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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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Sword Art Online

SAO
What a glorious mess. Average should mean unremarkable. Average things can sometimes be worse than bad things, because they can’t make you react. At least something that’s offensively bad makes you angry. Sword Art Online is average because there’s a crappy, overly serious hero’s journey here mixed with a subversive, psychological sci-fi story.

Villains often want to make a change to the world, and that takes the form of destruction. Saving the world means not letting the villain destroy it, whether it’s a senseless bad guy or a specific idea. We rarely meet villains who are creators. We sometimes get the ‘death game’ creators (Saw, Death Race), but all they do is make other people destroy stuff.

Here, we get an actual creator. Our main villain is in a position of God. He created the world, he controls it and he doesn’t let people just easily exit. On paper, this sounds like an exciting adventure which will explore interesting themes like suicide and optimism. Harlan Ellison tackled the God-like character in his brilliant story about mouths and screaming.

Sword Art Online isn’t a death game like the aforementioned films. It’s a real world with slightly different rules. You can die in it just like you can in the real world, but unlike Death Race you’re allowed to do more things than fighting or dying. That’s why it makes sense when some people decide to stop trying to get out of SAO.

Instead of trying to Win at Life, they’d rather slow down and find a few things they like. For some of them, the world of SAO is far more exciting and beautiful. Then again, isn’t that why some people play video games and watch anime? They’re trying to escape from one world to another. Yet when they get trapped in that world, they want to escape back to the real world.

All of this sounds really clever, only there’s no character psychology to give substance to these themes. Akihiko’s motives for creating this world are, what? Just to observe people in action?

When Harlan Ellison created AM, who has the power of God, he tries to think what kind of power can do to someone. In his eyes, it would drive a person insane and made torture people because he got nothing better to do. I kept waiting for something like this in Akihiko, some motive that will make his actions make sense or how creating SAO affects him.

How does all this power affect him? What did he learn from his observations? Maybe he’s like Attack on Titan’s Hanji, a person who’s too caught up in his research to notice people? He delivers some speeches in the end of the arcs, but he might as well walked with a sign that says ‘a winner is you’. That would be funny and more clever.

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Wine bottles from Skyrim make a cameo appearance

It gets worse, though. Akihiko is an interesting character whose psychology was left on the floor of the board meeting. Sugou is just a cartoon. He’s evil for the sake of it. There’s no difference between him and your average Digimon Adventure bad guy, only he doesn’t look as cool. The package comes complete with grand speeches about evil ambitions, mind control research and slug-like creatues who want to molest poor Asuna. Just in case you didn’t get it, the bad guys are ugly slugs.

It was going so well until then. Some complained about the time skips, but I just see focusing on what’s important. The format of ‘This happened, and then this happened’ is boring. Storytelling is choosing what to include and exclude. In those Slice-of-Life-esque episodes, the creators chose stories that will illustrate how the world works and how people behave in it. This is how worldbuilding should be done.

Even the romance section wasn’t terrible. It was actually one of the highlights. A romantic story doesn’t end when the two get together. There’s a story to be told of how their relationships work. These romantic scenes make us care about their relationship because we see it in action. We see them laugh, think about the future and enjoying each other’s company. Put them next to the stories when they deal with death and it’s even more effective. Sachi’s episode remains hard-hitting, and the first episode hints at something unsettling like Digimon Tamers. We even get color schemes that echo the D-Reaper, and you can’t go wrong with that.

Then it degenerates into Rescuing the Princess. Kirito’s a Gary Stu, but it doesn’t become as annoying until that happens. SAO swings from a fun adventure to serious Sci-Fi without notice, which makes it just an admirable failure. When Sugou does his sexual molester stuff, the series just gives up.

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Personaliy + twintails. What a waste

I could tolerate Kirito in a more light-hearted context. He and Asuna are both pretty perfect, but there’s charm to his humble, yet powerful persona. He’s stuck in a show that keeps pointing to depth. Since we never get enough meaningful moments, the Gary Stu problem just makes it obvious how shallow it is.

I found myself more interested in Sugou than Kirito. We never get to see Kirito’s hard work. He’s doing nice things because it’s nice to do them. He never strives for something, but why should he? He’s an alpha male who get a beautiful girl and got some others going after him. He has all he needs in the world. Even the hard re-adjustment to the real world isn’t addressed. He just goes off to rescue the princess.

That’s a static character whose role is to mow down mooks, not to make things happen. Sugou is interesting. He doesn’t just react but acts, creates conflicts and his wants, needs and flaws.

Yet, even when this series gives up on itself you get a moment that reminds you of what it could have been. There’s a harem thing going on, but it’s much less prominent than people say. It also lets us see the rejected character deal with heartbreak and trying to get over it. The incest thing may have been out-of-place, but at least it’s handled well. Suguha isn’t cast aside, but reacts to the heartbreak.

Those moments were enough to make me curious to check the light novels, but the anime is just a collection of good ideas brought down by cliches. It’s Date A Live all over again, only less brave. It’s weird. Date A Live was more obvious in its harem, but it never settled on clear heroes and villains. Sword Art Online is a cool series that gives up on itself, tells the hero to go rescue the princess just because they’re sick of the whole thing. Someday, someone will remake this and fix these flaws. Until then, I’ll sit back and watch people get really angry over this on message boards.

2.5 swords out of 5