct audio tracks are presented, and fans can pick and choose at their leisure, because they all sound awesome. The Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 track is the obvious choice for hardcore anime fans that hate the typically bad English dubs on American-released anime, and it sounds virtually identical to the English 2.0 dubbed track. Both make excellent use of the two channels, spreading the music atmospherically across the speakers. Dialogue is clear and muddle-free, and all sound effects are articulate and well defined. These tracks could use a bit more bass response, but they still sound great.
But the real kicker is the English Dolby Surround 5.1 track, a feature that the majority of television-produced anime DVD never ever have. It makes a strong argument to the die-hard otaku types to actually listen to an English dub, because the 5.1 track sounds so gosh darn nice and smooth. Most of the dialogue and sound effects are trapped in the front speakers, but the music swells in a particularly immersive fashion across the rear channels. It really does sound nice. The bass is more responsive in the 5.1 track, but still sounds slightly thin. But it is by far the best audio choice, in terms of quality.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Like all anime DVDs, the extras are paltry and negligible, which is to say, non-existent. It irks me tremendously that the premium price shelled out by die-hard fans for anime DVDs nets them almost nothing in the extras department, where even the most pedantic and idiotic Hollywood movie comes bursting with extra content and sells for under 20 dollars.
Most of the problems I had with The Big O have either dissipated or worked themselves out—the show has managed to find itself a fairly unique identity. But there isn't much to it, at times. Sometimes, the show feels thin and vacuous, the philosophies and ruminations shallow and hollow (sort of like Matrix Revolutions, har har).
I never like to completely judge an anime until I see all the episodes, because everyone knows that it takes a long time for things to develop and bear fruit in Japanese anime. But I feel validated by this DVD. Things look promising.
The Big O II is a cool, cool show. It does such a successful job of marrying the simple, action-packed, bang-em-up robot style of anime with the complex, brooding, mysterious, enigmatic style of anime that it is a shining example of how popular Japanese anime has the potential to be if you simply leave it alone and show it to North Americans.
The second season has a lot of questions to wrap up, and the Cartoon Network actually has money invested in it this time around, so cross your fingers and hope it can live up to the hype. But so far, based on this first DVD set, things are looking good; odds are fans will have nothing to worry about.
While it may be skimpy in supplementary content, the English 5.1 track helps to smooth things over nicely. Fans of The Big O have been given a second chance and should go out and support this DVD. Reasonably priced for an anime DVD, it is a good solid purchase for fans of the series, and even newcomers should have no trouble getting into the spirit of things.
How can you pass a "guilty" verdict on a show that looks like the Batman cartoon, oozes visual and thematic style, and has gigantic robots trashing cities to boot?
Not even guilty for a second.
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