Ergo Proxy is as famous as it is infamous. Reviews on the show range from shouts of ecstatic praise to fever pitch cries of hatred. The show is both brilliant and pretentious, reveling in its ability to defy cursory analysis and comprehension. The director himself admits of the show's production that, “There was almost too much freedom...” The search for freedom is also the narrative crux of the entire series. Our characters seek freedom from repressed memories; freedom from heartache; freedom from the domed cities that isolate man from the world; freedom from an old way of life that has outlived its usefulness, and the freedom to understand their raison d'etre, their reason for existence. Upon going into Ergo Proxy, you will be surprised with what you find; coming out, you will question if you understood what was found.
Re-l Mayer, our female protagonist.
A monster known as a Proxy has escaped from a secret facility within the domed city of Romdo...
Re-l Mayer is the grand-daughter of the Regent, leader of Romdo. She works for the Intelligence Bureau, investigating the recent outbreak of the Cogito Virus, which imbues autoreivs (sophisticated automatons) with free-will; some of these autoreivs choose to violently attack humans. Re-l visits an Autoreiv Disposal worker, Vincent, to obtain the projected escape route of a recently apprehended autoreiv. The route takes her to a supposedly abandoned building. In addition to finding infected autoreivs there, she stumbles upon the corpses of several citizens, murdered by a Proxy that attacks Re-l from the shadows. Re-l is unharmed, but awe struck. When she is later attacked in her home by the previous Proxy and a second monster, the authorities feign ignorance and she is deemed mentally unstable, unable to continue with her work.
Vincent has also found himself on the run from the Proxy initially after Re-l. He is seen fleeing from it in a crowded mall, and although he escapes, many are killed. The head of the Security Bureau happens to witness this, and begins pursuing Vincent. But when Re-l learns that Vincent and the monster are connected, she seeks him out as well in order to clear her insanity charges. With the help of an infected autoreiv named Pino, Vincent finds a way to escape the city and enter the poisonous outside world. It is outside where he hopes to discover his connection to the monster, and Re-l must follow if she wishes to uncover the government secrets behind the Proxies.
A surprise attack by a Proxy.
The series can be divided into several acts with their own respective moods, as if it were a stage play. The first act prepares one for an unusual science-fiction/horror fantasy, and it's interesting to watch Re-l and Vincent being drawn into a mystery that promises to relate the escapee Proxy and the infected autoreivs to the future welfare of the dome. Of course, during the second act these issues take a back seat to the greater issue at hand: who is Vincent Law? How does he relate to the Proxies? By the second episode it is suggested that he might be a Proxy himself. His soul-search consists of roaming the desolate planet, encountering a few people and running into Proxy that attempt to help Vincent recover his memory. Ergo Proxy is not at all an action packed, fast-paced show, and this becomes evident in the second act, a fact that often works towards the show's detriment for a less patient viewer. For those viewers who do stick around, the series grows into an eclectic mix of Aeon Flux confusion and Twilight Zone mystery as Vincent and Re-l try and discover the truth about the Proxy. We do not always know what's real (note that "Re-l" and "Real" are nearly identical), but such mind-bending moments are always intriguing to watch. The fog that veils the answers to the story's many questions is only lifted during the very last act, and even then, the conclusion of Ergo Proxy almost comes out of left field.
The strength of Ergo Proxy's three central characters relies upon their interactions with each other. Re-l Mayer's frightful encounter with the two Proxies that invaded her home is the catalyst for our story. Aside from the attractive Gothic look, Re-l Mayer isn't given too much substance. Her raison d'etre is to seek the truth about the Proxies, but little else is offered of her life before the event. She is demanding and self-absorbed, and needs Vincent to help discover the Proxy mystery at all costs so that her undying curiosity may be quelled. Her initial indifference towards him and later acceptance is what gives her character life.
Vincent is a complete wuss, but he is also amicable. He is in love with Re-l and is easily bullied by her absurd demands. The confusion about his past make up most of his significance to the story, and his interactions with various Proxies allow for the more surreal episodes. Pino, a benevolent Cogito infected autoreiv, adds much needed comic relief and child-like innocence to an otherwise very serious anime. While Re-l is often used to push the plot forward, Vincent and Pino create occasions for the show to expand on its creative potential. Vincent and Pino's familiarity with each other are refreshing detours from Re-l's sterile attitude. But again, the chemistry between these three is what gives them their worth; not one of them is diverse enough to carry the show on their own.
Ergo Proxy is not a show to be taken lightly. The show's slow pace and elusive narrative can quickly dissuade less patient viewers. Thankfully, a saving grace for Ergo Proxy is it's animation, which is nothing short of stellar. 2D digital cel animation and special effects are seamlessly blended, a feat rarely accomplished without making the digital 3D effects conspicuously out of place. The oppressively dark palette of grays, blacks and browns, in addition to its character designs, are reminiscent of Witch Hunter Robin; Ergo Proxy and Witch Hunter Robin were both directed by Shukoku Murase. The aesthetic is very fitting for Ergo Proxy's post-apocalyptic landscape where almost nothing lives. Inside the city of Romdo, by contrast, the false projection of daylight and clear skies is blindingly bright. It is a perfect cover-up for the fact that Romdo's idyllic existence will soon end.
The only issue with the animation one might have is the inconsistency in Re-l's face. Understandably, there are many animators involved in a series, but her face is often strikingly beautiful or awfully odd. Vincent also undergoes a strange facial change, but for consistent reasons; when he is well groomed and his hair is combed, his eyes remain shut like Brock from Pokemon. In his more disheveled, and often more confident state, his eyes miraculously open.
Vincent Law and Ergo Proxy.
The Heart of the Matter
If this review seems at all harsher than my other reviews, then that is because Ergo Proxy takes itself very seriously, and I strongly believe that a review should rise to the same caliber as the show it is discussing. I choose to review anime in terms of artistic merit, a complicated ordeal in itself because of the inevitably of subjective analysis, due to the absence of standards that define “quality art.” As far as that concerns this blog, in comparing anime I would not bother to place FLCL and Canaan and Birdy the Mighty on the same playing field because they are anime of different breeds. Ergo Proxy's level of philosophical, intellectual and textual depth, along with a penchant for lengthy dialogue, have placed it on a tier close to Ghost in the Shell and Evangelion. Such powerhouse franchises have convinced the world of anime's potential to tell immensely rich and complex stories. Ergo Proxy needed to come prepared for such comparisons. In all honesty, it did an okay job, but it's beautiful animation, philosophical implications and rich textuality are marred by a story which needed to make itself more prevalent.
It is during episode fifteen, “Who Wants to be in Jeopardy”, where much of the confusion about Ergo's narrative is explained. Vincent is a contestant on a game show that either ends in his winning, which precipitates the death of the show's host, or vice versa. It is an interesting alternative to a long winded expository episode. The answers to the game show's many questions allow the viewer to piece together a simple understanding of Ergo's universe. Those who dislike spoilers should skip the next paragraph, but I believe that one should read it and then watch the show, so that any judgments I have written thus far can be deemed fair or unfair:
In the second half of the 21st century a promising form of alternative fuel source, Methane Hydrate, was discovered. But this accumulated Methane Hydrate exploded and wiped out 85% of life on Earth. The remaining humans began several projects in order to avoid complete extinction; a colony space shuttle called the Boomerang Star was constructed in order for man to travel to other planets. Not all humans could fit on-board, so some were stranded on Earth. Mankind also started Project Proxy in order to restore the human population on Earth. Three hundred Proxies were created for this purpose. The Proxies somehow created the domed cities and engineered a tank-breeding system to create more humans. Proxies would no longer be necessary once the human population was restored to acceptable numbers. The “Pulse of the Awakening” would conclude the Proxy Project. The Cogito virus was also engineered by man as part of “The Boomerang Project”; it can be safely assumed that the surviving humans aboard the Boomerang Star designed the death of the Proxies and the rampant autoreivs for a time when Earth was once again hospitable. The Boomerang Star would then return to Earth.
This is a lot of information to take in at once. I have watched the show twice now, and then watched this very episode a third time so that the previous explanation would be accurate. While the choice of a game show format was clever, its fast-pace makes it an unwise method for disseminating pertinent information. As a result, there are plenty of online explanations as to what exactly went on during Ergo Proxy; all one has to do is Google, “Ergo Proxy explanation”. The last three episodes of the series simply add to the confusion, for we are introduced to what appears to be a Re-l clone made using the cells of a dead proxy, and then Vincent's history is revealed to him through the use of a deus ex machina, a literary device typically frowned upon for resolving an otherwise frustrating conflict. Such deliberate use of an outdated literary device can be considered both witty and pretentious; Vincent, upon seeing who the deus ex machina is, grows even more confused and is plunged into the ultimate depths of his existentialist despair. As the viewing audience, we share his monumental confusion.
Ergo Proxy is certainly a one-of-a-kind show. If there is anything I consistently wish to see in a show, it is ambition, and this show delivers that in every episode. I would challenge viewers to carefully consider Ergo Proxy's own raison d'etre in relation to the greater realm of anime at large. What is it trying to convey to its viewers, if anything at all?
* Unlike most of the shows I've reviewed, I happen to own Ergo Proxy on DVD, and I do not know of any online streaming sources. It is available for purchase at Amazon.com.
- Elijah Lee