We’re not who we were
Anime has clear-cut genres: high school slice-of-life, giant robots, supernatural, action, romance, etc. Often, two or three categories will come together to give us teenagers piloting giant robots, sports rivals falling in love, and ghosts having fighting tournaments. But rarely do shows experiment with genre mashing to the degree that The Big O does.
Over the course of its twenty-six episodes, The Big O can’t decide what sort of anime it wants to be when it grows up, and instead is a little of everything: giant robot, dystopian sci-fi, noir, kaiju, and supernatural, with romance added for good measure. The animation is even similar in style to Batman: The Animated Series—and Roger Smith, along with his butler Norman, bear strong resemblances to Bruce Wayne and his butler Alfred both in appearance and in personality. And somehow, the show manages to keep two themes running throughout its hodgepodge of genres: your identity is what you make of it, and your past does not define your future.
The Big O takes place in the crumbling Paradigm City, where amnesia struck its citizens forty years prior to the start of the show, leaving the community grappling to piece together its forgotten story. The citizens and government—headed by the shady Paradigm Corporation—struggle to recreate their society using objects and documents left over from their past for reference. Although they have Christmas decorations and hymnals, they don’t fully grasp what Christianity once was, and instead have distilled it down to a winter festival, or gathering together in a church to sing to appease a vague notion of a god. The amnesia that afflicted Paradigm City hit its elders the hardest—those who had the most memories to lose felt the loss most. The calamity destroyed much of their past, and with it, their sense of who they were.
Within this society without a past, Roger Smith is a negotiator. As the protagonist, he negotiates on behalf of paying citizens for kidnapping victims, hostages, and even rescued animals. He navigates his job with charm and ease, smooth-talking his way out of many situations and punching his way out of the rest with his giant robot, Big O. At the start of the show, he rescues Dorothy Wainwright, an android, and she becomes his companion throughout the series.
Although Roger grew up in the generation that came after the amnesia and destruction, there’s still little he recalls of his childhood. While the citizens of Paradigm City search for “memories”—documents and objects that reveal what their society used to be like — Roger believes that dwelling on the past is pointless and holds him back. He creates an identity for himself as a negotiator, forms a life within Paradigm City that keeps him comfortable, and he acts with kindness and human decency. To him, this is enough.
It isn’t until he recalls hazy forgotten memories that Roger finds himself searching for knowledge about his past. He questions his identity as he wonders whether these memories of who he was could change who he has become. He reaches the conclusion that who he was in the past doesn’t have to dictate who he chooses to be in the present and future. His identity, while informed by his memories, is not solely determined by them.
Meanwhile, Roger’s companion, Dorothy, carries the memories of a dead woman within her. In his grief, her creator took his daughter’s image and memories and crafted an android clone, naming her Dorothy after his daughter. Throughout the series, Dorothy struggles with this false identity, not knowing whether she is her own person with her own story or whether the memories implanted within her will determine who she is.
She learns to distance herself from “Dorothy”, the woman whose memories she carries, and her own personality emerges from her choices and experiences with Roger and the other inhabitants of Paradigm City. By the end, she shows that even with the memories of her predecessor ripped out of her, her identity runs deeper than her false past. Through her choices—and despite her memories—she becomes a Dorothy of her own.
And then there is Angel, the mysterious woman Roger and Dorothy keep running into who is desperately scouring the city for memories. Angel’s identity is ever-changing, and the first several times Roger meets her she’s dressed differently and wearing a different name. The finale reveals that Angel is in fact a fallen angel of sorts: a powerful being who can create, change, and destroy the world. She is the one responsible for the amnesia that afflicted Paradigm City decades ago. As a human, she has no recollection of these events, yet still has a burning need to know her past and form an identity from it, not realizing that the choices she makes as she lives her life have crafted her identity bit by bit.
With the loss of its memories, Paradigm City lost track of its narrative. Even so, the citizens learn again how to live and exist within their new identities, making choices to determine who they want to be. Although their collective story has been erased, they’ve moved forward, writing a new one for themselves out of the pieces of their past that remain.
Similarly, The Big O borrows pieces of the anime that have come before it—like Devilman and Neon Genesis Evangelion—throughout its mysterious story. Although the show features giant robots and angels, the remix of those elements and the addition of genres like noir—with its jazz music and mystery case-like episodes—keep the show from feeling like a tired derivative rehashing the same points. The Big O could have easily been just another robot anime to gloss over, lost in the popularity of the genre in the 80s and 90s. But like Roger, Angel, and Dorothy, The Big O took the remnants of its ancestors and forged its own place in the world, leaving behind a series that acknowledges its roots while breaking from them to reinforce the show’s message: we are not bound to our past, merely informed by it.