Review: Ergo Proxy

This series is a bit hard to describe. Hmm…one sentence summary: Ergo Proxy is a psychological science-fiction suspense anime. It’s built around many philosophical threads that I don’t understand, but nevertheless gave me great satisfaction in following the mysteries as they were unravelled, and left me with many things to think about. In other words, don’t watch this if all you’re looking is brainless entertainment.

Ergo Proxy

In a future where humankind live in domed cities that protect them from the devastation caused by a global catastrophe, society is now completely managed such that all roles are determined, assigned and monitored by the state (think of the society that Gilbert Dullandal was trying to create in Gundam SEED Destiny, or the society in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World). Androids known as AutoReivs aid and accompany humans as their accomplish their assigned roles. However, AutoReivs have recently began to be infected by a virus called Cognito, which causes them to become self-aware (c.f. Descartes’s cogito ergo sum).

In the domed city of Romdu, Re-l Mayer is assigned to investigate a series of murders carried out by these infected AutoReivs, which threatens the utopia she lives in. Her investigation brings her into contact with a immigrant from a collapsed city, Vincent Law, as well as a being that city officials as secretly researching, known as Proxy. Re-l’s actions slowly bring her and Vincent closer to his past and the truth of the Proxies that alledgedly hold the future for mankind.

I would never have picked this title up had a friend not passed it to me maybe a year and a half ago. In typical fashion, I only watched it late last year. I now wish I’d dived in sooner, for this series is one of the most thought-provoking I’ve seen in years. It deals with many issues that affect Japan today and in the future: consumerism, immigration and discrimination, the increasing reliance of people on technology, the ethical dimensions of artificial intelligence – to name a few.

The last of these struck the deepest chord in me, and it was primarily manifested through the development of two infected AutoReivs. Iggy, Re’l’s entourage, is originally highly devoted to his partner and charge. Hiding his infection in order to remain beside Re’l, his raison d’etre, he is upset when he realises that she does not need him, and attempts to force her to stay by his side. Complications resulting in Iggy’s death/destruction lead Re’l to start thinking about and observing the effect that self-awareness, brought about by the Cognito virus, has on artificial intelligence. Her model for observation is the Companion-type AutoReiv that Vincent picks up during his journey, Pino.

Unlike most of the other infected AutoReivs, Pino represents a positive outcome of the Cognito virus. Having been bought by a couple as a substitute for a real daughter, Pino was effectively abandoned when her mother was finally granted the child she wanted (only for mother and baby to be killed in an incident involving the Proxies). Picked up by Vincent, she follows him when he leaves Romdu and begins travelling to find his past. Through her experiences in the community living outside the dome and subsequently with Vincent and Re’l, Pino slowly develops human characteristics and emotions, culminating in heartfelt drawings that she leaves as a message to her father. Whilst I usually hate the irritating, high-pitched sidekick character type, I found Pino incredibly endearing, especially when she started copying Re’l, showing the latter just how vain and dependent she was. In the end, Pino was effectively, if not technically, a human child.

However, this is a fictional story with a utopian – or perhaps, dystopian – futuristic society. I think that we are still many years away from the possibility of AI even half as advanced as the AutoReivs are. Many other texts, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Matrix Trilogy, have expressed doubts and fears about pursuing AI to the extent where it is capable of learning and improving itself. But if it can indeed be achieved, and if the possible outcomes actually form a dichotomy, should we back down simply because of the fear that it may turn out for the worst? I think most if not all scientists would prefer to keep it to a stage where learning is kept to a minimum. Nevertheless, the idea of a virus being able to confer a learning ability might increase the voices of the opposition.

The other issue raised, of course, is the treatment of androids and robots. Another interesting contrast that arises as Pino develops is just how human she seems – from the occassional wilful selfishness to the attachment she shows to Vincent – compared to the wallpaper humans that we left behind in Romdu. If we build them to resemble humans yet treat them as tools, will there come a point where we become as uncaring to our fellow people? Will there be a point where we have to think about android ethics, as in the society represented in Eve no Jikan? If we go by Ergo Proxy, maybe observing an AI that learns would cause us to think more about ourselves, encouraging us, perhaps, to realise what it means to be human.

Come to think of it, that’s somewhat like one of the messages in Hybrid Child…hmm… /tangent.

The notion of what it means to be human is what really captured my attention, but that is just one of various philosophical questions that Ergo Proxy brings up. And it is perhaps one of the more superficial questions raised in this anime. If I had tried getting my head around some of the meatier issues (such as the “debate about whether we become who we are because of our environment or because of things that are inherent in us”. Pino’s development is but one part of that theme.), I would probably be wondering why I even finished it in the end. In order words, one or more rewatches is likely. I highly recommend giving it a try – if only to see what you discover for yourself. 8/10

p.s. Seiyuu-wise, I was rather surprised by Yusa Kouji, whom I’d previously only heard as Ichimaru Gin in Bleach (and then only briefly). Vincent is a remarkably different character, and I really liked how his gravelly tone helped convey the resolved uncertainty of this protagonist. And Yajima Akiko is love as Pino.

About karice
MAG fan, translator, and localization project manager. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

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