Reviewby Carlo Santos, Sep 11th 2012
DVD - Complete Series [Anime Classics]
The domed city of Romdo is humanity's last refuge on Earth—but all is not well in this authoritarian society. Re-l Mayer, a young woman working for the Intelligence Bureau, is attacked by a monster called a Proxy and begins to investigate the issue. But why do the authorities keep blocking her, even deleting the memories of her AutoReiv (android) assistant? And why do all the Proxy incidents point to Vincent Law, a simple working-class immigrant? Desperate for answers, both Re-l and Vincent venture into the wastelands outside the city, albeit on different paths. Vincent believes the answer to the mystery lies in his hometown. Re-l believes the answer lies in Vincent. Circumstances eventually bring the two together, along with a little AutoReiv girl named Pino. Once they uncover the disturbing truth about Proxies, however, they may start to wish they hadn't ...
Ergo Proxy tries to be the ultimate encyclopedia of high-concept science fiction ideas—and almost pulls it off. Over the course of 23 episodes, the series runs through a checklist of deep futuristic thoughts: humanity versus technology, freedom versus control, logic versus emotion, reality versus imagination (and the meaning of "truth"), and in the end, even the relationship between humans and gods. But like an encyclopedia, some parts are technical and boring, some go off on unrelated tangents, while some areas are too convoluted to understand. And the visuals, although haunting and beautiful, sometimes wander into the pitfalls of sloppy animation. So is Ergo Proxy truly great, or does it fall just short of greatness?
Initially, the series establishes itself as a murder mystery. There's a monster on the loose in this "perfect" city, only a couple of people have lived to witness it, yet the oppressive government is pulling a lot of technological strings to cover up the facts. Concept-wise, it feels similar to the Ghost in the Shell franchise—if you're going to pick an influence, why not one of the all-time greats?—but with its own unique world and set of characters. The series really starts to distinguish itself once Vincent starts to emerge as a main character—this self-effacing commoner hardly has the look of a hero, yet stands as a pivotal figure, especially once the series' first big surprise is revealed in Episode 9.
After the terrible truth comes to light, the series changes tone from murder mystery to post-apocalyptic road trip as Vincent, later joined by Re-l, goes on a soul-searching journey (which had already begun a few episodes prior). Paradoxically, this story arc brings out the best and worst of Ergo Proxy. On the downside, Vincent's journey can be just plain dull at times: he'll stand at the helm of his landship and mutter something vaguely philosophical, with Re-l or Pino occasionally offering their own observations. However, this unpredictable voyage also allows the series to experiment freely: some episodes are brilliant mind-benders, designed to confuse the viewer by drifting between dreams and reality, while others are outright parodies, like a raucous "quiz show" that cleverly reveals certain plot details behind its wacky façade.
These experiments and gimmicks have a price, however: the middle episodes keep the plot from making much progress, and somehow the endgame has to fit within the space of three episodes. When the time finally comes to resolve the Proxy mystery, with Vincent facing his fate and Re-l demanding the truth, the storyline stumbles in the same way as other overly ambitious works. Head-spinning plot twists and dramatic deaths suddenly all start piling on top of each other, the hero gets into a series-ending fight (but who is he fighting against, and why?), and while the original question is answered—What are the Proxies?—too many other detail remain fuzzy. Not that they'd be able to explain it anyway, since the world is ending and it's time to bail out.
If Ergo Proxy ends in a mess, though, at least it's a beautiful mess. Visual design is the series' strength from start to finish: burnt-out cities, stylish but menacing machinery, and gray, forbidding landscapes create a distinctive post-apocalyptic look. The human and AutoReiv characters also each have a unique appearance, ranging anywhere from sci-fi goth (Re-l) to disarmingly cute (Pino). However, the series is so intent on establishing its bleak mood that the endless brown and gray palette can wear out the eyes, especially in the first few episodes where everything happens in the colorless environs of Romdo. More problematic, however, is the inconsistent animation—from some angles, the characters' odd facial proportions clearly show that they've been drawn by a different team, and some scenes lose their detail when there's a lot of action going on. So it goes when high artistic ambitions collide with limited resources.
The dystopian atmosphere isn't just limited to visuals, however. The music—or lack thereof—also plays a role in creating the mood. A gloomy but eclectic soundtrack, ranging from Gregorian chant to ambient beats, sets the uneasy tone for the journey. Yet silence can also be just as effective, and some of the most powerful scenes come when there is no sound but the characters talking to one another ... or to the voices in their heads. Even the alt-rock theme songs take a subtle approach, most notably in the ending sequence that uses a portion of Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" (an apt title if there ever was one).
With such heavy philosophical ideas going into the series, perhaps it's no surprise that the English dub sounds a bit self-conscious in the early episodes. Vincent's personal thoughts often sound like the whining of a disgruntled youth, although this goes away as his character develops; Re-l, meanwhile, has to play the monotone too-cool-for-school heroine all the way through. Fortunately the voice acting improves as the characters (and thus the actors) become more settled, especially once the "weird" middle episodes start happening. The close relationship between the Japanese production staff and former licensor Geneon USA also means that the translation of technical terms from Japanese into English remains consistent. This new complete-series repackage also keeps the old DVD extras, including a half-hour discussion with U.S. production staff Jonathan Klein and Taliesin Jaffe—a feature that proves much more enlightening than the promotional Japanese extras.
Is Ergo Proxy truly a great work? Some may point to the profound themes, the twisting storyline, the unique imagery, and instantly say yes. However, certain flaws remain too big to ignore. Some of the middle episodes fall back on experimental gimmicks and fail to advance the story, while the finale becomes a towering mess as it desperately tries to resolve every single plot point. Even the animation has embarrassing moments of inconsistency. But for trying so hard to scale the heights of a difficult genre, Ergo Proxy still deserves credit. It accomplishes more than most other anime series ever hope to, flaws and all.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : C
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Runs the whole gamut of challenging sci-fi ideas. Mind-bending twists and mysteries will keep viewers hooked, along with haunting, memorable visuals.
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