Background: One of the problems with reviewing a bunch of volumes in a particular series is that many observations made apply to more than a single volume of the series. This is akin to reviewing chapters of a book as individual entities rather than part of a greater whole. Aside from season sets that come out sometime after the conclusion of a series (often long after), this can't be helped as most anime production companies have found the ability to market shows contrary to accepted practices in DVD (where season sets and complete series releases rule) to be more profitable and allowing a series to be at least partially self financing. Particularly hard hit are shows like Ergo Proxy where the metaphysical aspects of the show make it a tough nut to crack with the future speak language mixing in with the sometimes confusing concepts bandied about, making reviewing it bit by bit a difficult experience if other reviews are any guide. Thankfully, Geneon sent us the first five volumes all at once and with one left to go, I took a glance at Ergo Proxy: Terra Incognita as part of my weekend anime marathon.
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. Thus ended Volume 1 of the show with Vincent inspiring the headstrong Re'l to chase him outside the safety of the domed city to a place where she had been raised to believe was a desolate wasteland where nothing could survive thanks to the events of a long, long time ago. Then in Volume 2, Re'l and Vincent were seem out of the city in the potentially deadly environment of the outside world and Volume 3 where Vincent goes on a side trip to discover more about himself while the city crumbles at the hands of those in charge; all making the series a more complex offering than is standard for an anime release. In Volume 4 though, the trip to Mosko (probably meaning Moscow) nearing an end, the trio of travelers find a lot of pit stops along the way teaching them about themselves; stripped of the mannerisms built up in years of their sheltered lives in the domed city of Romdo.
The episodes in that volume dealt mostly with betrayal by those that were otherwise beyond approach, sparking off an internal warning about the nature of the problems facing the city. The team is then attacked by one another yet the patterns of behavior suggest that something is amiss more than a true change in personality, leading Vincent and Re'l to figure out that they are taking part in something outside of their relationship going on. The series really took a turn for the bizarre when Vincent ended up on what amounted to a game show where answering questions correctly would yield benefits while getting them wrong could prove fatal; the up side to this one being that a lot of background information about what happened to Earth and the Proxy matter were covered in depth. The volume ended with the trio being stranded when the lack of wind to power their ship keeps them stationary for an extended period of time. As the supplies dwindle, changes in Re'l and Pino serve to show that they are both becoming exactly the types that would endanger the city's stability; making the quest they are on all the more important as they all pray for a way out of their desolate (and desperate) location.
The episodes in the recently released fifth volume were 17) Terra Incognita, 18) Life After God, 19) Eternal Smile, and 20) Goodbye Vincent. After a great deal of traveling the wastelands of Earth, the trio finally arrives at Mosko, finding it to be a lot different than anticipated. Keeping in mind that the leaders of Romdo have kept all information about foreign locations under strict blackout, they weren't sure what would be waiting for them but what they find is unexpected to the point that they question their entire journey, forgetting that their own episodes of self discovery where not tied to the destination so much as the trip itself. Vincent had been hoping that seeing his birthplace would restore his memories but when he still doesn't find all the answers he was looking for, he gets depressed, the information about how life on Earth had arrived in this precarious state upsetting to both Vincent and Re'l. Then, much like the game show episode from last time, the series delves into an episode centered in an amusement park. While the surface of this place seems innocuous enough, it is only a matter of time before the truth comes to light how they are all in danger from more than their fears as in the past. The volume then closes out with a nod to the proxy threat with Vincent making the decision about his future path that leads him to complete the circle started by his abandonment of Romdo.
Okay, if you have seen the previous volumes in the series, you'll know that I liked them a lot with few exceptions and my biggest complaint has been the lack of extras that I felt held the series back. As such, I rated the show as Recommended with the caveat that the limited edition of the initial volume was probably meritorious of a higher rating but not having seen it, I reserve my judgment since speculation on the matter isn't fitting for this review. The trio have shown that every opportunity presented them results in new discoveries about themselves, their situation, and the deteriorating state of affairs on the planet (at least in Romdo), albeit in obscure ways more often than not. Unlike so many series that go for the cheap fight per episode routine or cloak themselves in some sanctimonious ecological BS, Ergo Proxy is deeper and covers more ground. The last volume comes out in a few months and that will tell whether the series truly ends on a high note or not but given the quality the show has exhibited to date, I think a full boxed set would be a great buy at some point in the near future for those of you wanting to see it all at once (which is the best way to see this kind of show, although preferably with friends that you can discuss it with).
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 slipped into the fifth volume of the series with Ergo Proxy: Terra Incognita providing a look at what the trio does when finally arriving at their destination. While things look bleak for them, they have uncovered enough to understand that their return to Romdo is inevitable and likely apt to change the status quo to the point where they will be hunted down mercilessly by those in charge. I have not seen or heard anything about the series ending (staying away from any such discussions to avoid spoiling it for me) just as I have tried to describe some of the highlights of these last five volumes with minimal spoilers myself but I sense that the ending will be worthy of discussion at length given the manner in which each of the trio on the quest have evolved over the course of their portrayal in the series. The writing is key to this kind of anime more than the technical matters but I have to admit that it looked and sounded really well made too; a perfect candidate for release in a high definition format that would enhance it all the more (and prove worthy of a double dip). Give this one a look after watching the previous volumes, noting that it is a thinker's anime not meant for the kids.
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.