Background: Years ago, I remember seeing a futuristic tale of warning about domed cities used by people on Earth to stay alive from the ravages of pollution and urban decay. The movie was called Logan's Run and it showed how such a city would require strict controls and near blind compliance to rules in order to work. Given the time the original trilogy it was based on was written, the environmental angle was commonplace and reminded us of how we all interact with each other on many levels, conscious or not. Today's review is of a title using a lot of the same themes, updated with modern sensibilities, to provide a fine opening volume of a series I got to check out all in one sitting (at least the first five volumes of the show) called Ergo Proxy: Awakening V1. Here is a quick look at the first volume, noting that I was as impressed with the technical matters here as I have been in a long time, giving me hope that corner cutting by companies has not stopped Geneon from providing a great little series I had absolutely no knowledge of previous to their shipping it last week:
Series: Ergo Proxy is set in a Utopian society of haves and have nots. The two main components of society are humans and androids, with some class distinctions among the humans according to citizenship. The goal of all people is to achieve citizenship which bestows a level of privilege and rights that are not universal. The androids, on the other hand, are provided to citizens to make life easier, the result of a capitalist society bent on consumption clearly promoted in all forms of promotion (from sidewalk billboards to advertisements stating how patriotic it is to use resources and a number of other subtler forms of communicating the idea presented as well). The show begins with this domed city of Romdo establishing a number of factors that differentiate it from our own world, though as much by what is displayed as by what is not shown openly. A shadowy form of centralized governance in the form of a small cabal of faceless bodies is in charge. This group is all knowing and all powerful, discussing aspects of what needs to be done as well as how to accomplish their goals. They typically use the android population to keep an eye out on people and take care of the mundane aspects of modern day life, the beings being largely autonomous and called auto-revs. Anyone of importance or in a position of authority has at least one of these devices assisting them, the general population unaware that they report anything of importance to the authorities (much like the TV sets of 1984).
One particularly well placed gal in the city is detective Re'l Mayer, the granddaughter of the most powerful city leader and a keenly witted gal rising up the ranks of the Civilian Intelligence Bureau. Her partner is Iggy, a slightly effeminate auto-rev that protects her from harm and allows her substantial leeway in her self initiative oriented investigations that land her in trouble from time to time. She is well aware of her status and uses it as needed to push others into giving her latitude to solve crimes, her Goth styled appearance striking compared to the bland manner in which most people present themselves. A full citizen, she can have someone detained on minimal evidence to further her goals in cases, the gal often displaying a level of contempt to anyone she considers to be a lesser endowed being, regardless of their economic or political status. The cyberpunk style of the first volume permeates the entire story, which tentatively begins with a failed experiment that lets a monster go free to kill mindlessly.
The freeing of the creature is thought to be the result of a random power loss experienced by the city but some are not so sure of this fact. In the ensuing rampage in public areas, the creature, called a Proxy, racks up an impressive death toll before disappearing, soon hunting down an immigrant of lowly status by the name of Vincent Law. Vincent is deathly afraid of the creature and security footage shows him running away from it in a public mall, eventually landing him in the sights of Re'l. For her part, it is clear that Vincent is simply a cog in the wheel and of little consequence, although he falls heavily for the young beauty during their encounter, sparking a later attack on her by a deadly creature that she thinks is the same one responsible for the many deaths the day before. As she investigates though, all the evidence is covered up and she is given orders to drop the matter, something she cannot do as her sense of moral duty goes beyond mindless compliance that others embrace as a means to stay under the radar of those in power. Everyone, including Iggy, try to convince her that the attack was simply her mind playing tricks on her, Vincent earning a spot on the most wanted list because of his unknown connection to the Proxy. The chief of the intelligence bureau, Raul Creed, is charged with finding the Proxy at all costs and his personal motivations remain unclear except that he will do anything to achieve his goals; even sacrifice Re'l if need be since no one is above being expendable in his eyes (a view shared by the council).
Countering Raul's zealous attitude is Daedalus Yumeno, Re'l's personal physician and the leading researcher on the Proxy project. He has insider knowledge of the entire city and how things work but even more than that appears to have been raised specifically to serve Re'l and head up the Civilian Public Welfare Bureau which does a lot more than is stated by the looks of the initial volume. As the series progresses, the connections between the major players shows a lot more than coincidence as Vincent crosses paths with auto-rev Pino; a key player in later episodes that starts off as a child replacement for a wealthy couple (who seek to replace her though Vincent initially thwarts this attempt as part of his official duties). In relatively little time, the heroine on the run dynamic begins, Re'l chasing down Vincent as a means of redemption but also to help solve a crime no one is willing to admit ever happened, much to her chagrin.
The first volume of the series began with the standard four episodes 1) Awakening, 2) Confession, 3) Mazecity, and Futu-Risk. As described largely above, the initial volume of episodes served to establish the world in which the players exist and the basic rules of conduct expected of them. The city leaders are secretive and can do as they like to whomever they like without consequence, considering the rest of the population expendable. Re'l figures in as an important player by virtue of her grandfather but also her expertise in solving crimes against the state, showing a lot of ability that would hinder the majority of the population as questioning is considering the province of the all powerful state. While Vincent is clearly infatuated with her, she holds him beneath her contempt so openly that she almost misses the clues that show he holds some kind of sway with the Proxy she hunts, making him a figure she needs to keep track of even when ordered to drop the matter. Her arrogance is part of her character but the result of her position and relations, soon to be tested as she continues to chase Vincent to get to the bottom of the mystery.
As an opening volume of a series, this was one I really liked more than I thought I would. It gets a bit heady during the metaphysical discussions taking place at council but as I saw more of the show, I found this to be the purest volume in terms of what it was presenting and where it was going. I'm sure I would have rated the limited edition volume higher but the lack of extras and double tiered release (which I hate by the way) of this bare bones version netted a Recommended or better for all it had going for it. The relative lack of color was part of the story as much as the impressive audio but the writing allowed for a lot of possibilities to be explored in the later volumes; making it all the more compelling to seek them out. The expendable nature of humans and androids alike set the stage for the introduction of the cognito virus (that gave androids self awareness; a dangerous concept in a world where compliance was demanded by all beings, living or not), leaving open the true nature of the Proxy and other ideas forwarded throughout the four volumes.
Picture: Ergo Proxy was presented in the same 1.77:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen color as shot by director Shuko Murase for airing on Japanese television last year. The show is definitely one of the darker themed anime releases of the last few years and the use of shades, textures, and darkness in the video aspects of the episodes all contributed to an almost claustrophobic feel. Due to the way some of the scenes were shot on purpose, there was some shimmer and visual issues at times but they were few and far between, with the pacing of the elements keeping me occupied too much to dwell on them. This is one of the latest examples of a show that could greatly benefit from one of the higher definition formats (HD or BR) for the increase in resolution though the drab nature of the episodes seemed to be by design rather than default. In this sense, the look of the show enhanced the thematic elements on a level that is rare in anime, making it a definite consideration for top lists of titles to pick up in my opinion.
Sound: The audio was presented with three choices; the original Japanese 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track, a corresponding English language dub, or a newly commissioned and enhanced 5.1 DTS English language dub, all with optional English language subtitles (all vocals and signs or just signs). Okay, like the way the visual elements were utilized to enhance the story elements, the audio was a similar case of providing some serious quality to the show. The bitrate of 448 Kbps was enough to make me smile but each track had something to offer me. The dub's DTS track had more depth, separation, and dynamic range than either of the others but all of them shared a level of high end quality that few releases in the genre have offered up (ever!). The fact that the dub voice acting was as good as the Japanese cast provided me some belief in the increasing care such tracks have been given by importing companies like Geneon. While some of the supporting cast wasn't quite as well handled, the leads in both versions struck me as worth listening to for their own merits, each providing a slightly different experience thanks to the way their stories were tailored a bit. The subtitles were easy to read, lasted onscreen long enough in most cases, and looked to have a different translation too which is a plus in my book. The moody music and sound effects also served the story well, so I have precious few complaints this time about the audio.
Extras: While the opening volume of the series had a special limited edition with reportedly solid extras, the rest of the series was limited to some trailers and a paper insert listing the tracks. Sucky extras on an anime DVD is nothing new but with a mere four episodes per volume in the series, I was left rolling my eyes at how a quality company like Geneon could drop the ball so readily on a series as great as this one started out.
Final Thoughts: Ergo Proxy was as solid an opening salvo in a deep anime series that I have witnessed in some time now. The marketing hype I've read aside, the use of audio, video, and writing all made this one a true pleasure to enjoy if you like darker themed shows like director Shuko Murase's previous efforts (Witch Hunter Robin being the most notable). What was the Proxy, why did it attack Re'l and chase Vincent, a nameless immigrant of little importance? Only time will tell but without spoiling the action too much for you, suffice it to say that everyone had their own agenda to follow and Ergo Proxy: Awakening V1 was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the series; a series I was lucky enough to watch the first five volumes of this weekend.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVD Talk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, Best of Anime 2005, and Best of Anime 2006 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.