The domed city of Romdo is one of the few places on earth left where humanity is left. The outside world is barren and to be a fellow citizen of Romdo is the only option for anyone looking to live a life of comfort and respect while everyone else lives in immigrant slums looking to earn the rights of a fellow citizen. Re-L Mayer, granddaughter of Romdo's Regent and fellow citizen, is an inspector in the city's Investigative Bureau, working to solve the mystery of the Cogito virus which gives the city's A.I machines (called AutoReivs) the ability to think and act, often violently, for themselves. Re-L and an immigrant named Vincent Law soon discover, however, that there are deeper mysteries lurking in the depths of Romdo. The mystery of a strange humanlike creature called a 'Proxy' being at the heart of it.
This animé medium of ours has never been one to shy away from the 'big questions' of life and perhaps it is the most prolific of all corporate televisual media in the volume and length of series dedicated to psychology, philosophy and even, in rare cases, religious thought. To be honest, looking for such topics outside of an art house is pretty hopeful, to be euphemistic, and I'll admit that it was such pretensions to artistic validity that attracted me to animé in the first place (alongside my insatiable xenophilia). Undoubtedly, Ergo Proxy is a show after that vein. If your first thoughts (like mine) were of Cartesian philosophy upon merely hearing the show's name then (like me) this may just be the show for you. Even a passing knowledge of Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy will place you very well for enjoying what this series has to offer and I would recommend looking up the term 'raison d'être', if you don't know what it means, before you think about starting the show. Actually, look it up anyway - it's a useful term to know and understand.
Ergo Proxy is a television programme and not a philosophy lecture though and so I will review it as the former rather than the latter.
Visually, Ergo Proxy certainly captures what it intends to: the character designs (when they are not off model) are stylish and interesting and the scenery is vividly effective even if darkly hued. The character's personalities clearly represented in their appearances without resorting to standard animé clichés, Re-L's princess-like sense of entitlement and pointedly naive rebelliousness reflected in her abundance of make-up, carefully styled hair and her sombre clothing. The various designs of AutoReivs also impress; from the very human Pino to the more uncanny appearances of Iggy and others - true androids in the way that they are human-like yet clearly not human. A major flaw, however, with the show is that its great designs are horribly inconsistent and I was honestly wondering whether I could still consider a character off model when it was spending more time looking awkward and wonky than it did looking sharp and pretty. Thankfully, this problem counter-intuitively lessens as the show progresses. What doesn't change is that the setting itself isn't portrayed very strongly. Romdo as a place is fairly generic and seriously lacks the character of, say, Lux from the series Texhnolyze. Lighting might be the core issue in that the series seems to assume that dystopia must be uniformly dingy and colourless whether depicting the hovels of immigrants or the apartments of fellow citizens which ultimately comes across as dull rather than atmospheric.
Thankfully, for a series that is trying to poignant, it makes up for the failings of its setting in more than a few ways. First of all, the characterisation is strong on the whole. The cast is relatively small for its runtime and all the major characters get a character arc, proving to be uniformly effective. Even when being largely unlikeable, the majority of the cast prove to be sympathetic and even a little empathetic and it is certainly a step up from the usual motley casts that flounder around the realms of animé. Protagonists and antagonist enjoy equally the spoils of being characterised well; especially Raul Creed who goes from lazy caricature to tragic figure in what may be one of the biggest leaps of characterisation I've ever seen in animé. My only complaint isn't really such, the characters come across as being rather emotionally stunted but it feels oddly appropriate considering the environment in which they live; better scene-setting than an hour of dingy cityscapes.
The plot itself is a slow-paced affair, it wanders happily for twenty-three episodes - indulging in its runtime with nary a concern for anything, except building characters, ideas and playing narrative tricks. It's an acquired taste, anyone looking for thrill-a-minute entertainment or earnest plotting will be sorely disappointed but there are factors that still make Ergo Proxy rather interesting. Quite importantly, many different people worked on the screenplay for this show and I don't mean in the strictly collaborative way but that one episode is written by one person and then the next, another. The result is a series that never settles into the groove and style of one writer, it always seems to be experimenting in new ways to portray its ideas and you're never able to know what to expect (the only way you could expect the quiz show episode is to have it mentioned to you - like just now). The fascinating thing is that the show should feel uneven and fragmented because of it, a natural consequence of taking the approach it has. Yet, while some episodes are better than others are, the series feels congruent - the characterisation should be uneven or inconsistent but it isn't. It should feel schizophrenic considering how many voices went into its production but that's not the result we get. Colour me impressed. What I will say is that Ergo Proxy is a show that lacks a flowing narrative and, oddly enough, the ability to take itself too seriously. The tone does fluctuate and I could see that being off-putting as much as it is refreshing to me and the way the series goes from a plot driven mystery to an episodic collection of stories and then back to having a central plot can certainly be jarring. On reflection, though, this style of storytelling is much more effective here than, say, it was in Shigofumi or Kaiba that both had rather interesting vignettes that somehow never really tied together with the bookended bouts of plot. Ergo Proxy does seem to come together to some degree, if not as seamlessly and beautifully as The Tatami Galaxy, but note I enjoyed it much more on my second watch through when I knew what to expect.
If you go and see this series (and I recommend that you do) then expect a series that will happily sit next to your copy of Serial Experiments Lain and Ghost in the Shell. It's not as heavy as either and certainly less inspired than Lain. but strong, sympathetic characters and entertaining uses of mind-screw narrative techniques make this a worthy member of the philosophical animé genre. If only reading Descartes were this fun.
Off-putting faults in the animation, the show's general artistry and its rather wandering nature drag down a show that is far closer to five than three stars. Those without an interest in Cartesian philosophy may want to take a star away because half of what the characters say will be meaningless to you. However, if you don't know much but are interested, then this wouldn't be a bad place to start. — Aiden Foote
Recommended Audience: There are some shots of Re-L in her underwear but nothing explicit or too evocative. The show is not as violent as you might expect from a 'dark' science fiction show, with most of the potential violence towards human beings implied by off camera deaths rather than explicit gore. I would have said teenagers and above but there is one rather gory part near the end that we do see in full detail so discretion advised.
Version(s) Viewed: R2 DVD from MVM Films, Japanese with English subtitles
Review Status: Full (23/23)
Ergo Proxy © 2006 Manglobe / Wowow
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