Director: Shukō Murase
Screenplay: Dai Sato; Junichi Matsumoto; Naruki Nagakawa; Seiko Takagi; Yuuko Kawabe; Yuusuke Asayama
Based on an original premise
Voice Cast: Rie Saitou (as Re-l Mayar); Akiko Yajima (as Pino); Koji Yusa (as Vincent Law); Hikaru Hanada (as Raul Creed); Kiyomitsu Mizuuchi (as Iggy); Sachiko Kojima (as Monad); Sanae Kobayashi (as Daedalus Yumeno)
Ergo Proxy is a perfect case study of how an anime television series, especially when it has over twenty episodes rather than twelve or thirteen to work with, can be a rollercoaster in terms of how a show can drastically change from its first episode to the finale. Here, what begins as one type of story changes so much in terms of what happens to the characters that it feels like a lot of time and events have passed. Whether Ergo Proxy does succeed in doing this well is to be described throughout the review, but when it succeeds in other anime television, even if there're hiccups along the way, it's so much more rewarding in fact than some tight, thirteen episode anime or animated films in letting the world feel fleshed out and unpredictability becoming involved.
Ergo Proxy starts as a dystopian sci-fi story set in a post-apocalypse world. In the last surviving city of Earth, Romdeau, the populous are controlled by the state, ran by a Regent assisted by intelligent artificial intelligences housed in animated Greek statues and various departments of control. Mankind is to control their emotions, following their robot assistants called "Entourages" carefully and consumer products. The granddaughter of the current Regent is Re-l, a member of Citizens Intelligence Bureau who is currently investigating the effects of the Cognito virus, causing self awareness and consciousness to grow in the entourages. While investigating this however, Re-l discovers the existence of a strange and monstrous figure the authorities are trying to suppress knowledge of. Discovering the monstrous figure is a "Proxy", and that there are more than one of them, she finds herself being watched even through her robotic partner Iggy and compromised by everyone including the security group led by Raul Creed.
Very much catering to a Western audience, the first quarter of the series is a post-Ghost In The Shell franchise creation, very much trying to replicate the mix of seriousness and action of Mamoru Oshii's 1995 adaptation and the other adaptations from other directors after that. Significantly though, while Oshii's films, including the sequel, had actual philosophical discussions, Ergo Proxy merely tries to have philosophical sounding dialogue discussing fate and existence, placing it very much in the ballpark of anime earnestly taking on serious pathos to their material, mixing this with moments of action. It's black, grey and brown hued colour is immediately striking at first - Re-l is as Goth as you can get with her Panda eye purple eyeliner, black night clubbing clothes and boots, and a long trench coat - but it eventually becomes repetitive immediately after the first couple of episodes, causing one to desire more colour and the story to escape the oppressively drab Romdeau. Tonally it's better keeping you engaged, appropriately bleak without becoming morose, more so that in catering to its Western influences the production went as far as having Radiohead's Paranoid Android used as the end credits song, thankfully able to be kept for the Western releases out of permission from the band themselves and apt for the tone of the work.
Things become more interesting as the world opens up beyond Romdeau, when its revealed there's more to the world in spite of people dying in the wasteland if they are not treated to adjust to the contaminated air. Re-l with her robot partner Iggy encounter Vincent Law, an "immigrant" whose connection to the proxies force him on the run from Romdeau's forces, and Pino, a small robotic girl originally built as a surrogate child whose is infected by the Cognito virus, becoming more human than some actual humans as she acts like an actual girl who loves life and is naturally curious about everything around her. Vincent Law in particular is as stereotypical as you can get for the show, the shy guy whose secret dark side is another stereotype in itself when its finally revealed, but as the shows escapes the trappings of replicating a cyberpunk mystery the characters in spite of their stereotypical behaviours get more interesting as the show strays off its narrative path. Pino in particular is the most rewarding character in terms of entertainment; thankfully she is never viewed in a sexual light, and while she is the stereotypical cute child who wears a pink bunny costume a great deal, she is a lovable character who is far from annoying. Because of Akiko Yajima 's voice acting and how the character is depicted, she is loveable in an admirable way with her mimicking of other's behaviour and friendliness. That she's a robot with a soul adds to her character a great deal without blatantly discussing it at length as does when she has to learn of concepts such as death without the show becoming morbid about such moments.
When the show reaches its halfway point it almost entirely severs itself from a direct narrative and the city of Romdeauas the protagonists explore the other cities in the wasteland. Not only does the aesthetic style improve as more of the world is shown - cities where only the robots remain to populate them doing their chores on deserted streets, an amusement park dome, dark caves containing mutants - but this is a case where it's the filler episodes, episodic tales, that prove to be stronger than the actual narrative in construction. I was not a fan of filler episodes once but that's changed as I realise how useful and fun they can be. It helps that this show's episodes still drip feed important plot points, as the show intercuts back to Romdeau to follow both Creed and Daedalus Yumeno, a young male doctor whose emotional connection to Re-l becomes problematically obsessive when she is gone, allowing a narrative to still be built. But the episodes where the protagonists step out of the main narrative, barring some small plot details, help flesh them out immensely. Some of the episodes are deliberately abstract in tone, facing possible doppelgangers or Vincent entering a subconscious encounter with his darker self involving a book seller, and others are deliberately jarring. What could become a monster of the week show when other proxies are revealed becomes more of the production team likely stepping out and experimenting with their material, thus letting down their hair and becoming incredibly creative.
One episode for example, even playing with the opening credits for a fourth wall joke, is literally a game show, out of the blue and the best episode of the whole series as it crams major background story into its form, questions to baffled protagonists, and is completely jarring, the bright colours of a studio set drastic alongside its cheerful tone in spite of the fact the loser of the show's game will be killed. Another, which is another candidate for the best episode, involves the aforementioned amusement park dome, turning the serious show into a tribute to classic western animation like the Fleischer brothers and explicitly referencing Walt Disney. When the show does swerve into episodes like this, the virtues long form anime series can have with longer lengths is shown, adding to each characters' personality in spite of their stereotypical ticks and keeping material fresh; for another great example, one where the heroes are stranded in wasteland, you get to see Re-l develop into more than a moody female protagonist when she starts to go stir crazy over simple things as Vincent leaving the toilet seat up, bringing normalcy in a humorous way into a sci-fi story. Whilst a thirteen or so episode series can prevent a story from becoming meandering and improvising episodic plots badly, shows with longer lengths can allow to use the unpredictable to their advantage, the rollercoaster as mentioned in the beginning, where a serious show visibly and tonally in debt to Ghost in the Shell ends up with a character having two anthropomorphic comedy sidekicks for a late episode. This also helps as, once some colour and further personality beyond Romdeau's conformist greys and blacks is added, Ergo Proxy has a high artistic quality to admire. Great animation is added to the bleakness of the world, destroyed by an unknown plight and adding religious tones to the plots' secrets, fleshing it out further. It's clichéd as hell as a story, as massive and monstrous humanoids called proxies tear chunks out of each other if they cross paths, scored characters named after philosophers talking about fate to the cast, but once the filler episodes allow the animation to stretch its legs and do more, the seriousness starts to be sincerer.
It's unfortunate however, despite how rewarding the series is, that the last three episodes feel so abrupt, returning back to Romdeau with a sudden, undisclosed jump in time where chaos has reached the streets. One flaw with the Romdeau setting is that, despite there being background characters, the show from the beginning felt empty in terms of scope, with no one baring silhouettes in the background to add meat to the dystopian tones. When it returns to Romdeau in the midst of chaos, without showing the cause of it barring hinted dialogue in an earlier episode, and with only a few riots killing entourages to represent it, the shift is lacking. Trying to quickly tie together its narrative, it becomes a series of muddled monologues and unexpected religious imagery that, while eye catching, does jar with what came before unlike the game shows and Disney references which were playful and by themselves. The show's attempts at serious philosophy eventually collapse into one of the worst stereotypes of anime when characters deliver convoluted monologues in the middle of a final fight instead of trying to actually fight , vague and against the more rewarding material of before.
And in lieu of how like a rollercoaster the show already is, its disarming that a science fiction story which does hint at spirituality and fantasy, but grinds it into some natural reality, suddenly ends with such a scene as a feather winged woman, a doppelganger of another, carrying another person by the hand up into the clouds in a mix of Icarus and an angel taking someone to heaven. While it could've worked perfectly if the religious overtones had been more prevalent in the earlier chapters, the ultimate flaw with Ergo Proxy is that its structure is a mess because of the ending, the main narrative far less interesting than the tangents it goes into with the attempts to make the narrative engaging by its end abrupt. What actually hit a great groove of quality from episode fifteen onwards, where even predictable episode plots sparkled with importance for characters and plot, is disappointed when the structure is lets the side down. Ergo Proxy still can raise its head high for some utterly memorable middle episodes, proof filler can be healthy for the show, but it fails when it needed to climax perfectly.