Bernie Siegal once said “If God had made a perfect world, it would be a magic trick, not creation, with no meaning or place for us to learn and create. Mankind is not yet ready for a perfect world. We do not know how to appreciate perfection.” If that’s not a great way to start talking about Ergo Proxy, well then you write an intro.
Title: Ergo Proxy
Original airing: Feb 25, 2006 to Aug 12, 2006
Duration: 25 mins per episode
Genres: Mystery, Psychological, Philosophical, Sci-Fi, Seinen
Where I watched: Funimation (English dub and subtitles available)
Brief Synopsis and First Impressions
Within the domed city of Romdo lies one of the last human civilizations on Earth. Thousands of years ago, a global ecological catastrophe doomed the planet; now, life outside these domes is virtually impossible. To expedite mankind’s recovery, “AutoReivs,” humanoid-like robots, have been created to assist people in their day-to-day lives. However, AutoReivs have begun contracting an enigmatic disease called the “Cogito Virus” which grants them self-awareness. Re-l Mayer, granddaughter of Romdo’s ruler, is assigned to investigate this phenomenon alongside her AutoReiv partner Iggy. But what begins as a routine investigation quickly spirals into a conspiracy as Re-l is confronted by humanity’s darkest sins.
Elsewhere in Romdo, an AutoReiv specialist by the name of Vincent Law must also face his demons when surreal events begin occurring around him. Re-l, Iggy, Vincent, and the child AutoReiv named Pino, will form an unlikely faction as they struggle to uncover Romdo’s mysteries and ultimately, discover the true purpose of the mythical beings called “Proxies.”
“Cogito, ergo sum,” or more commonly known in English, “I think, therefore I am” states a simplified version of Rene Descartes’ philosophy that independent though is the basis for proving the reality of one’s own mind. If this well known philosophy sounds confusing to you, don’t worry. I’ll try not to get too complicated in this review.
This is another series that I knew precious little about before I jumped in. I included it in both my “What should I watch next?” polls and in the second one it managed to get 2nd place, just 6 points behind ERASED. When I finally did start watching, I realized this was quite different from the other anime I had put on the polls, or even watched up until now. Exploring psychology and philosophy far beyond what the premise describes, this was one series that really got me worried about how I could adequately review it. I apologize ahead of time if anything I write sounds vague, but this is a of series that you need to experience for yourself to even begin to understand it.
Ergo Proxy opens on the city of Romdo, a futuristic society where fellow citizens live in comfort and prosperity. Set apart from the rest of the desolate and ravaged world, the domed cities provide shelter and safety from the harsh world outside. The citizenry lead lives free of hardship, but not everything is ideal within the dome. Immigrants hoping to one day enjoy the prosperity of citizenship are treated poorly in the interim, toiling away at menial jobs and living in slums. Their state, while difficult, is still preferable to trying to survive outside where stories of the stark inhabitability frighten everyone into remaining within the dome. Thus they conform to whatever rules and customs Romdo places upon them in the hopes that they may be one day be accepted as fellow citizens.
Part of what makes life easier for the dome’s inhabitants is their coexistence alongside humanoid automatons. These robots, called AutoReivs, assist the citizens of Romdo in a variety of service roles including security, administration, bodyguards (called Entourages) and even companionship. The people of Romdo have complete control over the AutoReivs until a mysterious behavior-altering virus, known as Cogito, begins infecting them. By making them capable of independent thought, the virus leads them to act in unpredictable and sometimes violent ways. After a series of murders occur in the otherwise peaceful dome, Re-L Mayer, and her Entourage, Iggy, are asked to investigate the source and its possible relation to Cogito.
Re-L’s encounters puts her in contact with Vincent Law, an immigrant who works as an AutoReiv disposal technician. It’s an unremarkable meeting, but only a few days after examining an AutoReiv that Vincent caught, she is attacked by a monstrous humanoid creature. This creature is chased away by a similar one and Vincent is arrested under suspicion of stalking Re-L. The timid immigrant is released after investigators cannot get anything useful out of him. Immediately after, however, he is chased through a mall by one of the creatures as it cuts a bloody swath through the city in pursuit. Re-L believes that these creatures, called Proxies, have some connection to the unassuming Vincent. When he flees the city alongside an infected Autoreiv, Re-L resolves to track him down and discover the dark secrets that the Proxies represent.
From the very outset, this series introduces themes of salvation from the unknown, conformity towards the ideal, and the nature of independent thought; painting them in a way that very clearly separates ‘right’ from ‘wrong.’ Some compare this series to films like The Matrix, where the controlled order of society allows some measure of comfort even if it means an enslaved existence. Ergo Proxy similarly explores what happens when someone who is rejected by that ordered system embarks on a journey of self discovery that will threaten to undermine everything that is known about the world.
The lead writer Dai Sato, (Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex, Wolf’s Rain, Cowboy Bebop) worked with two other writers to create a complex story that defies the standard conventions of storytelling. The method used in this series could perhaps be described best as experimental, as it is unlike most other anime in both its structure and tonal direction. The series takes elements from several different genres including: cyperpunk, sci-fi, mystery, psychological, and post-apocalyptic to weave together an intellectual narrative that challenges viewers to think through some of its less blatant points.
Using the concept of the journey as its primary vehicle in both a practical and allegorical sense, the series shows viewers glimpses of the destroyed world in which the characters find themselves. The harsh lessons that Vincent and Re-L learn as they pursue their individual agendas color their experiences and lead them toward a shared goal of finding out the true nature of the proxies. Identity, and its meaning in relation to what a person or creation is meant to do (its raison d’etre), plays a big part in this exploration. Their experiences within the other domed cities they come upon cast doubt on everything they think they know; both about Romdo and their own fundamental nature.
After the first seven or so episodes, which follow a mostly steady timeline, the clarity begins to blur. With different writers taking on the scripting for different episodes, the entire middle section of the series leaves viewers in a repeatable pattern of thought: disorientation from the opening scenes, struggle to understand exactly what is happening to the characters involved, intrigue over the presentation, and finally understanding of what the episode accomplished (if you’re sharp). There is one episode entirely devoted to info-dumping, but does so in an incredibly creative, if not thematically strange, way. A few also take place in a dream or dreamlike state, bending the narrative in perplexing directions only to present a seemingly minor point. The fact that a cohesive story comes out at the end from this haphazard method is impressive in itself, but each episode does add a little to the overall message as well.
The mystery builds up to a conclusion that properly explains the state of the world and why the Proxies exist. The lead into this part follows the same formula I spoke of earlier with something of a disconnect between episodes 20 and 21, but refocusing on the main story does help reorient the viewer quickly. Religious themes play heavily into this portion of the story, and so do the philosophical revelations that push the characters into the ends of their arcs. The ending isn’t entirely expected, which does allow the mystery to be more satisfying, but if viewers had been paying attention thus far the real story being told goes far beyond the physical events that take place.
The characters of Ergo Proxy are both foreign in their design and recognizable in their portrayal. Backstory and excessive focus on the characters’ goals are eschewed for an approach where following these characters on their journey is the main focus. This is because the world they inhabit and the challenges they come across are symbolic of their personal conflicts. Development thus comes about less from the character’s actions and choices than from learning what a particular experience teaches them about themselves. In this sense the story is not character driven at all, but rather relies on the characters to express the story.
While the main protagonist of the series can be debated, choosing to follow the Romdo aristocrat, Re-L Mayer, through the beginning of the series places the viewers’ point of reference closest to the status quo. As the grand-daughter of Romdo’s regent and an investigator for the city’s Intelligence Bureau, she enjoys a number of perks that place her above other citizens. Despite her privilege, she has a rebellious attitude that makes her question the policies and practices of the Romdo government but never to the point of defiance. All this changes, however, when she loses track of the one person who can help her find answers to the deeper questions that have been plaguing her.
The immigrant, Vincent Law, thus becomes the object of Re-L’s obsession. His arrival in Romdo is prompted by a desire to make a life for himself within the dome though he cannot recall most of his memory prior to his immigration. Due to his crushing lack of self confidence, Vincent tries to fit in and do exactly what he’s supposed to. His constant struggle to deny the parts of himself which conflict with being a model citizen begin to show early on, but he proves too timid to actually do anything about it until his life is threatened. Chased through the mall by a deadly Proxy and later wanted for ‘murder’ after the death of his personal AutoReiv, Vincent realizes he can no longer have the life he wished for in Romdo and seeks to find a way to recover his memories.
His ticket out of the city comes from an unlikely source. Pino, an infected companion type AutoReiv, does more than just provide Vincent a means of escape. As a not so subtle reference to the title character in Pinocchio, Pino’s characterization is an interesting take on the relationship between man and machine in Ergo Proxy. Vincent keeps Pino close to him, if only to keep from being alone, but his desire to do so might not be so strong if she were a properly functioning companion. Her childlike whimsy, caused by the Cogito virus, makes her cheerful even towards the abusive Re-L. The fact that her newly discovered consciousness makes her emulate the behavior of a little girl is what makes her a more welcome addition to both Vincent and the viewer. Time and again her wide eyed curiosity and sweetness provide a welcome distraction from the constant despair at Vincent’s doorstep. Despite the fact that she’s nothing more than a malfunctioning machine, his relationship with her becomes closer than anything else he has recollection of.
The controlled portrayal of these characters is what allows Ergo Proxy as a series to appear believable. Re-L’s pampered upbringing is evident in the way she maintains her hairstyle and makeup even in the desolate wastes outside Romdo. She is a skilled investigator, but hardly the sort of super cop that Shinya Kougami from Psycho Pass is; else one might not expect her to have any problems chasing down and subduing a character like Vincent. For his part, Vincent remains timid and unsure of himself, even after shedding any hope of being able to live up to Romdo’s ideal. His hopeless attraction to Re-L and lack of backbone in response to her behavior are constant reminders of his inadequacies. Pino struggles throughout the entire series to truly understand humans, causing her to act out when she can’t reconcile their actions with her own feelings. By allowing these characters to remain flawed, even as their journey brings them closer to the ugly reality of their situation, viewers can see them as full fledged characters.
Manglobe is perhaps best known for two other series they worked on: Samurai Champloo (2004) and Deadman Wonderland (2011). Ergo Proxy’s debut in Winter 2006 might suggest a visual improvement over Champloo, but it instead suffers in several aspects. Since most of the scenes focus on one or two characters at a time and are light on action as a whole, it can be expected for character details remain crisp throughout with attractive backgrounds. This holds up for the most part, with a few notable exceptions, and allows the artistic direction to guide the viewers’ experience.
Bu while the tone of the series stays more or less consistent throughout its run, there is a good deal of fluctuation in the quality of the animation. It ranges from the very good, with great attention to lighting and detail, to what look like hastily done off model drawings, with most of the series falling somewhere in between. The most consistent look has a general lack of detail but doesn’t otherwise seem distracting. To give an idea of the issues, there are times when a scene will lose detail midway through or sudden character movement will appear flat and unnatural. Other instances show distorted features that could have only made it into the final product due to a time crunch or oversight. I can’t accurately comment on the budget for this series, so I can only guess that money played a part here. These issues may disturb more astute viewers, but it’s likely that first timers will be too caught up in the dialogue to pay very much attention to these slips.
In general, the character designs follow a more realistic style than even Champloo featured, This style is maintained even in the case of younger characters, who typically have exaggerated facial features in other anime. This gives the series a more western feel in terms of animation style that keeps it grounded in its serious tone, even with Pino is acting in an absurdly cute manner. Her bunny costume completely breaks the somber atmosphere, but the small glimpses of brightness she brings to both the story and the animation are usually a welcome change. Re-L’s appearance is striking for a different reason. While the rest of Romdo aspires to a subdued approach toward appearance, Re-L’s bright eye shadow draws attention, offering a small clue towards her rebelliousness.
A post apocalyptic world lends itself to certain preconceived imagery and Ergo Proxy certainly sets the mood with its darkened settings and murky sky. The visual direction allows for moments of brilliance amid the common dystopian theme of high technology with, at times, primitive application (best example is the ship the characters use). The interior of Romdo is organized but labyrinthine, with passageways and dingy alleys that contrast the almost sterile appearance of the city surface. Outside the dome the world is expectantly barren, but the over-reliance on drab browns and mostly featureless landscape becomes tiresome quickly. While this was likely done to convey the desolate nature of the destroyed world, the general lack of variation in these wide open areas make viewers thankful that footage of ‘travel time’ outside the cities is brief. Aside from this, the different locations that the characters travel to do allow for a lot of artistic variety and exploration of some very interesting settings.
The music in Ergo Proxy works off the dystopian animation in building and enhancing the atmosphere that the series tried to convey. The BGMs cover a variety of different musical styles, from a techno rock theme for action scenes to the softer, subtle electronic tones that accent quieter ones. Some of the most outstanding are the tracks featuring the low chanting reminiscent of something you might hear in a church. They reinforce the religious theme that the series uses as a backdrop and gives the scenes that bit of extra grandeur, if not an ominous feeling about the coming events.
The opening and ending are unique, as far as anime typically goes, being alternative rock songs instead of the usual style of music seen even with other serious anime (usually hard rock or even pop) and are entirely sung in English. Kiri has been compared to U2’s style of music given its post-punk vibe and vocal tones. Similarly, Paranoid Android was actually done by the English rock band Radiohead. Your enjoyment of these songs will depend on your opinion of alternative rock, but both are fantastically composed songs which manage to capture the mysterious and thought provoking mood of the series well.
As with most Funimation licensed work I watch, I had a heavy sampling of the English dub for this series and ended up watching most of it that way. For as much exposition as this series offers, it seems to have been a good choice and was also incredibly well done like most Funimation dubs are. Despite her relatively small number of main roles, Megan Hollingshead (Shizune in Naruto and Rangiku in Bleach) brings a long history of voice and stage acting experience with her to play Re-L Mayer that helps her convey the character’s slightly stuck up attitude and complex emotional range. Liam O’Brien’s (Archer in Fate Stay Night) take on Vincent is a more defeated sounding version of his Gaara voice from Naruto. It fits with Vincent’s character well, but his whining might be exhausting for the viewer at times. The most memorable performance, however, goes to Rachel Hirschfeld as Pino. She’s a young actress who has precious little voice acting experience, but the way she captures the childlike mannerisms of her character is remarkable.
The choices for the Japanese version are interesting when compared to their English counterparts. Rie Satou has little experience when compared to most other career seiyuu, which is surprising considering how well she was able to portray Re-L. Kouji Yusa (Gin in Bleach and Lau in Black Butler) is a vastly experienced actor used to playing more confident roles but delivered a convincing performance as the less than resolute Vincent. Akiko Yajima (Shin in Crayon Shin-chan) is not much of a surprise pick for Pino, considering her tendency as a go-to actress for young children’s roles. Despite the length of her career, her small voice is very convincing for child roles; she’s still quite active these days playing the skater otakus triplets in the currently airing Yuri!!! on Ice.
For clarity’s sake, this section is semi-divided between the superficial aspects of the anime and its deeper themes, as there is a decent series here even for viewers who have little patience for pondering philosophy. The mystery of the proxies is a compelling narrative arc, full of diverging possibilities that neatly fit into the truth slowly revealed throughout the series. Viewer satisfaction with the final piece of the puzzle will vary, but in general the story is a unique take on some familiar mythological themes which come together and use the fascinating world it presents in an equally intriguing way.
After taking some time to acclimate to the darker presentation and mysteriousness that permeates the settings, viewers will see that there is a strong relatable element at work. The characters’ development, no matter the degree or speed with which it happens, shows that there are some very human aspects to their stories and the situations they find themselves in. The light humor, Pino’s adorable quirks, and the slow acceptance of the characters in each others lives make following them through their long journey a better experience. Had this been a straight mystery with tons of philosophy thrown in it wouldn’t be as appealing as this choice in presentation made it to be.
Whether or not Ergo Proxy can be enjoyed beyond this depends heavily on how much the viewer likes thinking about the themes that come across or trying to figure things out when they don’t. Regardless of whether or not these concepts are picked up readily, the series doesn’t go out of its way to make them easy to grasp. Even outside of the more ‘abstract’ episodes, understanding how the overall story fits in to the concepts of self discovery and the nature of existence is a stretch for those not used to analyzing anime at a deeper level. There is a good reason that not everyone is a longtime fan of Neon Genesis Evangelion or Serial Experiments Lain. These anime take some work, and that isn’t always desirable when looking for entertainment.
Those that do find pleasure hunting down every little reference and exploring the deeper meaning behind the the simple presentation of the scenes are in for a treat. Borrowing ideas from Greek mythology, Gnosticism, Descartes philosophy, and even Shakespearean theater, the series is a virtual treasure trove of allegory. There are several simple allusions where the character names, locations, and even episode titles are used as literary references; eg: The title of episode 3 – “Mazecity” and its connection to the physician Daedalus. A slightly more complicated puzzle might be trying to decipher what the differences between the phrases “I think, therefore I am” and “I think, therefore you are” mean to the story.
Even for viewers that like’deep’ anime, there is merit to the argument that the method of storytelling was a poor choice that ruined the potential of what could have been an epic series. One cannot argue against the idea that having three different writers, regardless of their unity over the ‘main ideas,’ is going to lead to fragmented direction. For whatever reason, Ergo Proxy decided to do very little explanation through its narrative and expounds relentlessly on the philosophy behind “Cogito ergo sum.” Seeing this as a deliberate attempt to get the viewer to think may make this strategy more tolerable, but there will always be those who find the anime’s depth beneath the wordy prose and abstract narrative choices to be lackluster.
Summary and Recommendations
Ergo Proxy is a sci-fi mystery series that delves into the philosophical concepts of self and reality. Released ten years ago, it remains among the most intriguing and mentally challenging anime due to its unconventional approach and abstract themes.
Set in the far dystopian future, the series follows the investigator Re-L Mayer as she investigates the Cogito virus that gives consciousness to servile robots called AutoReivs.When both she and the immigrant technician Vincent are attacked by strange beings known as Proxies, the peaceful life they knew changes drastically.
Vincent becomes a fugitive and Re-L sets out as his captor. The series thus follows these two characters and an infected AutoReiv named Pino as they travel the barren wastes outside the domed city that was once their home. Their journey leads them through danger and mystery alike, allowing themselves to discover more about themselves and the world they once thought they knew.
The series features realistic animation style and dark setting to depict a destroyed world and the strange characters that inhabit it. A variety of musical styles further assist in creating the atmosphere of this unique setting. The artistic direction is interesting, but the character models appear off in several scenes. While the mistakes are noticeable, the vast majority of the animation is decent.
To add to its mysterious tone, a highly unconventional approach is used to tell the story. Employing three writers for various parts of the 23 episode run, most of the episodes not directly tied to the main story feel disjointed. The abstract presentation further obscures the clarity, but explores a number of philosophical and literary themes which encourage the viewer to think about how they tie into the narrative.
Viewers who prefer anime that make them think will find plenty of references and symbolism. The series goes deep in its exploration of the phrase “I think, therefore I am” and how it relates to defining personal reality. Newcomers to philosophy may balk at at the challenges it presents, but will find the experience rewarding if they are patient.
Watch if you:
Want a truly unique series
Enjoy intellectual anime
Like deciphering symbolism and allegory
Don’t watch if you:
Want a more thrilling mystery
Watch anime to unwind
Some technical issues drag the series a little, but its strengths easily outweigh its shortcomings. My rating is 4 out of 5 Re-Ls.
This series marks my 25th completed series this year and 54th in my lifetime. With such a wealth of experience behind me now, I feel better equipped to ponder questions related to the medium. For example, what makes an intellectual anime? Especially after finishing Ergo Proxy, I can identify some trends that fit the description. Something that does more than bombard the audience with overdone cliches and formulaic tropes. Something that aspires to more than low hanging fruit or mass market appeal. Something void of crude humor or blatant pandering, taking itself seriously enough to be considered a cut above the rest. Something that you can point to when people tell you anime is for children and say “well what about this?!”
Philosophical or psychological anime typically fall into this category, as being able to fully appreciate them takes a mental faculty that is either above the capability of a younger person or requires more patience than the average series. Of course, being an intellectual series requires far more than just being abstract. There must be a message, creatively conveyed through the narrative, that makes sense of the unique presentation techniques. Shows like Cowboy Bebop achieve this while still being a lot of fun. Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex takes a more subtle approach but still doesn’t shy away from thought provoking content. Neon Genesis Evangelion floods the viewer with more than they can absorb in a single viewing, then challenges them to go even deeper.
So what separates these shows into objective categories of good or bad or masterpiece level work, and how does Ergo Proxy fare? It may seem like a cop-out answer, but I think the quality of the work depends heavily on the viewer; what they were able to absorb from it, and how well it resonated with them. This series sees very polarized reviews, which I believe are directly related to how much the themes impacted the individual viewer. That light bulb moment in an anime can greatly influence a viewer’s opinion of it, depending on whether they saw it or not. Ergo Proxy does struggles in some technical aspects, but it achieves the goal of giving the viewer something to think about. For my part, I think I will need a re-watch before I can make a decision on how I feel about it. But the fact that I’m really looking forward to doing so should indicate that I find the effort to be worthwhile.
I warned in my last review that this one would be very different, and I’m about to do so again. After the mental workout this series offered, my next one is a really great anime to simply sit back and absorb.
Ergo Proxy Review by PSulphur
An entertaining and informative review that talks a little about the author’s experience with the anime and what he liked about it.
Welcome, to the Desert of the Re-L by Znf
A well written piece that goes deeper into the series content and unpacks some of the symbolism. A great read to accompany the series if you’ve seen it. Needless to say, spoilers lie ahead.
Striking the Right Note: Ergo Proxy by Cain S. Latrani
The opening of Ergo Proxy is really amazing. I don’t do it justice with my review, but there is a fantastic post here that covers it in great detail. I really love Cain’s “Striking the Right Note” series of posts, and you will too after reading this. Go check it out!
For more from me, you can find my other reviews on my Reviews Page or click on the tags below to see posts on similar shows. As always, thank you for reading.