Warning: This article contains major spoilers.

We are all god to someone, somewhere. Most of the time, we never realize it. We are also all a child of some god, somewhere, and most of the time we never realize that either. On watching Ergo Proxy in its new Blu-ray reissue, seeing it for the first time in years, I mulled over once again the same question I had the first time — what's this all about? — and that was the answer that emerged. This is a story about godhood claimed, godhood shirked, and humanity rediscovered, expressed in turns as SF dystopia, techno-thriller, post-apocalyptic elegy, and surreal post-modern black comedy. It is weird, maddening, and pretentious, but also trippy, brainy, ambitious, and one-of-a-kind, and for me the latter qualities go a long way towards leavening the former.

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Re-L Mayer dispatches another AutoReiv infected with the Cogito virus.

Everything's under control

Much of what makes Ergo Proxy special is how it begins in one relatively familiar place and ends up very, very far away from it while somehow retaining cohesion. It opens with a staple of dystopian SF, a self-contained city ("Romdo"), miles on a side, self-sufficient. It is the embodiment of that masterful phrase of Richard Brautigan's: "all watched over by machines of loving grace". A high standard of living is available for all, including intelligent android manservants ("AutoReivs"). The only cost is that you never go against the technocrats at the controls, and you never ask about what's outside the dome, let alone try to go there.

And as with dystopias, everything is in fact not under control. AutoReivs are being infected with something called the "Cogito Virus", which makes their AIs self-aware and causes them to ignore orders. Infected AutoReivs run wild. Some flee the city entirely; a few have even killed other citizens. On the case is Citizen Intelligence Bureau Inspector Re-L Mayer, grand-daughter of the city's Regent. Always sharply dressed and made-up, she's also always haughty, tightly wound, and secretly seething with contempt for the very city that gives her life, comfort, and protection. If something is indeed rotten in the state of Romdo, we have just enough of a hint from the outset that her reaction to it might not follow the script.

Alone in her apartment, Re-L is confronted by some kind of humaniform creature. Is this a "Proxy", one of the creatures that Romdo's administration has apparently been keeping in captivity and tinkering with? After it and another such monster attack her — and allows her to demonstrate she's pretty fearless with that pump-action weapon of hers — she finds her investigation stonewalled. Iggy, her AutoReiv, has his memory tampered with. Questions directed at her superiors, a collection of disembodied intelligences (are they even human?) are met with evasions and dismissals. Eventually she's taken off the case entirely. It wouldn't be a dystopia without censorship of word, thought, and deed, would it?

Re-L's investigations cause her to cross paths with Vincent Law, a young man who disposes of infected AutoReivs. Meek and unassuming, he at first seems to be more a victim than anything else — especially when one of the Proxies comes after him, and he's then marked for capture (and, it seems, termination) by the city's authorities. When Re-L pursues him to the edge of the city, he does the apparently unthinkable — he flees to the outside, where nothing but death and disorder are supposed to reign. Then she does something all the more unthinkable for herself: she follows him, and has the last delusions about her manicured little world swept away.

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Vincent Law escapes from Romdo to avoid both the authorities and the "Proxies" pursuing him.

... sorry, we lied about that

Outside the dome, the world is still a bleak and blasted landscape, but life does exist — in the form of little bands of humans who live off the trash dumped from Romdo. Re-L takes it upon herself to capture Vincent and bring him back to find out what he knows about the Proxies (for one, why they pursue him and him alone so relentlessly), but there's no question going EVA from Romdo has rejiggered her priorities.

Re-L and Vincent are joined by a third — Pino, a robot child provided as a surrogate for the real thing to Citizen Security Bureau head Raul Creed. Pino was set to be taken offline after Raul and his wife were granted permission to have a real baby, but somewhere along the way she was infected by Cogito. Now she is all the more like a real child — pesky, inquisitive, willful, tootling away incessantly on her toy melodica to the irritation of every adult around her. She latches onto Vincent as a sort of father figure, or maybe big brother, and cheerfully follows him outside of the dome to one of the refugee camps, where he finds solace of a sort, although more questions than answers.

From this point on, the story becomes increasingly arabesque and complex. When Re-L attempts to retrieve Vincent and Pino, she's injured when Raul launches his own attack on the camp where they are. Under the care of her doctor, Daedalus — whose concern for her evolves over time from boy-crush to sinister manipulation — Re-L learns the Proxies are not simply monsters, but beings whose existence is intimately connected with the survival of the human race in this wrecked world. After being declared legally dead, Re-L sets off with Iggy to find Vincent on her own and learn the truth — not just from him, but from all the other domes where Proxies held sway, and from all of the other little pockets and crevices in the earth where life somehow continues.

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Re-L uncovers one ugly truth after another.

Off the deep end

It's at around this point, somewhat before the halfway mark, that many viewers get frustrated or confused by Ergo Proxy. I counted myself as one of them, and a large part of that I attributed to the way the story seemed to be abandoning one story (female detective hunts truth of her cyber-future world) for another (three characters voyage through a surreal landscape). Still, I stuck with it, bewildered as I was by the way it evolved and concluded, and then wrote a review where I said something to the effect that it felt like a story written by four authors who had all been locked in separate rooms and forbidden from communicating with each other.

But it hadn't been produced like that, and I knew it. The whole thing had been written chiefly by screenwriter Dai Sato, he who also gave us so much of what was good about Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. All that was difficult and thorny about SAC, across both its seasons and through its Solid State Society film, were products of its complex but relatively conventional political thriller plotting, somewhere between Tom Clancy and William Gibson. Sato's work on Ergo Proxy, though, has been enhanced and leavened by other screenwriters — Yuko Kawabe, Naruki Nagakawa, Seiko Takagi, Jun Matsumoto — that push it into territory more akin to the existential drama and surreal farce of folks like Luigi Pirandello and Harold Pinter. This becomes doubly true as its main characters leave Romdo behind and find themselves confronted with the remaining Proxies, the bits and pieces of what life was like in each of the domes, and — most crucially — Vincent's personal demons.

What makes this last one so crucial is that Vincent is himself a Proxy, one with a peculiar history and a pivotal significance. A more conventional story, SF or not, would have just stated this last fact and been done with it. Ergo Proxy tries to accomplish something different: The more we learn about Vincent's origins and internal struggles, the more the storytelling itself distorts in reflection of his growing turmoil. We're not just witnesses to his uneasy state of mind; we're participants in it.

At first this is accomplished by way of encounters that are strange, but objectively coherent, as when Vincent encounters another Proxy, the overseer of a dome like Romdo. Vincent is at first unsure why he's the object of such interest, but it turns out he's the object of a kind of unrequited love, one stemming from his identity as a Proxy. Then there are episodes that don't seem to make any objective sense at all, as when Vincent and Re-L swap bodies, or when Vincent and Re-L experience the same life-endangering events over and over again with subtle differences. I was baffled, until I realized these too are attempts by Vincent to make sense of his newfound identity. They don't make objective sense, but they make subjective sense, in the same way a dream sequence would in a more conventional story. They provide him with situations that allow us to have far more of a sense of what he's really like than a mundane set of events would — yes, "mundane" even for a story like this.

And then there are episodes where the storytelling is maverick simply because it can be, but never without some ulterior motive. My favorite episode in this regard, "Who Wants To Be In Jeopardy!", seems at first to have nothing to do with anything: Vincent, Re-L and Pino are on the set of some bizarre gameshow where the stakes may be their lives. Then we realize the questions aren't arbitrary; they're details about the backstory for this world. The outlandish presentation is itself a strategy — it's not just another example of Vincent's unstable mind at work, but a way for the imparted information to take on a different flavor with the viewers than it might have if it had simply been dumped into our laps via a monologue or a flashback. It's first funny and goofy, then horrific.

Vincent isn't the only one who experiences things in this manner. Another episode places Pino in a Disney-like amusement park, "Smile Land," where she and a couple of cartoon-animal sidekicks confront the city's own architect. It's an attempt to get into Pino's head and show us how her thought processes are now just as fanciful as any child's. But another layer suggested itself, too: it's an allegory for the way all the domed cities in this world are managed experiences, cradle-to-grave theme parks of their own. That episode ends on a note of ironic joy, with the creator of Smile Land having an epiphany of his own, understanding at last real happiness is not something you can script or dictate. From everything we've seen of the way Romdo and the other domes are run, we know full well that's pure wish-fulfillment. Good for Pino, but not so good for us.

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Vincent, the "Ergo Proxy"; Re-L, the one determined to capture him with a little help from her android servant Iggy.

Life after god(s)

Even if the delivery of the story and the peculiarity of its format made more sense with a second viewing, I was still banking on its larger meaning to be tough going. But to my surprise, the what's-it-all-about of Ergo Proxy began to click a whole lot faster than I thought on this go-round — although to delve into that, I'll have to move irreversibly into spoiler territory.

We learn — by way of the gameshow episode, as well as other bits and pieces that surface — that after mankind's despoliation of the world, domed cities like Romdo were created to preserve what was left. The Proxies — near-immortal beings, very few in number — were created to watch over them all, and to provide mankind with comforts and gifts (such as the AutoReivs) to make life not just bearable but easy. But all this came with a built-in time limit: when the world outside the domes became habitable again, the Proxies were to die off, and mankind was to reclaim what it had lost. The bad news is that mankind has gotten very used to this managed state of affairs, with the Proxies as gods, and with mankind as gods to its servants (the AutoReivs) and even its own synthetically created citizens. (At one point Re-L encounters not only the artificial wombs used to engender Romdo's inhabitants, but her own replacement after she's been declared dead.)

What all this amounts to, then, is the exploration of a question: What happens to God's creations when God dies? And not just God in any one form, but in a whole slew of manifestations?

First example: the Cogito virus. When an AutoReiv is infected with it, it no longer obeys orders from humans (God is dead now to them) and flees the dome for a future with no certainty, but with freedom of thought and movement (Adam and Eve taste the fruit of knowledge and are expelled from Eden). But the story also knows better than to tell us such liberations always have happy endings. Iggy, Re-L's AutoReiv, becomes infected and conceals this fact from Re-L until he is unable to any longer. He still has feelings of devotion for her, but are those genuine, or simply artifacts from the time Re-L was his god(dess)? Is the rage that he feels towards Vincent for stealing her away from him also genuine? The conflict and torment he experiences, and the tragic way they're resolved, form one of the best episodes of the series. Likewise, Re-L is presented with the possibility of being able to kill Vincent, but by that point he is to her no longer just a mystery to be solved; he's a fellow being in pain, and killing him may create at least as many problems as it solves.

The Proxies themselves also figure into the dynamic of gods-gone-missing, and not in the obvious way. Yes, the Proxies are gods to the human race, but at the same time were created by humanity itself — and what happens when God discovers he's essentially a temp worker, set to be fired at the end of the season? Few of them are inclined to lie down and let things unfold as they must. Vincent is among those few, and his dilemma is not just that he's schizoid, having taken on the guise of an ordinary human in an attempt to shirk destiny. It's that he realizes his real mission is to become God's wrath and to wipe the earth clean of the human race that started this whole mess to begin with — and that the human race, for all of its limitations, annoyances, and stupidity, has that much more about it that's redeemable than any god.

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An ethical quandary: to destroy the allegedly indestructible Proxy, or to learn its secrets?

The Re-L thing

The whole God-is-dead, now-what? theme reflects through most every other character in the story as well. I've described how Vincent, Iggy, and Pino deal with their own respective existential crises. But I've said little about how Re-L Mayer, the story's putative protagonist, deals with all of it — and maybe that's because from the beginning she's not positioned as the sort of character to ever have an existential crisis in the first place. Her no-nonsense, all-business attitude is only briefly derailed when one of the Proxies crashes into her apartment (it's actually Vincent, an act that forms the first of many links between them), and the way she swings around that shotgun of hers, navigates Romdo's dead-end bureaucracy, and dons a hazmat suit to chase down Vincent in the wasteland and single-handedly bring him back all speak to her independence and self-assertion. This is someone who doesn't seem to have a god to lose in the first place.

Or does she? For one, there's Iggy, her AutoReiv companion. It answers to her and obeys all her orders with effervescent cheer, so it's easy to assume which direction the dependencies go in. But Re-L is as dependent on Iggy as it is on her — without him, she has that many less extra hands to get things done with, and one less source of ideas and perspective. And even when she is able to work around her dependencies on him, it's clear they're just manifestations of the other gods that rule her life — her grandfather, or Romdo's management, or Romdo itself. Technological civilization itself is her god, and in this world it has an expiration date. (How long would a straphanging New Yorker survive in the Amazon?)

The show's also not shy about showing how this attitude comes at the detriment of Re-L as a person generally. When Re-L, Vincent, and Pino light out for the territories in a little wind-powered skiff, Re-L tries to pretend she's still living at home — she wears the same makeup (and insists on Vincent taking Iggy's place to do her toilette), affects the same dress, gets annoyed when she can't enjoy showers of the same length as before. In a word, she's spoiled, and it takes more than just being pitched out of Romdo's Eden to get her to wise up. She has to also lose Iggy (another thing she can't live without) and share both suffering and joy with Vincent — and Pino, too — before she can get over herself. The wording of her thoughts at the moment of that epiphany — "I felt I could let myself smile" — are a hint: she's always been capable of this, but only now has given herself the freedom — spiritual, not only physical — to act on it. For her, the ultimate advantage of life without god (one of the episodes is named this, explicitly) is that it has given her an opportunity to be something other than a creature of the state's will, or a slave to her own predilections. It gives her the chance to be free not just from others, but from herself.

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Daedalus provides Re-L with the weapons to destroy the Proxies, but that doesn't make him Re-L's ally.

A happy accident

The more I think about it, the more I realize Ergo Proxy was produced entirely in spite of it being so edgy and groundbreaking; rather, it came into existence only because of a lucky confluence of market forces that existed at the time.

Director Shukou Murase came up with the original idea and Dai Sato and his writers fleshed it out, but it was Manglobe (Samurai Champloo) and Geneon (both its Japanese and then-extant U.S. arms) that funded the project and brought it to life. And from what Murase stated in an interview, they had "almost too much [creative] freedom" — there were no requirements to create something that could be merchandised, just an obligation to fill a pay-satellite broadcast slot and meet a DVD release schedule. (Cowboy Bebop was also lucky in this regard.)

I suspect having the U.S. arm of Geneon in on the deal was the key, since U.S distribution and TV broadcast was fast becoming one of the major ways anime could recoup its production costs. According to Justin Sevakis, such pre-emptive investments by a distributor, in exchange for a share of the rights, were a way to become part of something that might well become a hit. "I am extremely doubtful that any of those investments back then broke even," Sevakis wrote for his Hey Answerman! column, with Geneon's funding of Ergo Proxy being one such investment. "Throwing money at anime rights was basically a pissing contest. Nobody was making money."

Most every market for popular entertainment is driven by what sells. Anime has never been an exception, and I think a lot of why it's easy to think otherwise is because one culture's mainstream looks a lot like another culture's underground. (In the United States; Urusei Yatsura is high weirdness incarnate; in Japan, it's analogous to The Simpsons, as others have theorized.) All this makes Ergo Proxy doubly exceptional — it was odd and experimental even by Japan's standards, and the fact it exists at all was because it was financed as part of a panic of such projects in its time period.

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Murase's comment about "too much freedom" gives some ammunition to those who think Ergo Proxy is too self-indulgent and pretentious for its own good. Creative work produced in a commercial context inevitably has constraints imposed on it — length, subject matter, scope, contents. But those constraints can sometimes function in a positive way, by forcing you to deliver consistently and not wander too far off into the weeds. Nile Rodgers, the producer and musician who founded the seminal Seventies band Chic, once talked about this problem in an interview (as found in Behind the Glass: Top Record Producers Tell How They Craft The Hits, Howard Massey, Backbeat Books, San Francisco (2000), p. 183):

The old restrictions in [recording] technology forced us to do things right. It forced us to have to make decisions. It forced us to spiritually be so in tune with the other [musicians] that magic had to happen. It made you step up to the plate, whereas now, when I go to play on someone's record I feel uncomfortably free — and I almost hate that. ... In the old days, when a person hired me to work on a record, I had to get it right, right there. You had to play great, you had to be smokin', and there was no way that they could fix it and make it better.

The adjective Rodgers uses to describe all this is "pressureless". There's a sense throughout Ergo Proxy that the creators were pressured only by their own internal sense of what worked, commercialism be damned. I sometimes think a little more commercialism in the finished product might have helped — it would have allowed the story to be streamlined, provided with more focus and a more direct throughline. But then we wouldn't have had this Ergo Proxy, the one which for all its eccentricities and pretentiousness still reaches for something all its own and finds it.

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Pino: a robot child who becomes that much more the real thing.
Note: The products mentioned here were purchased by the reviewer with personal funds, or watched using the reviewer's personal streaming account. No compensation was provided by the creators or publishers for the sake of this review.

About the Author

Serdar Yegulalp (@GanrikiDotOrg) is Editor-in-Chief of Ganriki.org. He has written about anime professionally as the Anime Guide for Anime.About.com, and as a contributor to Advanced Media Network, but has also been exploring the subject on his own since 1998.