RaEL Film Guide

The Big O Vol. 1-4
(Bandai DVD/325 mins)

Paradigm City... a city that has yet to fully awaken. Paradigm City... a city of vision but without a past. Hmmm... if Paradigm City, the cartoon world of the Japanese anime, Big O, makes you think of $ingapore, then you would be shocked at the amount of narrative coincidences. The irony is simply delicious, if it isn’t so tragic. It’s as if, one day 40 years ago, everyone here lost their memory of everything before that day. That’s what happened in Big O’s Paradigm City.

Casting a world-weary eye, narrator-hero Roger Smith, Paradigm City’s top negotiator, says in the voiceover, underlined by an equally melancholic saxophone, "Humans are creatures that manage to make do and go on with life. If they can figure out how to operate machines and get electricity, they can have something like a civilisation even without a history."

The first two episodes (out of 13) of this series, that was first shown in Japan in 1999, express these feelings succinctly. In Episode One, Roger is called to deliver the ransom for Dorothy, the daughter of a leading scientist in Paradigm City, only to discover that the kidnappers, led by Beck, have returned the android Dorothy (Dorothy 2) while still holding on to giant robot Dorothy (Dorothy 1).

For the scientist, Dorothy 2 is created in the image of a lost daughter; for Beck, Dorothy is a way to make big bucks - he intends the giant robot to steal the plates for printing money. In between stands Roger, who, with his own giant robot/megadeus, Big O, continually thwart the plans of all criminals… and other life-threatening monsters and robots. Longing and greed, nothing really out of the ordinary but still, enough to drive the story forward.

Certainly, the idea of how one ekes out a living in a city suffering from amnesia is a promising one. For example, in Winter Night Phantom, Roger’s police-friend Dastun dreams about a beautiful woman on a dock. Framed by cinema images, this episode is a play on the indelible images/memories left by cinema (on the brain) and yet is a way of recapturing the past (through the lens darkly?). As Roger says, people "live their lives just fine without knowing what did or didn’t happen. And each day they try their hardest to do just that."

It’s a little unfortunate that Roger comes across a little too much like Bruce Wayne - he has a very capable butler; his car is almost as gadget-filled as the Batmobile (if not more so) and he has a female sidekick (which Frank Miller would surely approve, even if it’s an android). And doesn’t main villain Beck remind you of The Joker?

"Cast in the name of God ye not guilty! Big O, it’s Showtime!" As much as this is a show about fighting giant robots, in fact, the appearance of Big O during the episode is almost an anti-climax - Big O invariably saves the day.

It is the meta-story about the origins of Paradigm City and the way its people live that is more interesting. Housed in the Memory Repository, memories are considered treasures and therein lies the crux. Who controls the memories? Or, who writes history if this is so closely guarded? A paradigm is a mental framework for looking at the world. But without a past to provide some anchorage, those in power will keep on reinventing paradigms - after all, without a past, one has every opportunity to reinvent oneself. At the end of the day, pragmatism triumphs over everything. Worse case scenario - pragmatism gone haywire. In Big O’s world, this is seen in an elitist society that literally leads a very cocooned and fearful existence. Closer home, one needs look no further than our own education policies through the years. Memories as bargaining chips anyone?

As pat as anyone can get, Big O isn’t about ghosts in the machines - even if the android Dorothy is central to the show. Everything about Big O is about trying to find the heart; it’s as if the show is asking: if you don’t have your memories, how can you know yourself as a person or as a country and society? And with that, hopefully comes the wisdom to choose. For just before the final bust-up, Roger says, "We have choices. Some people like to stand in the rain without an umbrella. That’s what it means to live free." Is Big O going to be shown anytime soon in $ingapore? - Stephen Tan

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