That was it? (Ergo Proxy: A commentary)

Lil Meyer dressed in black pointing her gun at the camera while standing in the stairwell of a decrepit apartment building

Seriously, that was it? I can’t believe I watched all 23 episodes of Ergo Proxy and by the end I was still waiting for the story to start. “Underwhelmed” would be the best word to describe my feelings.

All right, that’s unfair. The series was pretty interesting in the beginning and had great potential at successfully combining philosophical ruminations with narrative cohesion, like The Matrix. By the end, though, it turned into a mishmash of disjointed plot points pasted together with pretty visuals. Which isn’t to say that it was bad, exactly, but how could they have spent so much money on the visual effects and still not manage to make a satisfying climax for the story? Remember the structure of the three act play, people: Introduction, Rising Action, Climax, and Denouement. Yes, those four parts fit into three acts.

Anyway, in case you’re still reading and have no idea what I’m talking about, Ergo Proxy is a Japanese cartoon show, or anime, that delves into themes of continuity, memory, and the meaning of life while depicting its story with a cyberpunk-inflected aesthetics.

I know, the phrase “the meaning of life” probably set off alarm bells for a lot of you out there. So is this another story where the angst-ridden protagonists agonize over their raisons d’être (and dear god, I had no idea it was possible to use that phrase as many times as it’s used in Ergo Proxy)? Boy howdy, is it ever. Couldn’t we just go with Sartre’s ideas on the matter? Not that I actually think we are vomited into existence, exactly, but if more stories began with the assumption that the purpose of life is to find the purpose of life–or rather, to create that purpose for oneself—then there would be less narrative repetitiveness for a while. Maybe.

But, I digress. As I was saying, Ergo Proxy is about the search for meaning in a dystopian world constructed from the ashes of an (the?) apocalypse. The shining domed city of Romdo has been created to protect its human inhabitants from the harsh environment outside, while robotic servants/overprotective mothers known as Autoraves keep the political environment inside the dome nice and non-revolutionary.  Who wants change when everyone has a personal slave? The people of Romdo are continually exhorted by giant signs 1984-style to strive for the model of good citizenship; by and large the general populace sucks up this message, especially since the Autoraves do most of the work anyway.

Autorave humanoid robot kneeling with its hands clasped in front of it while staring beseechingly into the sky as if in fervent prayer

However, two things threaten this delicate balance. First is the Cogito virus, which grants self-awareness to all infected Autoraves (at the moment of infection they gain an expression of bliss and start praying to heaven—clearly these robots are Protestant as indicated by their style of prayer). Second is the mysterious monster known as the Proxy, which the government of Romdo desperately searches for with feverish intensity after having the creature escape their clutches.

The story begins when Lil (a.k.a. Re-l, a.k.a. Real) Mayer, a police detective, is assigned to investigate several murders which might have been committed by an infected Autorave. She meets Vincent Law, a technician responsible for hunting down those defective robots. Yes, the initial story is very Blade Runner. Of course, it’s not a robot at all but the Proxy which is committing the killings. When Lil’s apartment is attacked by the Proxy, the government quickly pins the blame on the luckless bystander Vincent Law in its cover-up—a perfect scapegoat since he is also an immigrant and still not a full citizen.

However, it turns out that Vincent is actually connected to the Proxy somehow, and after a series of escalating disasters, he leaves Romdo in search of answers with Pino, an infected Autorave with the form and childish personality of a young girl, and later he is joined by Lil and her Autorave Iggy. They escape Romdo and make their way through a devastated wasteland punctuated by crumbling outposts of civilization. They also come across more clues to Vincent’s mysterious past.

What is interesting are the names of everyone’s Autoraves. Lil’s grandfather, the ruler of Romdo, has robots named Husserl, Lacan, Berkeley and Derrida among his ruling council, while the Security Director’s robo-aide is named Kristeva and the head scientist guy has two (female-shaped) robots named Deleuze and Guattari. Almost all of the Autoraves with names, then, belong to the leaders of Romdo, except for Dorothy, Vincent Law’s companion, Lil’s Iggy, and of course Pino. Therefore, Romdo’s rulers are served by robots named after philosophers and theorists. In light of the fact that Autoraves do most of the grunt work in the city, it would be fair to say that Romdo is actually ruled by philosopher-kings, as described in Plato’s Republic.  And like Plato’s Republic, Romdo’s government is rather grim and totalitarian.

Later Iggy gets infected with the Cogito virus while protecting Lil from rabid robots and has to be put down in a scene strongly reminiscent of the ending of Ole Yeller. Finally, the exiles return to Romdo to have it out with the mysterious conspiracy pulling strings behind the scenes (there’s always one in these types of stories). It’s revealed that some humans escaped into space centuries before and are now returning to wipe out the mutant freaks left behind—which from their perspective is pretty much everyone—and then get things back together. So basically the whole series is set in the Protestant vision of the Rapture, like the Left Behind series with robots. Lil and Vincent vow to kick settler ass and the curtain falls on this little drama. Das Ende.

Trust me, it was entirely muddled and I rather wish I’d watched something else. I think at the time I watched it I was procrastinating on writing my Master’s thesis. The whole thing hinted at depth while never really explicating its inchoate gesturing towards philosophical insight. Verdict: do not want.

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