Ergo Proxy

ergoproxy
If to be great is to be misunderstood, then Ergo Proxy is truly one of the greatest anime ever. It’s second only to Future Diary in how everyone misinterprets it, both the fans and the haters. Some of what you heard is true. It’s experimental, bizarre and sometimes a little too vague. Yet no one talks about how it’s not experimental in the conventional, silly way. No one mentions how human the story is, or how traditional it is at the same time.

Somewhere at its heart is a very traditional story. It starts off with a mystery and later becomes a journey of self-discovery, a wild adventure with stand-alone set-pieces. Being experimental isn’t denying common structures but creating your own. The weirdest anime have a familiar side. They distort common tropes and structures and build something new out of them.

vlcsnap-2016-09-15-13h14m43s247

The anime makes its intentions very clear at the beginning. You know this is a deep sci-fi story because there’s no info dumps. Techno-babble is common in sci-fi and its antithesis. Sci-fi is about exploring the implications of technologies and possibles futures. How exactly a technology will work is work for scientists. The purpose of storytellers is to try to predict how it will effect us psychologically and philosophically.

Human relying on intelligent robots is familiar, but the anime is more focused on what it means. Machines are just advanced tools. Humanoid robots aren’t meant to be actual humans, but serve various factions. How far does a tool advance before it stops being a tool? The companion model is important. Tools are supposed to solve technical problems – they help us build, repair and cook. Yet here’s a tool whose purpose is to address a psychological problem.

vlcsnap-2016-09-15-13h16m17s236

Psychological problems are bigger than technical problems. The toaster is either broken or fixed and, in general, doesn’t have a will of its own. Psychology leads to wants and needs. Psychology is dynamic and is constantly changing. A tool that cannot solve a psychological problem without having long-term effects.

Intelligence is also important for the development of psychology. The more complex the problem, the more complex the tool has to be. Eventually we develop intelligent tools, but intelligence leads to psychology, to asking questions. But the AutoReives don’t have to ask too much. The main philosophical question – why live? – has been answered inside their programming. The designer of the tool decides its purpose. It designs the tool for a specific problem.

In a way, this is the argument for the non-existence of a God or for an indifferent God. Human beings don’t have their reasons of existence written in their code. The only humans who do are humans born in artificial wombs. Vincent is the prime example of the Absurd Man. If you’re confused over what happens to him, that’s okay. He’s just as confused like most people are. Unlike the AutoReives, he has to put conscious effort, to break out of his comfort zones to find meaning.

vlcsnap-2016-09-15-13h16m39s154

Even the pre-programmed people aren’t safe from the nature of reality. Intelligence is only useful if it’s able to develop on its own. An intelligent tool has to continue to learn, or else it’s not intelligent at all and can’t deal with the most complex problems. Either reality shifts and make us question our purpose, or our intelligence develops and leads us to these questions. That’s what the Cogito virus really is, isn’t it? That’s Pino’s arc. She starts off pre-programmed with a clear purpose. As she gathers experience, she develops a worldview, wants and needs. The line isn’t between men and machine. It’s between men and tools.

Ergo Proxy is mostly about the search for meaning. It’s appropriate because the anime sometimes can’t hold on to that. The conclusion it reaches is a familiar one, but I don’t think anyone has yet to supply a better answer. We cannot stop the search. Romdeau may be sealed and ordered, but the Cogito virus still exploded. People still wondered what’s going on, and Lil Mayar found a purpose of her own besides merely existing. Human connection is also important. When everything falls, there are still people to hold on to.

vlcsnap-2016-09-15-13h16m35s154

The anime mirrors the characters and humanity in general. It bumbles from style to style. The atmosphere is fairly consistent with the anime mainly borrowing from genres rather than jumping into them. Still, the theme is either pushed too upfront with name-dropping of philosophers or hidden in episodes that don’t relate to this. That’s why being aware of traditional storytelling is useful. Merely rejecting them is silly when they’re a useful crutch.

In general, falling back on tropes is a bad sign. Cliches without verve are offensively boring. Ergo Proxy‘s case isn’t giving up. Rather, it focuses on having a surface as attractive as its depths. There’s no reason to cover up a deep story with a boring surface, anyway. The mystery and the adventure are just as intriguing. While the tonal shifts aren’t huge with few moments of lighthearted fun, there’s variety in the set-pieces. It especially improves when the anime slides into its adventure arc. The set-pieces are varied and often bizarre. Episodes are told in different ways, and are often self-contained.

vlcsnap-2016-09-15-13h17m04s221

Sometimes it feels like you missed episodes, but only because the focus is on making the episode an individual creation. The connection to past events is made later. The focus is more on the story. That’s another thing people miss about the anime. For all its talk about philosophy, Ergo Proxy isn’t a collection of weird images and stoic phases. It’s heavy on storytelling, on characters interacting and things happening. It rarely, if ever, stops to inform the audience on its philosophical nature. When the AutoReives cry for their ‘raison d’etre’, it’s more because this term is common in the world rather than trying to impress the viewer with jargon.

Its only flaw is its messy nature, but that’s forgivable. Any time that explores its themes so well, that plays both the philosophical angle and the storytelling angle is bound to be messy. It’s not even lying big themes on a traditional story. Ergo Proxy constantly breaks, constantly bounces from one thing to the next. The verve is engrossing, but the anime is also confused. Since it’s not a complete experimental work and not an adventure with psychological portait, it should be in the middle. A anime that’s at once traditional and experimental should be brilliant, but that’s too much to ask for. Still, it doesn’t matter if Icarus burned when he flew to the sun. The wings still worked.

There’s no reason to pass off on this anime. It’s bizarre, messy, intelligent, emotionally engrossing and accessible. It’s far-out, so I can imagine plenty disliking this. Still, this isn’t the impenetrable Texhnolyze or Serial Experiments Lain. In fact, its awareness of traditions actually makes it more bizarre. It’s truly unusual in a way that few fictional works are. If I have to present anime to an outsider, this is one of the first I’ll think of.

4.5 autoraves out of 5

Advertisements

Texhnolyze

texhnolyze
To call Texhnolyze one of the most predictable stories is an understatement. The only expectation it defied was the exepctation to be worthwhile. Other than that, this is your typical artsy anime. It beats you over the head with how artsy it is, using techniques that distinguishes it from mainstream anime. None of these techniques distinguishes it from the many ‘artistic’ stories out there. It often looks like an immature, more angsty little brother of Blade Runner or Eraserhead.

Is there a more redundant way to inform your audience that your story is serious by having grey colours and serious characters? Nolan used the same technique in Inception and made a complete fool of himself. He was so focused on being serious that hsi dreams looked like Michael Bay directed them.

vlcsnap-2016-01-08-13h11m23s174

The anime doesn’t follow an idea of its own. The directors behind it watched a bunch of art house films, noticed the lack of dialogue in Blade Runner and decided that this is the reason it got the acclaim.

Being serious isn’t going to make me take your story seriously. Halfway through the series and all the characters still act the same. They all present the same variation of the stoic, apathetic characters. Some are less stoic than others, but that’s like saying there’s a major difference between New York Hardcore and Beatdown Hardcore. They more similar than they are different.

After 20 episodes, the 100th shot of Ichise’s indifferent, emotionless face is hilarious. It reeks of trying too hard. Is the life of people in harsh environments like this? Did the Jews in the Holocaust or the fighters in Sudan had time to just stare off into the distant with a stoic face?

vlcsnap-2016-01-22-01h42m39s187

Think of any photograph of a war-torned or poverty-stricked place. Do the people have the privilege of being stoic? No. These photographs are harrowing because they’re full of pain and suffering. These are people who want life and struggle to survive, to find some kind of joy in it. Stories from Holocaust survivors are full of these moments. They’re not stoic but swinging from one extreme painful moment to a small relief of happiness.

The only place that actually is monotonous is your office job and suburban job. Texhnolyze is full of angst, the kind your suburuban dad gets after 20 years in the same job. It’s your boring monotonous pessimism you hear from a teenager when every day is exactly the same.

Actually, comparing this to teen angst is a compliment. Teen angst is an existensial storm of ups and downs, like that Nine Inch Nails album. It can be silly but it’s exciting. Texhnolyze is macho angst. It’s the same thing that fuels Game of Thrones and Cormac McCarthy novels. The old macho fantasy of men in suits not expressing emotions is a big hit now and is often confused with depth. The only surprise is that Texhnolyze doesn’t have graphic sexual abuse (Although we do get a sexy doctor).

You cannot horrify the audience by constantly showing suffering. Humans adapt. When feel something too much we get used to it and our perspective changes. Texhnolyze has the same emotional tone throughout the series.

vlcsnap-2016-01-04-22h48m27s198

Bleakness and grimdarkness cannot be leading tones. They’re too narrow. You can use them in certain scenes but unless you’re doing something especially unusual there’s nothing there. You need to contrast it with something. People don’t suffer because they don’t have something. People suffer because they don’t have something that they want.

There are plenty of tragic and dark works out there, but they’re effective because they’re aware suffering doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You don’t have to show a moment of joy. Just showing it can exist in your world is enough. I only have to skim over Serial Experiments Lain to find a shot of girls laughing in bright colors. This is enough to inform me that in the world of Lain, people can be happy.

Some moments have potential to offer contrast, but the mood suffocates it. A sex scene is in dark colors and full of dread. We see a party, but there breaks Hal’s heart. It is a flat line, which means it’s both shallow and dead.

If Texhnolyze found a unique way to express the grimdark cliche, I would have forgiven it. If it would have gone full retard in the Techno-Industrial depart it would be a little fun. While the soundtrack is nice, the scenery never reminded me of Front Line Assembly. The decay gets more focus than the mechanical nature. The focus is on the mood, rather on something that will create the mood. This is no City of Rapture.

The most radical switch from this mood is the action scenes. The anime joins BTOOOM! and Deadman Wonderland by bathing in blood and faces distorting in pain. The show already established a cold, stoic tone. When these scenes kick in, the violence isn’t harrowing. The scenes don’t reveal any pain because we were already beaten the head with pain before. So all they do is take the suffering one step further, showing it more explicitly. Someone should’ve told them that what makes pictures from the Holocaust or Unit 731 harrowing is because we know these are real people. The people in Texhnolyze aren’t real.

vlcsnap-2016-01-22-01h41m39s128

There’s a revealing interview with the creators. They said these action scenes were a response to the Shounen Jump style violence, where characters walk away bleeding. The creators wanted to express ‘pain’. If they had any understanding of action films, they would have known they are not about pain. Action anime is about aestheticized violence, about making violence look really cool.

Asking what the creators wanted to communicate, they said they don’t have any idea. They admit things changed as they series went along and that’s it. He hoped that the viewer would feel some kind of empathy or that they will think ‘this might mean this’. Does that sound like a work which involved deep thought?

I did not want the creator to analyze his own work. Still, I expected them to have some kind of direction. Lynch saying he sees absurditiy and weirdness all around him is enough to give you some idea what his films try to express.

If Texhnolyze was a mess of ideas it would still be amusing. If it jumped off from one idea to the next it would at least be there. Not knowing what it’s about, instead, makes for an anime that never builds towards anything. The tone never changes, since they never know what it was about in the beginning so they had no foundation to build upon. It ends with a big battle and an antagonist who’s a rip-off on Fallout‘s The Master only without the charisma, humor and the depth.

I engaged in a long debate with hopes of finding value. While the person raised a lot of valid points and there is something here about the nature of existence and ‘being human’, it’s not conveyed. I engaged in that debate while watching the last episodes. They’re an improvement and the above-ground is a great idea, but the stoic mood and boring violence overpowered any depth there could have been. You don’t cover depth and ideas with a boring story. Your cover needs to serve the ideas, not obscure them.

vlcsnap-2015-12-29-20h58m55s42

Some also told me the characters are not the point, but if this is about humanity they must be the point. You cannot have a story about human nature or existence without characters. Existence and stories don’t exist outside of characters. You can have a story without many things. You can have a story that’s just an inner monologue, but without characters the only thing you can write about is asteroids hitting planets and blowing shit up. That’s just a Michael Bay story without women.

Perhaps I’m an idiot. Perhaps there is something deeper beneath the 100 shots of apathetic and ultra macho faces. Perhaps everyone just jumps on the bandwagon of grimdark and think that if the anime has a serious tone, then we must take it seriously. I’ve experienced plenty of strange and ‘artistic’ stories. Most of them were weird enough to be interesting for a while even if they failed. Texhnolyze is a predictably artsy anime that can’t escape its trap. Even if it says something about existence or optimism, in the end it wants too much to be serious and everything is dead.

1.5 stoic faces out of 5

BTOOOM!

btoom

It’s like Future Diary, only with all the good stuff ripped out.

Using characters as plot device is hard. Do it once or twice and it’s okay. When everyone becomes a plot device, your story becomes hard to believe. A world where everyone is a plot device is less believable than a notebook that kills people.

It doesn’t seem so bad at first. It’s dark and cruel, but this is a game where people are forced to kill each other. The first to die is boring as hell, but Future Diary‘s Third didn’t have a personality. He at least had an idea behind him. He was supposed to be a simple Unknown Danger. He has given a design that looks scary to make that convincing. His role was small and was the only plot device character.

No such things happen in BTOOOM!. Everyone exists for two reasons. Their purpose is first to be terrible human beings, and the second is to die. It’s hilarious how everyone is terrible, but no one has a personality flaw. One guy is a rapist. Another is a cold-hearted killer. Another one is a con artist. They’re unpleasant, but not interesting.vlcsnap-2015-11-27-17h25m51s139

Such a dull edge

The cruelty is so monochrome. These are not the crazies of Future Diary. No one in that anime was sadistic for sadism’s sake. When they had a cruel streak, they had reasons for it. It was also specific. Third just wanted to kill everyone. Reisuke cared about having a mother figure. Yomotsu had a retarded sense of justice.

There was almost something comic about it. None of that exists in BTOOOM!. No one has an alternative moral system. No one’s sadism is understandable. A fat guy attempts rape and we get to see it graphically, yet we don’t know what’s behind him. The creators try to shock us with Himiko’s pain, but it’s only unpleasant to watch. More shocking would be if they made understand the rapist and his point of view. This way the viewer might find he shares some thoughts with him, which is both horrifying and meaningful.

Some get a half-assed explanation, like abusive parents or a military past. These are just placeholders. The characters aren’t very different besides one being more sadistic. Both Tsubaki and Reisuke have a sad past, but it’s a different kind that transformed them differently.

The creators miss the best part of the Death Game scenarios. The Death Game throws a bunch of characters in a situation that forces them to confront each other. It needs different personalities. The clash between them is what creates tension. Some explosions will never be as exciting as a blind crazy, a yandere and a misanthrope meeting in the same place.

These personalities make us view these characters as human. We’ll care about them, understand them and have empathy for them. The deaths will be sadder because we’ll see a human who is like us fail, perhaps of his own undoing. That’s how tragedy works. Tragedy isn’t just making characters suffer but have them (and us) understand it. Characters just explode here.

vlcsnap-2015-11-27-17h26m38s74

Random unimportant asshole

If BTOOOM! chose the way of Saw it would’ve been better. It’s not a show of aestheticized violence. Such violence is overblown and disconnected from reality. It can be fun to see limbs being torn and people explode, but there’s no sense of fun here. The action scenes are tedious, consisting mainly of pointless inner monologues. The fact characters suffer is emphasized more than how fun it is to throw a bomb.

Any momentum that a scene generates is immidiately smashed. There are a lot of inner monologues. It’s a wonder the series didn’t pull an Evangelion. They had enough for 3 episodes. Action scenes are about movement and set-pieces. Some dialogue can also help if the interaction is meaningful enough. Thoughts are static. No one has room for introspection during such scenes. You don’t have them running in your head in a video game, so in real life?

It’s the stereotypical edgy anime that thinks violence, gore and suffering makes for something profound. It tries to something about how humans are cruel, but when everyone is cruel for no reason we it’s hard to believe that message. How can be believe humans are as cruel as the players when the strings behind them are so obvious?

The symbol for caring and companionship is your typical harem protagonist, without the harem. Sakamoto has no personality whatsoever. He kind of cares about others, but why? He’s the main character because it’s easier to sympathize with him, rather than the rest of the meanies. More correctly, it’s safer to make him the main character. Following one of the bad guys would mean they’d have to to do more than be cruel for a while than die.

Himiko isn’t much better. She’s an insutling portrait of the Clinging Woman. Everything Yuno satirized is in her. The parallels are so obvious, you have to wonder whether it’s a response. Both girls rely on their men, but differently. Yuno relies for psychological stability. She acts less to please the guy than to fulfill her own desire for love. Himiko exists for Sakamoto and no other reason. Her love isn’t related to personality. She’s a reward Sakamoto wins twice, first for being a great player and second because he’s saving her.vlcsnap-2015-11-27-17h28m47s108

For the glory of Satan

She’s also an object of sexual gartification, both for characters and the viewer. She gets near-raped a few times, and these scenes are filled with nice shots that give you a clear picture of Himiko’s body. These are not the expressive flashbacks of Tsubaki. You might be able to catch a nice shot there, but they’re too expressive and short. The don’t emphasize just the sexual part of it but the pain.

It made Tsubaki hateful of the world and everyone in it. It was her undoing, but she was portrayed as a tragic character. Himiko is turned into a silly tsundere who slowly learns to ‘trust men’, as if she should just get over it.

The ending is also insutling. It’s the definition of ‘inconclusive’. This criticism has been brought up a lot, but many short shows have some arc that concludes. The grand story of Freezing isn’t over, but there is an arc that concludes which defines the two seasons. BTOOOM! just ends. It makes it all feel like an advertisement for the source material.

There are tiny worldbuilding things that come off as moronic. There’s no sensible explanation why the game exists. Hints point toward the good old cliche of human experiments or evil corporations. The bombs also somehow can tell whether their owner is dead or not. Then again, I keep praising a show about diaries that predict the future. If the world doesn’t make too much sense but serves the purpose, it’s okay. If your story is full of holes, it’s a magnifying glass to how stupid your world is.

At least the art style is nice. Since this is supposed to be deep, we get a realistic art style with no crazy ideas. The designers still managed to give everyone a distinct look. At least in that department, BTOOOM! has something to teach others. Even characters that appear for a few minutes get their own unique look. It’s too bad these designs weren’t used in a different, better anime.

The OP ends with all the characters standing and looking towards the horizon. It reminded me of the first shot of Future Diary‘s ED. It summed up what made that one so good – a cast of crazies, which with flawed personalities that make them understandable even at their worst. BTOOOM! has no such empathy. It treats its characters like they’re from a video game. They exist to kill and die. The protagonist has as much character as a silent protagnsit. It’s amazing how bad it is. ┬áhas almost everything I want in an anime, and wrecks it.

1.5 bombs out of 5