“With the Big O, I wanted to provide 6-year-olds a hero they could look up to that still can be appreciated by adults, instead of a hero they can easily identify with. I wanted to give them a hero they can dream of growing up and becoming. My goal was to create an anime that 6-year-olds can enjoy alongside 30- to 40-year-olds” – Keiichi Sato, Character Designer, The Big O.
The Big O is a surprisingly dark show.
I talked about my history with The Big O, and how I feel like it fits into the history of anime fandom. At the height of its popularity, I often described it as Batman with big robots. And for all intents and purposes, I meant it was a show geared toward pre-teens and early teens with a neat art style.
I’ve watched the show multiple times, and even though there are episodes I liked (Bring Back My Ghost, Winter Night Phantom and Underground Terror) I never thought of The Big O as that bloody even in the abstract.
When I started rewatching the series again, I read through the interviews posted on The Big O Archive. (It’s not exhaustive research, but it was the least I could do.) Keiichi Sato, who is largely credited as one of the people who came up with the series, says the series (or at least the toys) are geared at 6-year-olds.
If I was really thinking about it, the first 15 minutes of the first episode should have broken me of that illusion. When Roger and Dorothy come across a dying Soldano lying in his own blood. But I’m not sure it did.
I started to become a little more aware of it when I saw the elder Waynewright get and bleed out in episode 2.
It doesn’t stop there, this show is filled with either implied or obvious murder. Bonny Frasier is shown falling from the bridge after getting shot. Both generals in that episode are killed. Then there’s episode 6, A Legacy for Amadeus, where we see a robot arm falling down on a man and crushing him.
What is strange is even though the violence is implied or shown, it’s never shocking. I didn’t really walk away from an episode going, “Well, I’m not sure if I would really show that to a kid.” Hell, I never really walked away from the episodes going, “That is strange for a series aimed at 6-year-old kids.”
But there are two things I want to highlight in particular because they cemented my feelings about them. But first, lets talk about Fullmetal Alchemist and Shou Tucker.
A Name that lives in infamy
Anime fans of a certain generation all came into the fandom on the back of the 2003’s Fullmetal Alchemist. Everyone that I’ve talked to about the episodes with Shou Tucker all remember how tragic it seemed.
(Note: I haven’t watched the episodes he’s featured in during Brotherhood, but I’m sure, like everything about that series, it is better plotted and has less interesting characters.)
To give a brief rundown, Ed and Al are staying with Shou Tucker is called the Sewing-Life alchemist. They soon meet his daughter, Nina, and form a fast friendship. The show’s creators make Nina super likeable.
Here is what The Fullmetal Alchemist wiki says happens:
“Nina confides in the boys that her loneliness is largely due to the fact that her mother had left her father two years ago, just before Shou Tucker received his State Alchemist certification, after which point his increasing immersion into his research greatly limited the amount of time he was able to spend with his young daughter.
The Elrics immediately understand how Nina feels as they remember their own father paying little attention to them and declare their intention to play with Nina and Alexander and the three kids and dog spend most of the rest of the day playing together.
Unfortunately, what the little girl did not understand was that her mom had not abandoned her family as Shou had claimed, but rather had become an unwilling human test subject in the secretly deranged state alchemist’s chimerical experiments and died.
As Shou’s yearly assessment approaches and his license comes into jeopardy, Nina attempts to console her depressed father, but her reassurances merely inspire the man to begin his depraved practice once again.
While the Elrics are away, Shou transmutes Nina and Alexander into a Human Chimera using the same method with which he transmuted his wife. As he attempts to pass Nina off as his second speech-capable chimera, however, Edward realizes the horror of what the Sewing-Life Alchemist has done when Nina speaks innocently to him from inside her new monstrous form.”
Even now I remember the reveal when we see Nina turned chimera. I remember the madness from Shou Tucker, and just how emotionally impactful that scene it.
A girl, a cat and a church
So what is interesting is that this:
Is the same as this:
I talked about this episode when I was talking about Dorothy and her cat, but it bears repeating that the scientist Eugene Grant took the child of a couple who had withdrawn their support, and turned him into a cat. The episode states it plainly.
But somehow, it seems less dark in The Big O then it is in Fullmetal Alchemist. Even Eugene Grant, who is certainly portrayed as a scenery chewing madman, doesn’t seem as frightening as Shou Tucker.
I also want to note that Grant, during his kidnap scene, guns down Roys parents. There is a scene where we see a woman on her knees get shot about a dozen times, and blood spray out.
That takes care of my first example, but my second example is probably as disturbing. In episode 10, Winter Night Phantom, we see a group of people sitting in a church worshiping. We also see a small toy robot walking toward the church.
The two come together as a young girl turns in her pew to took at a hatch. It lifts and we see the robot come through. Then a bright light, which he see reflected against a nearby wall, and 46 people are dead. How do I know 46 people are dead, well in the very next scene Dan Dastun tells Roger Smith how many people died.
That’s right. There was a mass bombing on-screen during a show ostensibly geared at 6-year-olds.
Granted, this show isn’t really geared at 6-year-olds. The toys may be, but it’s really geared at 13 to 20 somethings. But I kept thinking, “How did I never notice this? I’ve watchied this show before. I’ve watched it multiple times. How did this never become apparent?”
I think I have an answer, and I think it has to do with Batman.
Familiarity breeds recognition
Before I get into my theory, I do have to point out a couple of things. Neither of these tragedies are played up. The news about Perro is given as a few lines of voice over, which you can easily miss. While his death at the end of the episode is sad, it’s played as if he’s a cat, not as if he’s a boy.
And in the bombing scene, even though the initial scene has impact by implication, we don’t dwell on the deaths. We never learn anything more about them. They are effectively an inciting action for the show, and nothing more.
But I don’t think that’s all of it. See even the impact of seeing Perro’s parents gunned down, or Waynewright’s death feel less than they should. And I think it’s the art style.
Sunrise had just finished making Batman: The Animated Series when they started work on The Big O, and the art style often feels abstract in a lot of ways. They have a lot more in common with Hanna-Barbera cartoon then they feel like traditional shounen anime of the time.
That said, I don’t remember anything particularly dark happening in Batman either. Sure they had some interesting characters, but no one was getting mowed down.
There is an idea in psychology called schema. Like everything else in pschology, no one is really sure if they matter, but they seem to reasonably explain why people do things, until they don’t. Anyway, the idea is we use create something like a computer script around everything in the world. This can be a simple as saying, “Hello” when you’re starting a conversation or “Goodbye” when you’re ending it.
The important thing to note is that when it’s applied, it’s hard to add new information to it. This is how stereotypes happen.
So when I’m faced with a show that looks like a kids cartoons and doesn’t purposefully make me think it’s not a kids cartoon, then my brain says, “This is a kids cartoon.” and I just ignore the bloodshed and tragedy that is really there.
I’m not sure if that says something about me, or about the show, but either way it’s interesting.
Thanks for reading. I think I have one or two more posts left in this series about The Big O. I have been pondering what series I’m going to take on next. I’m considering tackling the granddaddy of them all, and going after Eva, but I’m not sure I have anything to really add to the discussion there. But we’ll see.