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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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