Around this time of year, almost everyone’s got their own go-to holiday media tradition. For most, it’s usually a film introduced to them by a loved one at an early age — typically somewhere along the lines of A Christmas Story, Home Alone, or It’s a Wonderful Life. Something that, by and large, captures what one might call the “spirit” of the season. For me, my winter holiday media tradition is rewatching one of my favorite — if not my favorite — episodes from one of my all-time favorite TV series: the 1999 neo-noir mecha anime The Big O.
For those unfamiliar, here’s some necessary background. Co-created by designer Keiichi Sato (Tiger & Bunny) and animation director Kazuyoshi Katayama (Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still) under the pseudonym Hajime Yatate, The Big O follows Roger Smith, a freelance negotiator and private investigator who lives and works in a postapocalyptic metropolis known as Paradigm City. Forty years prior to the events of the series, civilization was destroyed in a cataclysmic war waged between giant robots (known as “Megadeuses”) which ended in the wake of an unknown event that mysteriously wiped the memories of every human being on the planet.
While occasionally acting as a mediator between Paradigm’s military police and the city’s criminal element, Roger secretly moonlights as the vigilante pilot of a gigantic, piston-fisted black robot with purple laser eyes called Big O. With the aid of his butler-mechanic Norman and his android sidekick Dorothy, Roger battles against a rogues’ gallery of villains who wish to exhume and resurrect the technology that once destroyed the world for their own nefarious ends.
As far as anime premises go, The Big O’s is an especially fascinating one; one which gave the show’s writers, led by head series writer Chiaki J. Konaka (Serial Experiments Lain), the freedom to explore a wealth of stories that touched on everything from the stark class divisions between the city’s elite and its impoverished populace to the ephemeral persistence of love in the absence of memory. As it pertains to this essay, it’s also a premise that raises an equally fascinating question: How do you tell a Christmas story set in a postapocalyptic world where no one remembers anything prior to 40 years ago?
The answer, as revealed in “Daemonseed,” the 11th episode of the series, is simple: Christmas is no longer Christmas, but rather “Heaven’s Day” — a holiday created to celebrate the anniversary of Paradigm City’s founding. The episode opens with Roger walking through a bustling shopping center days before the city’s holiday celebration to pick up Dorothy, who he believes is out running errands. Unbeknownst to him, Dorothy is shopping for a Heaven’s Day present for Roger, who despises the holiday on account of its artificiality and for its tacit celebration of the Paradigm Corporation, the monopolistic organization which effectively rules the city with impunity. When Alex Rosewater, the chairman of Paradigm and the series’ true antagonist, receives a letter threatening a disaster on the eve of Heaven’s Day, Roger is hired to assist the military police in apprehending the culprit and prevent a suspected attack on the city.
What I love about this episode, both as a Christmas episode and as a stand-alone story, is how much it reveals something new not only about Roger’s character and his beliefs, but about the world of the series itself. Following his meeting with Rosewater, Roger is told by his friend Maj. Dan Dastun that a second undisclosed letter was also sent to Rosewater that cited a passage from the biblical Book of Revelation. It’s at this point that the series drops a metaphorical bombshell on its audience: Neither Roger nor Dastun — or presumably, for that matter, anyone in the city — knows what the Book of Revelation is, save for a select few and perhaps the most powerful members of Alex Rosewater’s inner circle. It’s a deceptively short exchange that gestures toward major implications, one which frames the role of the Paradigm Corporation as an entity analogous to that of the Catholic Church during the Dark Ages, preserving knowledge that would otherwise have been lost while selectively disseminating and suppressing said knowledge in the service of its own interests.
Aside from its contribution to the world-building of The Big O, “Daemonseed,” in spite of its ominous-sounding title, is a heartwarming and at points quietly moving episode that probes at the question of why people celebrate holidays at all, and lands on a unspoken sentiment more profound than any concern of consumer culture. While searching for the author of the letter, Roger and Dorothy cross paths with Oliver, a struggling street saxophonist and his blind girlfriend, Laura. Tracing the image printed on the letter to a destroyed church just outside Oliver and Laura’s apartment, Roger is told that the elderly in the neighborhood regularly gather there to sing, though no one seems to know why or what it is exactly they sing about.
“She said the old men, when they sing, don’t know what they’re praising,” Roger says to himself while standing in the shadow of the church’s steeple. “But they just continue to sing the songs in the book regardless.” While Roger seems to dismiss this behavior, believing that any memories of the world prior to 40 years ago are a nuisance that afflict the present with the kind of questions that only make life more difficult, the scene itself is one in which the series invites the audience themselves to pause and reflect on those very questions, difficult though they might be. What is faith in the absence of memory? Is the act of reciting these songs and rituals itself an act of foolish nostalgia, or does it speak to some deeper and more essential need that underlies the human compulsion to seek out the company of others and offer gifts in the spirit of communion? For me, it’s an episode that prompts all these questions and more, no matter how many times I return to it. Which is a large part of why I find myself so compelled to rewatch it around this time of year.
And beyond these broader existential questions, “Daemonseed” is still an episode of a giant robot anime and as such, you can rest assured you’re gonna see a giant robot beat the shit out of a giant evil Christmas tree. As I’ve touched on before, “Daemonseed” is an exceptional episode of The Big O, but one of my absolute favorite parts that I haven’t yet touched on is how the climactic fight during the episode’s finale features one of the few instances where Roger’s opponent is not a mechanical foil to Big O, but an organic one.
Early in the episode, we see what appears to be a crazed man in a Santa Claus outfit cross paths with Oliver while walking home. This man is the culprit behind the letter sent to Rosewater, and after learning that Oliver will be inside the central dome enclosure of the city on Heaven’s Day, he gives Oliver what looks to be a strange emerald gem. It’s only later that it’s revealed that this “gem” is in fact a seed housing an invasive organism designed to destroy the dome and everything around it. The scene of the Daemonseed being awakened is spectacular, as tentacle-like vines writhe from out of Oliver’s pocket as he obviously plays his sax before morphing into a colossal pulsating mass of destructive power.
The battle between Big O and the Daemonseed is one of the most stunning in the series’ first season, with Roger exhausting nearly every weapon and tactic in his arsenal as he attempts to fend off this creature. The fight, however, ends in a stalemate, with the Daemonseed disintegrating after having accomplished its true goal: destroying the dome surrounding that section of the city that obscures the sky overhead. The final scene itself is a touching coda, with Oliver tearfully reuniting with Laura, bystanders marveling at the sight of the massive tree as snow falls from the fissure in the dome, and Dorothy and Roger exchanging gifts while Oliver plays a saxophone cover of “Jingle Bells” in the background.
“Daemonseed” isn’t just an inventive take on a Christmas episode, it’s one of my all-time favorites and one that I enthusiastically recommend to anyone curious about the series. It may not be the best stand-alone introduction to the anime — I still maintain that the first and second episodes are the best place to start — but it’s nonetheless a terrific episode that exemplifies the many qualities that make The Big O one of my favorite anime to this day.
The Big O is available to stream on HIDIVE.