“The story I am going to tell you happened a great many years ago, so it is well to hear it now before it is forgotten” — The Nightingale, By Hans Christian Andersen
When anime creators slip in references to Western symbols, stories or jobs, they’re either really on the nose — a cross means God, the Tree of Life is a mystical gateway, etc. — or they’re just there to look cool — pretty much every priest ever in anime.
On occasion though, a creator will slip in references that seem to hint at a larger meaning. I wanted to talk about two of them from The Big O.
I’m not sure I fully grok their entire meaning, but I’m going to try. I appreciate any feedback or thoughts you might have.
So to talk about Dorothy Waynewright, and the nightingale, I have to tell you a summarized version of Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Nightingale. You can skip over this next part, or if you want to read the non-summarized version you can go here.
There once was an Emperor in China that learned about a bird that sang so beautifully that men would forget what they were doing. He knew that he must hear that bird, so he sent men scouring far and wide.
A lord found the bird and invited it to sing for the Emperor, and the bird agreed. That night, she sang for the court, and everyone was moved to tears. He had to keep it. He built it a beautiful cage of gold and tied a ribbon around its neck.
The bird wasn’t happy with this, but it endured.
Then one day someone sent a mechanical nightingale made of gold and jewels to the Emperor. It sang just as beautifully as the real nightingale. He became obsessed with the fake, and forgot about the real nightingale. The real bird flew away, and the Emperor did not care.
Many years later, the mechanical bird broke, and the Emperor fell into a deep depression because he would never hear the beautiful song anymore.
As he’s on death’s door, he hears a song outside of his window. The nightingale has returned! His heart leaps for joy and his sickness is abated. The bird agrees to sing for him, but will not be caged.
They both live happily ever after.
So the show really puts a big bright sign on the reference. First, the club that Roger Smith finds Dorothy singing at is called The Nightengale (sic). Then to make sure you don’t miss the allusion, Roger Smith hammers the point home in his voice over.
Waynewright lost his nightingale (his daughter) during the catastrophe, but he didn’t lose his memory of her. He was so haunted by his sadness that he made a mechanical nightingale to replace her.
So that’s it? Right?
Well… not really. See there’s another part to that story. The nightingale’s song was so beautiful that would wake memories, comfort people and entrance them. When the guards are initially searching for the nightingale, they discover a kitchen girl who has heard it’s song. This is the story she tells:
“Every evening I have permission to take home to my poor sick mother the scraps from the table; she lives down by the sea-shore, and as I come back I feel tired, and I sit down in the wood to rest, and listen to the nightingale’s song. Then the tears come into my eyes, and it is just as if my mother kissed me.”
Dorothy seems to have those same abilities to entrance fellow robots with her song. She is both entranced by and entrances her big sister in the first episode, and in the fourth episode, she wakes up the Megadeus in the expo hall.
Though later she rejects the Megadeus as “not like her,” which is strange.
What I want to understand is what purpose the imagery serves. Is it just there to make a poignant stinger to the end of Waynewright’s story? Is she meant to represent the beautiful song that will bring back the memories of Paradigm City? Or is it just all smoke and mirrors to make me frustrated?
On to the Black Forest
So this one is a bit less front facing. When Roger Smith initially meets Schwarzwald in episode 4, he asks “Black Forest?”
What is interesting, as people probably already know, is that Schwarzwald is the name of the actual Black Forest in southern Germany. The one that features pretty heavily in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales.
But in scanning the myths about it, I couldn’t come up with one that deals with an intrepid adventurer being badly burned for his hubris. The most promising reference I could come up with was one that said the name of the forest comes because its tightly packed trees that won’t let the sunlight in. It is literally the deep, dark forest.
So did Schwarzwald pick that name because he felt like he was entering a dark forest or because he felt like he was already in the forest? Was it because he wanted others to realize they were living in ignorance of their past?
I’d love to get some thoughts on this one.
EDIT: So it seems like Kazuyoshi Katayama has some opinions about this. Katayama was one of the men most responsible for the series. This is taken from a 2003 interview talking about the manga and the DVD release.
” The name ‘Schwarzwald’ signifies the insanity, the primal scars, in the European psyche. A long time ago, Europe was covered in dense forests, and you didn’t know what lurked in the darkness. There was a lust for conquest that was inversely proportional to the fear. The Black Forest holds strong meaning to Westerners.”