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Therefore I am
A UK region 2 DVD review of ERGO PROXY, VOL. 1: AWAKENING by Slarek
 

To describe Ergo Proxy as a dark, futuristic drama is to be imprecise in a genre that has seen more than its share of dark futuristic dramas, but will at least provide a starting point for those with an interest in this particular anime sub-genre. Many of the elements have the comfort of familiarity, from the favourite theme of individuality verses the state to a narrative that isn't prepared to wait for stragglers and demands serious concentration to initially make sense of. There's even a gun-toting female cop, a governmental conspiracy and murderous mutations thrown into the mix. And there are androids, androids that are becoming self-aware and breaking free of human control. Blade Runner, anyone? But Ergo Proxy has its own distinctive and thoughtful take on these building blocks. And Ergo Proxy has style.

At an unspecified future date when the planet has suffered severe environmental deterioration, the citizens of the domed city of Romdo live a comfortable but essentially sterile and emotionless existence. There is tight control over the population level and androids known as AutoReivs make up much of the workforce gap that such a policy has created and just about every citizen of Romdo appears to own one. They have a generic, featureless appearance that can be tailored to provide a specific function – a female companion for the lonely male or a young daughter for an as-yet childless mother. Many serve as assistants in a professional capacity, medical orderlies for doctors or a driver and researcher for a police detective. These personal AutoReivs are known as Entourage.

But in the manner of such things, at least as they play out in sf films and literature, problems have developed. A cogito virus is infecting an increasing number of AutoReivs and is causing them to achieve self-awareness and flee the city by an as-yet undiscovered route. A bigger problem exists in the shape of a powerful and dangerous creature known as a Proxy, which has escaped from a government laboratory and is at large somewhere in the city, its existence known only to a select and secretive few in positions of power. The trouble is that it occasionally pops up and kills people, and keeping it hushed up is becoming increasingly difficult.

Re-l (pronounced Reh-El) Mayer, a hard-nosed but beautiful female Intelligence Bureau detective, knows nothing of the Proxy, that is until it drops through her bathroom ceiling. Rather than kill her it wipes her lip and sheds a tear before being attacked by a second proxy, one that Re-l herself caught a brief glimpse of earlier that day. Re-l escapes with her life but her colleagues disbelieve her story, dismissing it as panic-induced hallucination and blaming the whole thing on Vincent Law, a timid immigrant worker for the AR Processing Facility who has a bit of a thing for Re-l (understandable, as it happens) and who was found unconscious at her apartment block the evening of the encounter. Initially confused and frustrated by this response, Re-l suspects a widespread conspiracy to cover up the attack and her account of it, something that extends to the control of her own loyal AutoReiv, Iggy. Temporarily relieved of her duties pending a favourable psychiatric report, Re-l decides to investigate the incident herself.

As you can see, there's a lot of plot to cope with and I'm just giving you the first episode basics here. I haven't even mentioned Romdo's all powerful City Administrator, Regent Donov, who is Re-l's grandfather and the only reason she's able to walk around unmolested following her encounter. Then there's the new head of the Security Bureau, Raul Creed, who's been charged both with the job of capturing the Proxy and keeping its existence and that of the cogito virus from spreading to the general populace. It's also worth mentioning that Romdo is a heavily controlled society in which Citizens have a higher status than the lowly immigrants, who aspire to citizenship but are forced to live in communities away from the general populace.

And then there's Pino, a 'Pet-Model' AutoReiv with the appearance of a pre-teen girl, a substitute daughter for Raul's arrogant wife and whose function is due to change now that the Department of Welfare and Human Affairs have permitted her owner to have a real child. Interesting in her own right (particularly in the way her human characteristics can be switched on and off by her owner), Pino soon becomes one of the series' most intriguing characters, particularly when a Proxy-caused mall massacre leaves her ownerless and she hooks up instead with the terrified Vincent, who for reasons unknown has become the main target of the second Proxy's predatory fury.

I could go on. Plotted with a density that would leave most live action genre pieces at the starting gate (the combined running time of the four episodes here is that of an average feature), the narrative complexity is enhanced by a scholar's attention to detail, from technology that feels logically developed from present day hardware to the almost sleight-of-hand delivery of key character and plot information. There are also a number of engagingly suggestive throwaway moments, like when the letters of Vincent's alphabetic breakfast cereal surface to form a word that Re-l will soon find scrawled on her bathroom mirror, or the almost subtextual references to major philosophers and thinkers, from René Descartes to Alfred Turing. Much of this becomes evident only on a second viewing, something I'd recommend anyway to fully clarify the initial plot complexities of the first episode.

The animation is unexceptional, although there is a seamless integration of computer and hand-drawn imagery and a nice use of field depth and focus-pulls. The design, however, is distinctive and atmospheric, the dark industrial landscape often drained of primary colours, and Re-l is given the rare distinction for a female anime character of being geometrically correct whilst retaining that favourite generic mix of beauty and lethality. The sound design adds much to the dystopian aura, whilst Yoshiro Ike's music, all ominous notes, repeated electronic rhythms and Gregorian chants, contributes greatly to the show's dark design. It even has Radiohead's Paranoid Android over the end credits.

Opinion in anime fandom is a little divided on later direction the show takes, but I'll reserve judgement until I see the episodes in question, and see them I'm keen to do. The influences are obvious – Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, Orwell's 1984, Asimov's I, Robot and Huxley's Brave New World are just five of several – but Ergo Proxy uses some familiar tools to carve a distinct identity of its own, and although episode 4 may not have ended on a narrative cliffhanger, I still let out an audible groan when it came unexpectedly to an end. Roll on volume 2.

Volume 1 includes the first four episodes: Awakenings, Confession, Mazcity, Futu-risk.

sound and vision

The anamorphic 1.78:1 picture has to cope with some unusually dark scenes for an anime series, a problem amplified by the restricted colour palette. It does well here, retaining black level solidity but keeping the detail clear. It's hard to be sure of this is an NTSC to PAL conversion or has been pulled directly from the HD master – the usually giveaway double-image freeze frames are there, but only some of the time, and the animation style itself can create such effects.

Soundtrack-wise you have a choice between Japanese Dolby 5.1 surround, English Dolby 5.1 surround and English DTS 5.1 surround and there's sonically little to choose between them, so it all comes down to personal preference. Separation and surround work are both very good, and the bass kicks when it needs to. The English dub is pretty good, but the characters have a little less gravity than on the Japanese track.

The subtitles are pretty much dubtitles, matching the English track almost word-for-word, although sentences are compressed for easy reading. As with volume 1 of Speed Grapher, the Japanese curse "shit" has been downgraded to "dammit."

extra features

Keywords of Ergo Proxy (3:32)
One of two featurettes made to build up anticipation for the first Japanese TV screening. Narrated in a hyper-enthusiastic style that will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in front of a TV in a Japanese hotel room, it uses some of the key words from the series – Romdo, Cogito, Proxy – as a springboard for a busy teaser. It has it's amusing side, as when our narrator cheerily informs us that Iggy "speaks in a manner as if he were gay!" It's an indication of the cultural and technological differences in our two cultures that the series was broadcast back in February 2006 in full HD with 5.1 sound.

Behind the Scenes (4:32)
Part 2 of the above with the same excitable narrator, but including a tour of the Manglobe animation offices and a brief interview with shade-wearing director Shokou Murase.

English Staff Interview (32:24)
A slightly misleading menu title for what is actually a US Staff Interview with English language voice director Jonathan Klein and English version script editor Taliesin Jaffe. A thoroughly likeable and knowledgeable pair, their considerable enthusiasm for the series is informed and infectious and I found myself agreeing with them on many things, including their choice of favourite character. One to watch after the main feature (there are plenty of spoilers otherwise), this is an engaging extra that runs for a decent length.

Clean Opening (ep 1 & 2) (3:09)
Textless opening sequences for the first two episodes.

Promotional Trailers
Cinema and TV-spot style trailers for the series, consisting of Full Version (3:34), Half Version (0:32) and Quarter Version (0:17).

Commercials
Similar to above but for the DVD release. Again the three included are Full Version (1:44), Half Version (0:32) and Quarter Version (0:17).

Galleries
Rolling galleries of character drawings, including sketches, featured large to fill the widescreen frame. These are genuinely interesting and are subdivided as Characters (2:17), AutoReivs (0:32), Props (1:36) and Romdo (1:10).

Trailers
The usual trailers for other MVM releases, in this case the American one for Speed Grapher (1:26) and the Japanese for Gun Sword (1:37). Both are weak sells.

summary

Another worthwhile adult anime series makes it to UK DVD. If you're a fan of future imperfect science fiction then Ergo Proxy should be right up your street and has enough style and ideas of its own to ride out the borrowings. MVM's DVD is a very good one, with a strong transfer, a well mixed soundtrack and an above-average collection of extras. Recommended.

Ergo Proxy
Vol. 1: Awakening

Japan 2006
103 mins
director
Shuko Murase

DVD details
region 2 UK
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby surround 5.1
DTS surround 5.1
languages
Japanese
English
subtitles
English
English signs only
extras
Behind-the-scenes featurettes
US staff interview
Clean opening for episodes 1 & 2
Trailers
Commercials
Galleries
distributor
MVM
release date
6 August 2007
review posted
10 August 2007

Related articles
Ergo proxy, Vol. 2 DVD review
Ergo proxy, Vol. 3 DVD review
Ergo proxy, Vol. 4 DVD review
Ergo proxy, Vol. 5 DVD review
Ergo proxy, Vol. 6 DVD review

See all of Slarek's reviews