Ergo Proxy

Oh, the complexity!

 

Go ahead.  Ask yourself the question.  Why is a review for a cartoon series being thrown up here alongside all of this serious film buff pretentiousness?  I’ll admit, it’s an ugly duckling among the likes of more artistic live action or animated merits, and it’s certainly far from the more ambitious projects of Neon Genesis Evangelion or Masaaki Yuasa’s Mind Game—both of which are also animated works of Japan. 

The answer is quite simple.  Ergo Proxy is often cited as being a prime example of a recent Japanese anime series with intellectual or artistic worth, but whether the series deserves this classification is a matter of some debate.  Its narrative is a train wreck of quality-to-lackluster writing, inconsistent delivery, unnecessary amounts of intentionally confusing presentations, and pretentiously self-indulgent name-dropping that adds little of benefit to the experience, while its technical merits range from stellar animation quality to an overly heavy-handed approach to atmospheric development. 

It begins with an experiment gone horribly wrong, but quickly smash-cuts away to plop the viewer down in the futuristic dome-city of Romdo, a sterile pseudo-Utopia that exists in the middle of a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  The city, as is noted by our protagonist and keyhole to this world, Re-L, is boring.  The colors are all the same, there is rarely any violence to speak of, and things continue to continue in a state of peace that hints at a looming omnipresent dread.  As the series progresses, Re-L meets Vincent, an immigrant from another dome-city that was destroyed in a catastrophe some years ago, and Pino, a little android girl that provides a dose of sunshine to an otherwise overcompensatingly dark tone.  We learn about the world’s history with some ambiguity, the purpose of the dome-cities, and more relevantly, the purpose of the shadowed monster beings known as Proxies, of whom Vincent is an amnesic one.  Interspersed with this world building is plot regarding a dysfunction of the androids, known as “awakening”, in which they go berserk for seemingly no reason. 

Oh, the originality!

 

The 16+ rating attached to the Western release of this series is mostly deserved, though a great deal of its appeal to the mature audience is probably because its wordy dialogues can be difficult to follow rather than due to any extreme violence or nudity.  Of the later aspects, there is some; the stylized action of the show is smooth and fits the tone, but is far from labels such as “graphic” or “obscene”.   Horror elements that show up from time to time are enough to make some flinch, but they’re nothing to be compared to other sci-fi horror classics such as Alien or Event Horizon.  But overall, the series is just dark.  There’s no sunshine and no happiness to speak of, little comic relief, and an emphasis on destruction and despair that is too heavy-handed for its own good.  When a heavy hand in atmosphere can make or break a series, Ergo Proxy is a case where it is certainly broken by it.  Instead of actually coming off as mature writing, a great deal of it felt more like something else masquerading as maturity, when underneath all of its pretentiousness there was only an unsteady narrative and a vacuous chasm of meaningless gibberish. 

So what is essentially had with Ergo Proxy isn’t so much a complex maze of narrative puzzles, recurring motifs, subtle allusions, memorable characters, and mind-blowing revelations—it is in fact exactly what it looks like: a teenage goth girl and her loser tag-along admirer that can transform into an ambiguous monster search for answers in a post-apocalyptic world with little room for hope.  Tossed in there for good measure is some intellectual name-dropping that lacks substantiation or purpose, numerous nonsensical monologues exploring rudimentary philosophical ideas that ultimately amount to nothing considerable except wasted screen time, and needlessly opaque writing that blurs into obscurity by the time the ending comes around.  About the only redeeming narrative quality the series has is Pino, the adorable little bundle of android that turns out to be the most likeable and complex character in the whole show. 

Although the writing on the overarching narrative may be insufficient for anyone looking for a good story, Ergo Proxy does offer several episodes-worth of stand-alone quality.  Although often dismissed as “filler” by fans of the series, a great deal of the second half of the series focuses on travels to various locales in the desolate world; throughout these adventures, the themes of the series are best expressed and developed without such an emphasis on inconsistent characterization or muddled plot dynamics.  Most of them provide reprieve from the tiresome drama generated by the established characters, focusing on a more adventurous method of world-building and thematic exposition.  These episodes are without doubt the highest point of the series, narratively speaking. 

As far as technical merits go, Ergo Proxy is a mixture of great and average.  The cinematic formalism isn’t anything terribly special, but it’s fulfilling enough.  The art style present in backgrounds, models, and settings all present a well-developed (perhaps over-developed) mood and tone, really hammering into the audience the overall atmosphere present in the show.  While it is totally up to viewer tolerance as to how much is TOO much atmosphere, Ergo Proxy is sure to wear its monotonous atmosphere pretty thin regardless of the viewer.  Animation quality—always one of Studio Manglobe’s best qualities—is great; movement is fluid and the action—when it occurs—is well-mapped and kinetic.  There are lapses into inconsistencies, but these are hardly noticeable and barely worth mentioning.  On the whole, the series’ animation quality is easily one of its strongest points. 

Oh, the dramma!

 

However, all of this is ultimately moot if one question is left unanswered: is Ergo Proxy entertaining?  And the answer to this question is, in this reviewer’s opinion, “yes”.  It’s ungrounded pseudo-intellectual pretentiousness that takes itself far too seriously wrapped up in a package of tired thematic ground, teenage angst, and post-apocalyptic despair—but in spite of all of this, it’s got fun action, great animation, solid (if monotonous) atmosphere, and characterization that is good enough to warrant an attachment over its twenty-three episode long run.  It’s not a great series, its writing tangles itself up in knots and loses direction, and there are many plot twists that will come off as totally and irreconcilably arbitrary, but it manages to be entertaining despite this. 

To believe any of the positive hype surrounding the supposed intellectual merit behind this series is a mistake.  And to believe that any of the themes presented in the first handful of episodes will be expounded upon and developed in ways that haven’t already been presented much better in previous works (e.g. Bladerunner, Ghost in the Shell, and Texhnolyze to name just a few) is also a mistake.  Similarly, to expect the cinematic genius that went into something like Evangelion—or the mind-bending narrative mish-mash of something like Serial Experiments Lain—is also a mistake.  But to sit back and enjoy the rollercoaster of nonsensical revelations and Twilight Zone-esque episodic thought-provoking dilemmas should prove to be rewarding enough.

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About Merridian
Merri lives with his wife in the USA. He is a happy human being. He wrote for Forced Perspective while the project was active, and he is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of QNUW. His newest project is YNRI // Transcendence, dedicated to poetry, short fiction, and artwork.

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