Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Review: Ergo Proxy

As I very, very slowly make it through watching and reviewing my latest anime disaster (.hack//Liminality), I felt it appropriate to share a much more positive write-up of an anime; one Ergo Proxy.

I can't say that this is exactly a review or analysis, rather a sort of mix between the two. Because of this, there are some spoilers to be had, but I stay away from anything major. This is a series that has been a staple of mine when discussing the ability of anime to construct decent philosophical discussion and serious approaches to socially relevant topics. So, without further ado... Ergo Proxy, the review-analysis-thoughts-write-up-thing.

Humans are living alongside AI in a post apocalyptic world brought about by environmental destruction.

Whoopdee doo.

The AI, called “AutoReivs” has a tendency to occasionally get infected with a virus and become self aware.


Now, tell me if you've seen an anime that tackles determinism, free will, the nature of existence and reality, the importance of personal identity and “self,” order vs. chaos, emotional psychology, the nature of humanity, and the cost of knowledge.


Ergo Proxy has a somewhat generic premise that is only a cover up for the depth that lies beneath. Even without the depth, this show would have been at least aesthetically interesting, but would have been lost amid the “oh no, who is really human, the AI or humans?” that Blade Runner perfected at first blush (among other things) and has never been duplicated as well. But Ergo Proxy quickly branches out and takes on a much larger scope than an AI conflict. We start in a domed city, Romdeau, a place that houses remnants of humanity after environmental disaster made most of the Earth uninhabitable. A virus, the Cogito Virus (a nod to “Cogito, ergo sum” of Descartes) is infecting the AI, called AutoReivs, and causing them to become self aware. An infected AutoReiv is immediately destroyed, as law, as they tend to kill people when infected.

Romdeau itself is a city that discourages individuality; neon words light up the streets, telling citizens to consume and spend money. Those who rebel are eliminated. It's a standard tongue-in-cheek parody of today's rampant consumerist culture that values consumer spending and acquisition of stuff as a staple of economic and personal development. That's all pretty hum-dum.

Because of this complicated setup, the show flounders a bit early on. The first 4-5 episodes are thrillers at their core, and manage to keep a brisk pace and create a sense of dread for viewers as we try to understand the source of conflict; a string of mysterious murders that the protagonist is investigating. The next 5 or so episodes dawdle, trying to set the stage for something much larger than the first few episodes hinted at. The main characters are only slowly revealed and the plot unfolds carefully. This can make it a little hard to fully commit yourself to this show, but it will payoff in the end.

The story revolves around three main characters; the somewhat spoiled and cold Re-l Mayer (the protagonist I mentioned earlier). Her biggest flaw was perhaps that I expected more out of her. As far as female leads go, she is not particularly noteworthy. While she is, thankfully, not overtly sexualized, she is fairly flat and unsympathetic for most of the show. She only shows real growth towards the end of the series, although that may be a good thing; there is no real “goody two shoes” here. Her character design, however, is satisfyingly different and "dark."

Vincent Law, however, is more interesting, perhaps partly because of his journey, one that is much more provoking then Re-l’s. His chance encounters with strangers in the barren wasteland outside the domed city of Romdeau that Re-l calls home are some of the most introspective scenes of any anime, scratch that, any piece of media that I have seen. Because of this, and the conflict literally going on inside both Vincent's mind and body, he provides a more sympathetic character.

Pino is the third major character, and one that I have the most conflict over. An AutoReiv who becomes self-aware, she possesses none of the homicidal tendencies other self-aware AutoReivs gain when infected by the Cogito Virus, but slowly becomes more human, displaying child like characteristics and curiosity (she was programmed to be a child like AutoReiv to begin with). Her obscenely over the top cuteness is at both times frustrating and strangely necessary; at times it feels cheap and a bit like pandering, at others it helps to create an important bond with her, as a viewer, because her innocence and curiosity is missing from every other character we meet.

Set against the backdrop of an increasingly chaotic world, although that chaos is coming from different sources, these three characters must learn to co-operate, assess their personal values, and, most importantly, survive in a world fit to tear anyone apart.

At the source of the show's major conflict are Proxies; god-like beings with superhuman combat abilities and agility. Re-l’s discovery of one “starts the boll rolling” so to speak.

These Proxies, in all their demonic, inhuman terror, serve as a microcosm of humanity; in their cruelty, we are given a glimpse of what humans can do to each other. Their murdering, sadistic ways have been exercised by humans since time immemorial. This idea is further reinforced by their name, “proxy,” seeming to suggest they are simply that; proxies to humanity's actual cruelties.

Their true role, however, is not revealed until the end of the show, in which we learn how and why they came to be, and the complicated struggles they endure as well.

Vincent is the real catalyst here; a man with no memory of his former life in search of that memory; he came to the domed city, Romdeau, as an immigrant, and immediately fell in love with Re-l. His lack of memory and the conflict it creates is extrapolated to a discussion regarding the significance of memories in creating ourselves - our personal identity, somewhat reminiscent of Blade Runner. Do our memories, essentially, make up who we are?

Ergo Proxy’s most substantial point is it's focus on personal identity and “self,” through “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am) and The Three Orders by Lacan (Re-l, Vincent, and the Proxies form The Three Orders of Lacan), one of Jacques Marie Émile Lacan's (a French psychiatrist and philosopher) most famous ideas. These ideas are introduced through names, and a statue of Lacan is literally one of several statues that rule over Romdeau (it sounds strange, and it is, but it works surprisingly well). Pino, and Iggy, Re-l’s personal entourage AutoReiv, are the two main focal points of gaining a new existence/identity through the Cogito Virus. They are now “thinking” freely, or doubting their original tasks/role that they were programmed to do as cyborgs, and as such, can be recognized as individuals free from that programming, by society. It's not always happy, but Pino manages to embrace her new self and escapes the despair that the "doubting" and "thinking" might cause her and thus “is” without "thinking about being.” She accepts herself. Iggy is not so lucky, and, as most AutoReivs do, gains a penchant for violence as he fails to subconsciously accept his new “self,” revolting against those around him, violently.

As this conflict develops, the show becomes a truly multi-layered experience, one that, at its surface, acts as an homage to the Epic of Gilgamesh and numerous Biblical stories through a sci-fi, post-apocalyptic world. Alone, the setting and pace is enough to carry the story. But it’s truly the numerous intellectual discussions this show brings about that make it shine.

The animation itself is gorgeous; there are elements of gothic architecture, and the gloomy world perfectly encapsulates the emotions the creators are trying to convey. It's gritty yet bold, well-defined, and highly enjoyable to look at. The soundtrack itself is excellent too; I particularly enjoyed the OP, and Radiohead fans will enjoy “Paranoid Android” as the ending song. Character development is slow but satisfyingly so, and the script itself is strong, especially between the three main characters. Almost every string of dialogue or line feels introspective and important.

Over the final 12-14 episodes, the true nature of the world and the Proxies is revealed; never too quickly, and never too slowly. Vincent's personal encounters with other Proxies are particularly noteworthy and provide extremely thought provoking episodes. Even the episodes people consider fillers (they're not exactly, as they impart important information to the viewer) are some of the most insightful and provoking episodes of the series. The “Smile Land” episode was one of my favorites, besides episodes 11 and maybe one or two others. The Proxy in the Smile Land is defining his world based on "Berkeley's theory" (Berkeley happens to be another statue in Romdeau), in which he states that nobody can know or talk about an object's being but rather know or talk about their perception of the object's being. It also works as a terribly, darkly humorous criticism of Walt Disney.

One of the most common critiques is that Ergo Proxy is simply an unpolished name drop of various philosophical and sci-fi references, although I can not agree at all with that statement. Ergo Proxy uses names and references to introduce new ideas that are then carefully executed as part of the story and dialogue. While it's obvious references and nods to sci-fi works of both literary and cinematic significance are nice, as well as its philosophical references, beneath them lies an incredibly deep and satisfying show. Infact, at the end of each episode, the show gives the viewer a few lines on some of the references and symbolism used. Normally, this would seem either patronizing or cheap, but in a show this loaded, it is sort of necessary.

Ultimately, Ergo Proxy is wonderfully paced and executed, and is highly enjoyable. It'll get you thinking, and the end is as classy and interesting as they come.


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