Monday, January 28, 2008

Ergo Proxy: Cyberpunk and Philosophy

A futuristic domed city set in the middle of a stark, desert landscape, Romudo seems like a utopia to those who live in the wastelands just outside it. It is a city patterned after Aristotle's ideal state, ruled by philosopher-kings and peopled by humans, who lead ordered and stratified lives, accompanied by their non-sentient slave-robots, called autoreivs, which cater to their every need.

But this numbing tranquility is soon disrupted when a series of brutal murders committed by berserk autoreivs threatens to destroy the social balance. Cogito, the virus is called, and it specifically attacks autoreivs, "awakening" them from their heretofore "sleeping" state, giving them a consciousness that often turns out to be destructive, attacking even humans.

At the highest echelon of society, Real Mayer, an officer of the Citizen Bureau of Investigation and the granddaughter of Romudo's founding members, investigates the mysterious occurrences concerning the virus. In the course of her investigation, she meets Vincent Law, an immigrant, which is among the lowest classes of Romudo society, who is mysteriously connected with the source of the virus, a monster called Proxy.

Eventually driven out from the city, Vincent goes on a journey to discover the past he has forgotten and recover that part of himself he believed never existed, while Real begins to not only question the ordered society she lives in, but her very existence as well.

More Screencaps from "Ergo Proxy"
View "Ergo Proxy" OP screencaps
OFFICIAL (English)
OFFICIAL (Japanese)
Wikipedia Article
Ergo Proxy is a dark anime with deep philosophical undertones made hip by its cyber-punk/steampunk art style and fascinating vision. It takes the tone of George Orwell's 1984, animates it in the style of Ghost in the Shell, and injects it with enough philosophical and psychological plot devices to make your head whirl.

The anime begins as your regular detective/mystery story set in the future. One of the two main protagonists, Real, is investigating a series of murders committed by maddened autoreivs. However, at the end of the episode, we discover that the story delves deeper than the all-too shallow empirical method of fact-finding over dead bodies, and goes into the "soul" itself.

Ergo Proxy leads Real into a seemingly wild goose chase after a mythical monster that is not supposed to exist, not in the well-ordered, perfect society of Romudo. The name of the monster itself, Proxy, is a metaphor for the futility of Real's function. She will never find Proxy because proxy is not real; it does not exist. And yet, what if, in the course of looking for something that does not exist, she finds something ultimately more tangible, ultimately real and existential?

On the other hand, Vincent Law, the other protagonist in Ergo Proxy, is plagued by questions not unlike Real's, but which he deals with in a different way. An immigrant and harboring a secret even he does not know about, Vincent tries very hard to fit into the Romudo society that Real, with her habitual jadedness, takes for granted, only to find himself rejected and chased out of the city. He is looking for something without knowing what it is, so that he may understand why he is so different (and therefore unacceptable), but is he, in fact, looking for something that he himself tried so hard to hide?

In finding the answers to these questions, Vincent and Real discover heretofore unknown aspects of themselves and find their true identities.

I think this is what the writer, Dai Sato, meant when he mentioned in an interview that Ergo Proxy addresses the debate whether we become who we are because of our environment or because of things that are inherent in us. Even Real's name is irony at its anime finest, and yet, is it really ironic? The anime does not specifically address the questions raised, capitalizing instead on subtext and heavy implications and leaving audiences to arrive at their own answers.
Watch "Ergo Proxy" OP Clip
Watch "Ergo Proxy" ED Clip
Watch "Ergo Proxy" Trailer
That said, it is therefore not unusual to find reactions that Ergo Proxy is confusing. The anime drops a lot of philosophical ideas and obscure names more appropriate in discussions behind the four walls of the academe (certainly not in a 23-episode anime series) and yet neglects to explain how all these relate to the main storyline of robots going mad.

All too often, Ergo Proxy is accused of being pretentious, probably because of all these name-droppings. However, when you think about it in the context of what the director, Shukou Murase, had in mind, it all makes a whole lot more sense. Mind you, it does not make total sense, but it does give you a clue as to what to pay attention to in order to follow the plot and what to merely watch for the sheer enjoyment of idiosyncratic scene-rendering.
"Ergo Proxy" DVDs @ Amazon
"Ergo Proxy" Vol. 1 (First Press Limited Edition) @ Yes Asia
"Ergo Proxy" DVDs @ Play-Asia
"Ergo Proxy" Opus CD1 @ RightStuf
Speaking of idiosyncracy, Ergo Proxy seems to suffer from the affliction of auteur-writing. At first, all was well with the storytelling when the anime still took place in the ordered city of Romudo. However, once the characters were out of the city, it was as though all semblance of orderliness in the plot went away as well. The episodes take on erratic approaches to the storyline, from an entire episode taking place in one character's dream to a full-blown quiz-show that doubled for spoon-feeding plot keypoints to the audiences to an episode where absolutely nothing happens.

Animation-wise, Ergo Proxy is admirable for its design vision. The autorievs are humanoid: they look like those illustrations on anatomy books, showing the muscle system of the human body. The monster-robots are frightening, mainly because they are nearly indistinguishable and hence unknowable. The main protagonists are good-looking, although Real Mayer seems to have an uncanny resemblance to the lead singer of the symphonic rock band, Evanescence. The city of Romudo is all domed skyscrapers and smooth roads and traffic, exactly how utopia might look like.

But however good the art designs are, restrictions in production budget become obvious later in the show. "Off-cam" angles leave characters looking strangely malformed and action sequences occur too fast for one to actually see anything. After seeing Episode 01, the rest of the series is a disappointment in terms of production. If the animation quality were upped even a little, perhaps Ergo Proxy would have been a better anime than it is already.

The voice acting of Ergo Proxy was actually a saving grace. Rie Sato, who voiced Real Mayer, did a wonderful job with her character, as did Kouji Yusa, who voiced Vincent Law. Another important dynamic for the anime is the character, Pino (voiced by Akiko Yajima), a child autoriev who accompanies Vincent and Real in their journey, providing not only humor in an otherwise dour landscape but also as a refreshing foil to both main characters.
In the end, Ergo Proxy perhaps suffered a little from its grand vision of melding philosophy with cyberpunk. It is one of those anime shows that could have been great, but for some flaws. Not everyone is going to enjoy this anime, but if you are looking for something different and are not afraid to think beyond what is being shown in front of you, then this might be it.



Christopher Ray said...

Ergo Proxy got quite a few negative remarks from some blogs and anime forums. Issues against it were: it was too pretentious, the dropping of philosophical, historical and literary elements/references etc here and there were cited. It was said that the anime asked too many questions than it can afford to answer.

In my opinion, I disagree. For me Ergo Proxy was able to convey its story though using unconventional means. Subtle details hinted scattered throughout the episode will help you understand the meaning of the mystery of the Proxies, the humans of Romdo and the "creators". I was quite surprised that after completing the series, the title alone best explains the essence of it. The literal meanings of ergo and proxy.

I'd also like to add that I think this anime was brilliant, well made, thought provoking and does not shy away from making your head ache! It may seem your usual cyberpunk/dystopian future with all the sci-fi cliches thrown but as you progress with the series you'll discover that the story is quite unique. I really enjoyed Ergo Proxy and am glad that a kababayan has blogged about it! =)