Useless Anime Review: Ergo Proxy

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Digipaca is drawn and designed by Starry Dawn:

Sources and recommended links:
Interview with Murase Shukou and Dai Sato by Mechademia:
Anime News Network:

Useless Anime Knowledge: Intro to Manglobe Studio:
Useless Anime Knowledge: Samurai Champloo:

Most of the time, it’s reasonable to assume, when writing about a piece of media for an audience, that on some level everyone in the audience has experienced something pretty similar to what you have in consuming said media. Maybe your audience has interpreted or understood it differently, but there’s usually enough common ground between your experiences that you can easily communicate your own perspective. The problem with writing about Ergo Proxy is that it’s a show which lacks consensus even on the most fundamental level. Not only does no one seem to agree on whether it’s the best or the worst thing they’ve ever seen, the majority aren’t entirely sure what they’ve seen to begin with.

If there is indeed a cohesive, comprehensible narrative behind Ergo Proxy, I did not find it. If it’s something that can be decoded by putting effort into doing so, I will admit that I was not willing to put in any such effort. This is not to say that I require easiness in my viewing, as I have enjoyed plenty of media which requires an effort on the part of viewer to interpret; it is only to say that I really did not enjoy Ergo Proxy.

When I wrote about Samurai Champloo, I explained how the underlying logic of the show’s title was actually an apt summary of its style and construction. The same can be said of Ergo Proxy. When asked about the underlying meaning of the title, lead writer Satou Dai said, “it sounded cool.”

Everything about Ergo Proxy looks fantastic on paper. Beautiful gothy cyberpunk designs in a dark dystopian post-apocalypse setting? I’m there. Philosophical themes and symbolism? Sign me up. Methodical pacing and a story that has to be interpreted? Hey, this combination made for one hell of a show back when Texhnolyze did it. Yet somehow, instead of cohesively using these elements to build a tightly-woven and gripping series, Ergo Proxy is a clusterfuck of random ideas flying all over the place, held together by thin bits of string.

Many people have accused Ergo Proxy of being pretentious, and while I can think of no anime series that actually deserves this title more than Ergo Proxy, I don’t think it tells enough of the story. Rather, I see Ergo Proxy as one big act of hubris.

Fresh off their successful debut series Samurai Champloo, Manglobe decided to create something even more daring and bold. From the outset, they decided to make a series for a pay-per-view network, so that they wouldn’t need to fall in with the rigid structure of Japanese TV network time slots. The studio approached Shuukou Murase, who’d worked as a character designer and animation director on two of the shows that the Manglobe producers had worked on before leaving Sunrise, and was fresh off of his directorial debut, Witch Hunter Robin. They literally told him to come up with something. Anything. He was given absolute creative free reign. This. Does. Not. Ever. Happen. In. TV. Anime.

And so, Shuukou conceptualized the series, and worked with lead writer Satou Dai to hash it all out and solidify it into a story. They got a team of episode writers together, finished out the script, and the deed was done.

Ergo Proxy starts off looking like a slow-burning mystery story with very prominent themes about the nature of thought, identity, and sentience, with underpinnings of classism, a dystopian setting, and a leading lady whom, at the outset, shows signs of being a deep and well-realized character.

It then immediately stagnates for ten fucking episodes. By the end of episode three, the viewer is already aware of the conclusion to the major mystery which the main characters will be trying individually to solve until episode twelve. What proceeds is a torturous slog of plot threads that never move forward, shift weirdly in focus from episode to episode, and uncerimoniously wrap up with the main characters learning exactly what the viewer already knows. The characters, and the action, leave the dystopian city early on, yet much of the political and social underpinnings of that city remain in focus long after it’s become apparent that its no longer the center of the action.

After the revelations shared by the main characters, Ergo Proxy suddenly turns into an episodic adventure show as the two protagonists and their sidekick go on a long journey to a place towards which one of them had already set out at the end of episode three. The plotlines involving the city are completely left hanging for nearly another ten whole episodes while the main characters get into escapades of varying degrees of relevence.
During the teen episodes, the series abandons any pretense of being a slow-burning mystery show on a natural path of progression, and each episode turns into almost completely episodic battles with random antagonists, most of which are introduced in media res, and concluded in the same way, leaving the viewer wondering if the episode actually had a point.

And to be honest, some of these are the best episodes of the show. Episode fifteen is the height of its absurdism, as the main characters suddenly participate in a high-stakes quiz show, answering questions that all turn out to be series exposition and foreshadowing. The episode right after that is even better, as it’s just about the main characters breaking down in the middle of nowhere and being driven mad by boredom. This episode reminds me that Satou Dai was also a writer on Cowboy Bebop.

And yeah, that’s worth getting into. Satou Dai is not a bad writer by any stretch. Right before Ergo Proxy, he was the lead writer on Eureka Seven, and even won an award for that screenplay. Every other series that he wrote for, however, was one with interesting characters and strong, humanist storytelling. Ergo Proxy feels like the existence of characters and a storyline were afterthoughts in favor of how many ideas and symbols could be packed into the show.

The reason I’m hesitent to consider Ergo Proxy pretentious, is that I think the show is aware of how uneven and unclean it is. The leaders of its dystopian city are all named after post-modernist philosophers, and in one episode, there’s a grave stone with Satou Dai’s name on it, meaning that in the context of the story, the author is literally dead. The insistence on post-modern calling cards was a red flag to me that Ergo Proxy did not have any central, unifying theme or purpose, but was more calling on the viewer to interpret the series in their own way.

A lot of critics see this brand of post-modernism as a way of shirking off criticism, by saying that the work was never trying to fit into a paradigm of quality to begin with. However, I think that true post-modernism would invite criticism, as it is just as valid an interpretation of the work as trying to produce meaning within it. I cannot analyze Ergo Proxy from the perspective of appreciating and understanding what the series is trying to convey, because I think that the series fails at actually conveying anything. That’s my interpretation of the show.

As I said before, Ergo Proxy is a clusterfuck. Reading interviews with Murase and Satou, I got the impression that they really just came up with a bunch of things that sounded cool and tried to work a story and characters around those themes, but ultimately failed at delivering anything compelling. With nothing to ground the themes and ideas bouncing around in the show’s head, they all appear hollow and uninteresting. I’d rather just go read a philosophy text, or look at the show’s artbook for the pretty design work, than actually watch the show.

It’s worth mentioning as well that even on a production level, Ergo Proxy is wildly inconsistent. Parts of the show look amazing, and other parts look like total ass, sometimes within a span of seconds. It seems like Manglobe mostly hires contractors and outsources their animation when producing series, so we end up with a wildly uneven result. In fairness, Samurai Champloo, whose art I praised as usually top-notch, also had a constantly shifting art style, but in that case it fit in with the mixtape nature of the show, and for the most part all the different styles looked good. Ergo Proxy tries to establish a unified fantasy setting, but the inconsistent artwork and tone of writing constantly took me out of the experience. On the whole, Ergo Proxy’s world is dreadfully unmemorable, as the potential of its early episodes are squandered. I’d rather watch Wolf’s Rain or Texhnolyze again for a better version of the same thing.

One thing I can credit the series with is superb sound design. Throughout the show I enjoyed the crisp sound effects and ambient noise, except when the soundtrack was putting me to sleep. The opening and ending songs were certainly not to be skipped, and it needs mention that the ending is Paranoid Android by Radiohead–possibly the most popular track on the most critically acclaimed album of all time.

Even though I can only recommend Ergo Proxy to viewers willing to take a risk and try something new just for the hell of it, it’s not to say that the series wasn’t at all successful. No one gave a shit about it in Japan, according to its creators, but the series was very popular in France and Italy, with a following in the US as well. It even aired on the semi-rare cable network Fuse in the US, which is how a lot of people are aware of it.┬áConsidering how Manglobe would continue the trend of high-risk original series with their next work, it’s probably safe to say that Ergo Proxy was successful to some degree. Funimation has kept the DVDs in circulation since Geneon dissolved in 2008, though the two-volume tie-in manga never made it stateside. Ergo Proxy can be watched on youtube right now too, though I advise against it because the video quality is ass and they had to take out the ending theme.

Overall, I can’t say that I totally hated Ergo Proxy. On the rare ocassion that the show gave Re-l the spotlight, she proved to be an interesting character, but I couldn’t give a shit about Vincent. Pino wasn’t bad, but was the worst kind of character–she’s a robot, so she can have whatever knowledge is convenient to the plot, but she’s also a kid and a robot with emotions, so she can be ignorant in service of the plot. She got better as the show went on, though.

The cogito virus which infected autoreivs with emotions was the one plot element that actually generated a pretty interesting theme about how humans are willing to treat a sentient being on the basis of whether or not their emotions are “real.” It never goes anywhere with the theme, but it was interesting anyways. As mentioned earlier, I liked some of the teen episodes, as well as episode twenty-one which is about a fabricated conciousness sharing the mind of a host body.

Still, I can say that had I not been interested in Manglobe studio and the careers of this show’s creators, and had not intended to write a post about it, I don’t think I would’ve made it all the way through Ergo Proxy. I found the final episodes to be an absolute slog. If you’ve watched the series though, then by all means, feel free to discuss it in the comments–and mark your spoilers for those who haven’t seen it yet.

1 thought on “Useless Anime Review: Ergo Proxy

  1. I’m still trying to figure it out – but I have noticed a few things:
    The “teen episodes”, at least some of them, are like Reader’s Digest Condensed versions of the whole show, like a broken piece of a hologram, that shows the whole image, but from a limited perspective. You really have to think about Vincent’s situation to see that. The Game Show episode was only there for all the Major Exposition it contained. And a LOT of the hints are really, really subtle – the owner of the City Lights bookstore chuckles deeply exactly like Proxy One does for only a few seconds. But there’s no way for a first-time viewer to know that, so it has to be watched more than once (I’m up to… many times).

    The Monad/Re-L/Re-L2 situation still confuses me – but I’m working on it. Right now I think that Re-L has at least SOME actual Monad in her, whereas Re-L2 was a complete clone of Monad. Well, like I said, still working on it. I’m obviously fascinated by… not so much the show, as figuring out the creative process that produced it.

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