Themes highlighting and questioning identity – and by associated extremes, reality itself – are hardly rare in anime but rarely has any series attempted to take the identity crisis to the levels that Manglobe production Ergo Proxy manages. And probably, that sounds like a criticism. Well, it is, and it isn’t.
Ergo Proxy is its own paradox: an obscure and demanding story in some respects, more puzzle than entertainment. Yet it’s also inarguably engaging; a love story, a journey, part police drama, part road movie, part monster thriller. It’s archetypal, the lost and found self, but also social allegory, a Gibsonian dissertation on dystopian futures of almost Orwellian proportions. Drawing from a myriad of sources (Post-Structuralism, Totalitarianism and Renaissance art just to name a few), Ergo Proxy’s themes and cues are so dense, so buried within the text of the series that you need active investigation and – almost – a Doctorate in Humanities to decipher them, yet off-setting that, the structures of some of its episodes are so radical, so original and self-referential and genuinely delightful (episode #15: Who Wants to be in jeopardy?, and episode #16: Busy Doing Nothing being two of the absolute highlights) that its other less opaque aspects can almost be ignored. Or at least put down to a quirk of personality.
L’il Meyer (and in a suspiciously fitting twist, her name in Japanese is pronounced as ‘real’) is an investigator for the City, privileged by birth and unquestionably the perfect citizen. Her grandfather is Romd’s patriarch, and L’il, as a privileged rich kid, is only vaguely disaffected. She has everything she needs and no reason to question, but perhaps that’s the problem, or at least the impetus. As the series opens, she’s on the trail of a murderer; a monster in the true sense of the word, and her investigation leads her to a man named Vincent Law.
Vincent is a seemingly nondescript immigrant, struggling much further down the social ladder as a garbage man of sorts, hunting down and exterminating (Blade-runner style, no less) androids who have been infected by the mysterious Cogito virus, which simulates self-awareness and free will. However, the monster – the Proxy – is a virus too, and Vincent is somehow connected to it. Its existence attacks the sterile, controlled system in which L’il and Vincent live, bringing into question the true order of things and threatening both the secrets of the city as well as their own reality. Pretty soon, both characters find themselves on the outside (quite literally), on the run, searching for answers and just as hunted as the rogue androids they left behind. Problem is, you can never outrun yourself.
It’s these lofty concepts that give the series its paradoxical feel; it really does start off as a fairly typical crime thriller. But soon enough, most of the straightforward norms of that genre are playing understudy to deeper and far less accessible mysteries. This doesn’t make it bad, unless you’re unwilling to work for you anime, but it certainly makes it unconventional. As a protagonist, Vincent Law leaves something to be desired; he’s passive, cowardly, and introverted, an unwilling and unlikely catalyst for the drama, and yet despite the focus on the sexy, gothy L’il, he really is the one that the story is about. It’s his attempt to escape, to survive, that brings the L’il out of her perfect world and it’s his identity around which the mystery centres and as such, his confusion, his pain that is most felt. In his struggle for self-realisation, L’il is merely the watchdog, his conscience, monitor and police and a humanising factor as she learns how to determine for herself what the truth is, beyond the city’s influence.
So, in the end, does all this Post-Structuralism, Jungian symbolism get in the way of enjoying the show? Not in the least. The characters, varying in degrees between Machiavellian and innocent, are strong and interesting. Pino (and yes the associations with Collodi’s Pinocchio are deliberate) is the sweetest, least annoying six year old in anime to date, and L’il is strong and far from an accessory. The visual style is dark, sleek and modern, and the soundtrack is inspired (the opening song, Kiri by Monoral, is something you just won’t be able to stop listening to).
Ergo Proxy isn’t light TV viewing by any means, but it’s not the kind of show that has been homogenised to the point of blandness either. It’s material that you can sink your teeth into, or take as it comes even if you do feel sometimes like you might be missing some of the point. How often can you say that about an anime, anyway? Ergo Proxy is ambitious, yes, and a bit of a paradox, but it’s also an awakening of sorts, another glorious example of not what anime is, but what it really can be.