Megadei and Memories - A Paper on Philosophy and The Big O|
"My name is Roger Smith. I perform a much-needed service here in this City of Amnesia."
With those words and very little initial fanfare, Sunrise's 26-episode series concerning memories, men and the giant robots they control titled The Big O begins. On first glance, a viewer might find themselves awash in metaphors they don't quite understand or images that don't seem to make any sense. On the surface, the series seems to be little more than yet another foreign cartoon featuring Godzilla-scaled machines that do the will of men, with the occasional reference to religion and literature thrown in to keep up the post-Evangelion tradition.1
Armed with knowledge and far more time than any one human being should probably spend on an animated work, however, The Big O reveals multiple layers of various philosophies that drive men in entirely different directions. It also attempts to unravel a question that lies at the heart of being human: what is it that makes a person who they say they are? Is it their memories – who they were in the past – or is it what they can make themselves into in the present and the future? Is it some combination of these two things? In a world...a universe even!... of uncertainty, how can we possibly be certain of anything?
The City of Amnesia
The setup for The Big O is simple enough. Forty years in the past, or so we are told, an event happened that gave humanity a massive case of retrograde amnesia. The event also seems to have devastated a great deal of the world, so much so that in time the show is set in, the metropolis called Paradigm City2 is the only bastion of human civilization left in the world – a prospect that might be intimidating or even frightening to some.
The city itself is divided into two vastly different worlds. The rich and well-to-do huddle under the city's massive domes; structures of metal and glass that generate light and warmth for those lucky enough to live and work under them. The domed areas of Paradigm City shine as though they had been built only days before, a stark contrast to the world outside.
Outside the domes, the unfortunate majority of the city lives under gray skies in a world without sunlight where it seems to rain more often than it should. Buildings are run-down and weathered, and the city's central authority – the Paradigm Company – does little beyond what is absolutely necessary to prevent riots to care for the areas of the city outside the domes. It is in this worn-out world that a significant part of The Big O plays out and serves as the home of the city's protagonist, a man named Roger Smith.
The contrast between the rich and the poor is an important feature of Paradigm City and arguably helps shape the mindsets of the series' three main characters in ways that affect much of the series. There are probably other tangents one can go off on with this contrast, but they aren't important to the purpose of this paper. The critical aspect to keep in mind is this: Roger Smith is a product of the world outside the domes, while his primary antagonist Alex Rosewater is a product of the world inside the domes. Roger's life philosophy rises from his life in a world where one has to be determined to continue living or face personal oblivion on the streets. Alex, on the other hand, has never faced challenges: he is the president of Paradigm and the ruler of the world as we know it in the show. His messianic arrogance stems from this position of power, while his inability to cope with the uncertain world outside stems from his protected life under the domes.
Much of The Big O revolves around three main characters, each of whom seems to represent a different perspective upon the world they live in, perspectives that are in many ways quite different from one another.
The first of these three is the show's protagonist and hero, Roger Smith. Roger is what is known in Paradigm City as a Negotiator, a position where the Negotiator is something of a middleman that assists two parties in coming to an agreement. The job also requires a great deal of creativity and cool-headedness – traits Roger possesses in excess – as well as a great deal of patience, something that Paradigm City's best Negotiator doesn't always have at his disposal.
Roger also has people behind him that support him every step of the way. His ever-faithful butler Norman Burg maintains a sense of normalcy around the Smith mansion, in addition to the mind-boggling task of maintaining and repairing Roger's robot, the Big O. Roger also acquires the company of the stoic android R. Dorothy Wayneright3 in the first episodes of the show, eventually becoming Roger's love interest (a concept that might inspire further wondering about the nature of love, I'm sure.) as reinforcing Roger's sense of identity.
The Negotiator is not without his troubles, however. He – like many in what he calls "the City of Amnesia" -- worries over who exactly he is. Without knowledge of his past, without memories, how can he be sure that he is Roger Smith? The opening episode of The Big O's second season, titled "Roger The Wanderer," forces Roger to confront this existential conflict. At first he despairs and wonders if he is merely an actor playing out a minor and unimportant role in the grand drama of life.
Eventually, however, Dorothy forces Roger to realize that whomever he was in the past, the reality of the present is that Roger Smith is the Negotiator and the pilot of the Big O, the defender of Paradigm City. He cannot focus and worry about things that may or may not have already happened because the present and the future demand his attention (in the case of "Roger The Wanderer", the present demands his attention in the form of three very hostile robots that are attacking Big O. The present can be rather rough at times.)
Roger is the pragmatist of the series. He has "no dogmas" (as William James puts it in "What Pragmatism Means") and holds no blind allegiances, having abandoned his ties to Paradigm Company on the past due to his distaste for their way of running the city. Roger also constantly wonders about the nature of the world he lives in, as evidenced by the monologues that begin many of the episodes of the series. However, Roger's pondering leads him to take an active approach to life compared to the passive nature of Paradigm City and its many inhabitants who fret and worry about reality without confronting it head on.
Roger is fully aware of the fact that he may never find the answers to the problems that plague his mind. Unable even to be sure that he is himself, Roger nevertheless realizes that he must continue living – in other words, the present and the future hold more meaning to Roger than memories and the past.
The next of the three characters is the man who calls himself Schwarzwald, the German term for the Black Forest.4 Formerly known as Michael Seebach, Schwarzwald is a man driven mad by the truth. In the past he served as a reporter for Paradigm Press, a division of the omnipresent Paradigm Company, but the management's practice of repeatedly censoring his work drove him to search for truth in places many others feared to tread. Hence, his adoption of the name "Schwarzwald" and its connotations of the deepest fears and terrors of medieval Central Europeans.
What is it that he seeks, however? In Act 4, "Underground Terror," Schwarzwald seeks the truth of the Event that wiped out the world and everyone's memories. He then discovers an incomplete robot, or "megadeus" in the show's terminology, and begins to wonder why the megadei exist at all. Ultimately he discovers a robot to rival Roger's Big O – the Big Duo – and reaches the conclusion that the megadeus' power is the Final Truth – that those who possess a megadeus, those who possess "the power of God," as Schwarzwald himself describes it, control the world and everything on it.
In this sense, Schwarzwald walks in the tradition of Socrates and his ilk, taking nothing for granted and questioning everything in an uncertain world. However, the Socratic method never leads to certain results – Socrates' questions are meant to provoke conversation and give us a deeper understanding and connection to ourselves and those around us, not provide a clear image of the true nature of reality, an image that Schwarzwald desires. His misunderstanding of his philosophy leads him ultimately to disaster, his disappearance into the wilderness beyond Paradigm City, and his eventual death.
Schwarzwald's need for certainty became his undoing, an understanding he came too all too late as he ultimate concludes in his final lines in Act 25, "The War of Paradigm City": "Paradigm City, a grand, ostentatious stage. And above it, secretly looking down on the folly of human blunders, were not the ever-expecting and comforting presence of the gods, but only this abandoned equipment. [referring to the scaffolding and giant lights that are found to be hanging high above Paradigm City] This is a comedy! This is what I was searching for, the true Memories, they were--"5
It's at this point that the Big Duo and Schwarzwald's ghost crash into one of those giant lights, the massive robot blowing itself to pieces in a cloud of smoke. Gee, what a pessimist.
The third and final lead role in this drama is that of the Paradigm Company's CEO, Alex Rosewater. Alex's position puts him in control of all aspects of the city, from its defense through the military police to the absolute control of the official flow of information. Such power would be enough to bring out the worst in most men, and Alex is no exception. The show's finale has him piloting his giant robot Big Fau, laying waste to much of the city as he fights Roger, yelling angrily out at the world as segments of his puppet military police force turn against him: "Yes, of course; power must be demonstrated to the ignorant! Hey Dad; You were nothing put a coward and a puppet! Well I'm neither of those, and I'm going to prove it!"6
Alex is through and through a follower of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, or rather a very distorted version of Nietzsche's ideas.7 The German philosopher, one of the first of the existentialist philosophers of the 19th century, believed that men must use what he called the "will to power" to drive himself to newer and greater heights, rejecting the "burdensome" morality of the Judeo-Christian past in order to become what he called the "overman" or übermensch.
However, Alex – like many figures in real history – omit a critical part of Nietzsche's belief in the rise of man. The best way to understand this is through a passage called "The Three Metamorphoses of the Spirit" from Thus Spake Zarathustra. He describes how man begins as a humble camel in order to learn humility, and then a lion in order to gain the will and conviction – the will to power – to become the master of his own soul and his own reality. Alex understands these well enough in his extra-legal use of Paradigm's power for his own ends, culminating ultimately in his reconstruction and use of his own giant robot weapon to rule over a new world order.
Alex, however, neglects the final metamorphosis man undergoes to become the overman, and this is from a proud and might lion into an innocent child. While the lion (and by extension, Alex) have the power to say "No" to the present order and thus to destroy, the child-nature is needed in order to say "Yes," in order to rebuild a new world. The child is strong, bold, and free of the old world's restraints. Alex, however, is so proud and arrogant that he fails to achieve this childlike innocence needed to rebuild himself, insisting that he is a god when he is merely human (Think of Crime and Punishment's Raskolnikov, only Alex is more insistent on his overman status than Dostoevsky's protagonist was.)
The Bigs: Masters of Memory
As powerful as Roger, Alex and Schwarzwald might be on their own, they are only normal men. What propels them all onto a stage of epic conflict are the giant robots, called "megadeus", they pilot. Like any of its predecessors in the mecha genre of animation, The Big O contains its fair share of massive mechanical weapons.
It is, however, three of these robots specifically that possess a special significance to the show. These megadei8 are the "Bigs": Big O, Big Duo, and Big Fau.9 They are the chosen weapons and companions of Roger, Schwarzwald and Alex respectively, and each of these machines boasts immense power.
But what are the megadei, really? The show itself provides no upfront answers. In all of the 26 episodes of the show we never learn about the past and the original purpose of the Bigs other than a flashback originating in Act 13, "R-D" that shows the three Bigs destroying a city. We never learn who built the Bigs, or any of the details of their operation beyond what see from their pilots running them.
However, perhaps the purpose of the Big megadei is not in their literal origins or operation, but in their symbolic meaning. The first clue to this purpose lies in one of the most visible parts of its operation: its judgment message.
Every time a Big starts up, it flashes a message across its monitor: "Cast in the name of God..." followed by its judgment. But, I'm sure you're asking, what is it judging? And how can a machine judge anything?
Well, most machines can't, really. But the android R. Dorothy seems to act fully human despite being a machine and can judge (doing so rather harshly, much to Roger's annoyance) because she has memories, even if those memories are incomplete. Later in the series, Alex will tell Roger that the Bigs need memories as well in order to function properly; a statement that provides the critical piece of the puzzle of the purpose of the Bigs: the Big class megadei are the embodiment of memory for the people fighting on the stage of Paradigm City.
Whenever Roger starts the Big O, the megadeus flashes the message "Cast in the name of God...Ye not guilty." across its monitor. The Big O uses its memory of what it must have been previously used for (if those even exist at all), as well as its memories of what Roger has used it for to judge Roger's actions. Roger is capable of tapping the full power of the Big O because he uses ideals and his super-human, megadeus-provided power to bring justice and security to the uncertain world of Paradigm City. Similarly, the Big Duo allows Schwarzwald to pilot it because Schwarzwald's purpose is to discover the truth. Despite the misguided means the ex-reporter uses to reach this goal, his purpose is worthy of the power of God: after all, what higher goal is there than the pursuit of truth? The Big Duo is only defeated by Roger and Big O because Roger understands that the truth is not a destination as Schwarzwald was hoping; truth is the path we take through life.
There are two other cases that also seem to support this theory. In Act 21, "The Third Big," Alex attempts to use the Big Fau to assert his dominance over the city and humanity after defeating a robot that attacked part of the central dome. However, Big Fau thinks otherwise, flashing the message "Cast in the name of God..." before shutting down and firing its lasers uncontrollably. Big Fau lacked a component called its "Core Memory" at the time, supporting the idea that a Big needs memories in order to operate.
Finally, Alex's puppet cyborg Alan Gabriel faces a very severe judgment at the hands of a rebuilt Big Duo. Alan attempts to use Big Duo to kill Roger and destroy the Big O, but the megadeus shuts down before he can land the killing blow. The ghost of Schwarzwald, the former pilot of the Big Duo, appears and thunders down at Alan that "it [the Bigs] chooses one who controls the power of God, created by Man, one who is able to arrive at one truth. That is not the case with you!"10 Big Duo then chooses to crush Alan within its cockpit, passing the judgment of "YE GUILTY." upon Alan in the process as it ascends into the clouds high above Paradigm City.
Only Schwarzwald isn't completely correct. The megadei can be called "the power of God created by Man" due to their awesome and seemingly unstoppable strength. However, the other three cases fail to support the notion that the Bigs choose anyone. After all, the power-hungry Alex is able to use Big Fau to try and destroy the world as everyone knows it. What the Bigs do, however, is exactly what memories do for a human being: they give context to our actions and allow us to judge what we do. Big O is the only Big that seems to have functioning memories, thusly it is the only megadeus on the show that can properly judge its pilot.
We're now getting closer to the meaning that The Big O is striving for. Roger Smith possesses the pragmatic will to confront his present despite his uncertainties, and he possesses the judgment (in the form of Big O) to justify his actions. And it's now that we can finally understand the message of The Big O.
The Big O has multiple twists and turns, and multiple layers that I can't possibly hope to hit upon in the length of a single paper. Perhaps sometime someone (myself maybe?) will sit down and explore them all. Some of those layers have answers, and some don't. Then again, though, isn't life the same way?
But when it comes to the core question of the series, the question of memories and what importance they have in our lives, The Big O is quite clear in what it means to say. Memories are important. Without them, we would have no context to our actions and assure us of our own existence. If we were all to lose our memories and suddenly find ourselves in a reality like that of Paradigm City, some people might find themselves unable to cope, having relied on their pasts to carry them to where they are today. The world is a very uncertain place, whether you live in Paradigm City or Murfreesboro,11 or any place else for that matter, and the fact of the matter is that none of us can know anything with absolute certainty. As Schwarzwald discovered, there is no ultimate conclusion and no One, Great Truth.
However, Roger doesn't need Truth. He has the truth that he is who he has made himself into: Roger Smith, the Negotiator. Regardless of who he might have been in past, of whether he was a wandering bum or something more noble, what is important now is his present. He doesn't need memories to tell him that he should keep living or who he ought to be, and neither does anyone else.
Memories are really like the book that Roger discovers in an abandoned building. Half the book contains words already written – someone else's memories. But the remainder of the book is empty.
Those pages belong to Roger Smith, and to us. But we have to fill them, they will not fill themselves. The power of the megadeus is our own will, but it cannot act on its own. It may judge our actions, but only we can decide what to do from there. The past is over and written, whether we can remember it or not, but the future belongs to us alone.
We have come to terms