Human beings have been plagued with one particular question for the entirety of our written history: Why am I here?
Whether we seek it out in religion, philosophy, friends and family, our careers, or in a galaxy of other nuanced areas, our purpose has always been a source of controversy and conversation. Wherever you go to find answers, you’ll get a definition colored by social and cultural biases. As our collective civilization has evolved throughout the past millennia to be more interwoven and interconnected than ever before, this question has only seemed to grow in its scope. The more we uncover about the universe we inhabit, the more insignificant we seem to become; humanity perpetually exists within an existential crisis, which exhibits no signs of ever reaching a legitimate conclusion.
So what do we do with a question to which we have no definitive answer? How do we rectify our purpose on this Planet With the probability that whatever we do while we’re here, it will likely be utterly inconsequential? Can a life be fulfilling if it has no intrinsic value? What value can even be placed on life, whether individually or globally? And if we are so uncertain of our own purpose, how does that uncertainty translate into our idea of self – what makes you, you?
Well, for the French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes, this conflict was the lynchpin in his perpetual search for existential truth. While it is a gross oversimplification of his ideas and arguments, a Latin dictum quoted from his work is often used to summarize this exploration: “Cogito, ergo sum,” which is usually translated into English as “I think, therefore I am.”
Descartes posited that our ability to think cannot be separated from who we are, and that our capabilities to understand, imagine, desire, and doubt are the very things which make us real. By eliminating sight, sound, taste, and touch as sources of information, he proclaimed logical deduction is the true avenue for obtaining knowledge, writing “we cannot in the same way suppose that we are not while we doubt of the truth of these things; for there is a repugnance in conceiving that what thinks does not exist at the very time when it thinks.” Coming to serve as one of the central pillars of modern skepticism, this argument was expounded upon with greater clarity by the French poet Antoine-Léonard Thomas, in his 1765 essay on Descartes, in which he writes “Puisque je doute, je pense; puisque je pense, j’existe,” translated “Since I doubt, I think; since I think, I exist.”
So what exactly does all of this have to do with the 2006 anime series, Ergo Proxy? Well, pretty much everything.
After a cataclysmic disaster reduced the Earth to a wasteland unable to support life, humans have retreated to domed cities, isolated and detached. Within Romdo, a city existing as a segregated state between citizens and immigrants, humans and androids (known as AutoReivs) seemingly coexist peacefully as master and servant. However, as the series begins, the city is increasingly plagued by cases of the Cogito Virus, a contagious malfunction which grants self-awareness to AutoReivs, thus making them impossible to control. While this crisis mounts, and the city continues to masquerade as a cocooned utopian paradise, Romdo’s Regent and his Entourage pull strings throughout the various metropolitan bureaus in order to enforce their will.
In the midst of all this, Inspector Re-l Mayer of the Citizen Intelligence Bureau is tasked to investigate a series of murders supposedly committed by infected AutoReivs. While conducting her investigation, she is confronted in her home by a monstrous entity known only as a Proxy. Upon repeated interference by her higher-ups in order to cover up the truth, her path comes careening into that of Vincent Law, a man with a shadowy past whose pursuit by the Proxy draws the attention of Romdo’s elite. Re-l and Vincent’s combined actions set a series of events into motion which come to determine the fate of the human race, as well as explore the folly of humanity’s past.
But what drives these characters has little to do with the final throes of humanity’s story on Earth. They aren’t driven by altruism, or by a desire to right the wrongs of an unjust system led by egomaniacal sociopaths. They are here to understand their “raison d’être,” a popular French phrase literally translated as “reason for being.” And no, that’s not me injecting another heady concept in order to score points with the philosophy heads – the phrase is repeated ad nauseam, almost as if they’re afraid you’ll miss the point. But ironically enough, it isn’t when the theme is directly referenced by the characters when it resonates most, or even through the series’ titular character – we get the best experience through the effects of the Cogito Virus.
While every AutoReiv model follows basic programming according to their assigned roles, they all possess customizable personalities, referred to as Turing Applications. This is a reference to the Turing Test; a method devised by Alan Turing as “the imitation game” in 1950 to determine whether or not a computer is capable of human thought, and can be deemed an artificial intelligence. You’ve probably seen it in the likes of Blade Runner (1982), Ex Machina (2014), Westworld (2016), and Detroit: Become Human (2018). While those are more direct examples of the actual test, its reference here is to a program specifically designed to give these androids more human-like qualities. All of the human owners can turn the personalities off with a simple word command, as well as command them to do whatever they wish, within the parameters of their programing. Though, the moment the Cogito Virus infects an AutoReiv, these applications consume their whole being.
This has a two-fold effect. Firstly, this doesn’t remove their original programming, but interlaces these parameters with their personality, building the foundation for what each infected AutoReiv would consider to be their own raison d’être. Subsequently, the infected AutoReivs quickly disillusion, which triggers their own brand of existential crisis. This internal storm is best represented in Episode 13, “Wrong Way Home,” when Re-l’s entourage Iggy reveals he has been infected with the Cogito Virus since before they had left Romdo. While Re-l depends on Iggy, she still only views him as an object, as a tool. But for Iggy, his primary directive ensuring the safety of Re-l, evolves into full-blown jealousy and rage. When he’s given an opportunity to exercise his free will, he manages to range the spectrum; likewise treating Re-l as an object and locking her up for himself, while also eventually sacrificing his life to save her. When he wheezes his last words, we fully realize that his desire to protect Re-l kept him going, while also being the source of his greatest pain. This is the moment where Re-l sees Iggy as someone, and not just something, which is echoed in her relationship with Vincent, seeing beyond what he is merely revealed to be, so she can understand who he really is inside, and subsequently understand herself and her own purpose.
Now, I know I’m skimming through the sizable bag of tropes and themes which are explored throughout Ergo Proxy‘s 23 episodes, and therein lies both the appeal and the problem. There are so many elements at work within the narrative and in the series’ visual and audio motifs that the show is honestly overfull. I never thought I would say there’s too much philosophy at play here, but Ergo Proxy manages to throw everything and the kitchen sink into these characters’ search for purpose at the brink of extinction. And resultedly, the latter half of the series relies heavily on borderline metaphysical lectures, disguised as daydreams and nightmares. Though this is hardly the first anime to do this, what makes it unnecessary in this case is that the visuals already provide the debates being referenced.
Ergo Proxy is largely defined by its unique style and presentation. It uses muted color palettes to express the aimlessness of Romdo and its citizens, while earthier palettes on the outside of the dome spotlight the slow rebound of the world from its near-obliteration a millenia ago. Re-l’s edged character design and dark color scheme is made to be the antithesis of Vincent’s rounder design and richer colors, representing the contrast and compliment between the two. The Regent’s entourage, all named after famous philosophers and represented through classical statues, are responsible for the production and raison d’être of every citizen in Romdo, reigning as near-demigods over their citizens. You didn’t need all of them chanting Descartes in the finale for us to understand why they did what they did; it all comes out in how they interact with human subordinates, and how they behave when confronted with Proxy One.
However, that doesn’t mean I feel that we should shave all of the excess off. If anything, this show should have increased in scale. I read that back when Manglobe originally approached director Shūkō Murase, Ergo Proxy was little more than a plot outline of the first three episodes, concept art of Romdo, and a desire to make a futuristic thriller. Murase was quoted in Newtype USA saying that when he was constructing the series, “There was almost too much freedom,” which allowed him and head writer Dai Satō to dive deep into existentialism and gnosticism in ways that no other contemporary project would have probably allowed. But if that was the case, I feel that the series should have been expanded further, both in its visual and auditory complexity, as well as the narrative scope for the final acts.
While the thematic motifs are constantly expressed in the series visuals, that doesn’t mean that they are always successful. This is compounded when some scenes begin and end so abruptly, that you have hardly the time needed to process what exactly happened — while I know this can be seen as a reference to the fallibility of memory and cognition, which is often returned to within the series, it can also come across as simply choppy editing and overly-abbreviated storytelling.
While the latter half of the series operates under far more dream logic than the first half (sometimes literally), due to the tonal and visual consistency throughout, these creative decisions aren’t unprecedented. Whether it’s a game show being broadcast over a pirate signal, dishing out world-building exposition while threatening death regardless of who wins, or some Disney-esque fourth-wall shattering fever dream where a case is made for willful ignorance in the face of the end of the world. These moments have their strengths, but they are ultimately underutilized and can come across as somewhat half-baked, mainly due to the anemic narrative bridges linking these moments to the rest of the journey. I didn’t mind where we ended up, just that the road there wasn’t nearly as all-encompassing as it had the potential to be.
Ergo Proxy is a mixed bag, toying with a host of impressive ideas in a sleekly entertaining package. But for some, that isn’t enough to alleviate its shortcomings, with critics citing thematic superficiality and a weak narrative as its heaviest detractors. Now, while I do agree that Ergo Proxy can come across as a discount Texhnolyze with a dash of Serial Experiments Lain and The Animatrix, I’d advocate for the series as a solid example of how style can be used as substance. We are drawn in by the unique visuals and the eerie soundtrack, with the uncanny valley remaining one of the best tools available to the showrunners, most often used when exploring the Cogito Virus effects, as well as the various powers of each unique Proxy we face (with many drawing parallels to minor deities in human mythology). The anime manages to straddle the line between horror, tragedy, science fiction, and fantasy, and by the time we have finished our journey with Re-l, Vincent, and Pino, we feel as if we have experienced the length and breadth of an entire story. We are missing many pieces which would have served the story better (especially when the show starts using a “loss of time” mechanic to explore Re-l’s mental trauma), but there is also enough here to ensure that Re-l and Vincent’s character arcs are complete – they find and accept their raison d’être, despite how the rest of the world wishes for them to act.
Though I will also agree that the ending of Ergo Proxy clearly sets up the possibilities of a sequel season, and the fact we never got one is yet another missed opportunity. But regardless of what it could have become, Ergo Proxy remains a snapshot of mid-2000s anime, when experimental filmmakers were given numerous opportunities to explore themes and formats normally considered to be unmarketable or downright unprofitable. While I can empathize with those who write off the show for being somewhat pretentious, I am more firmly in the camp which praises the series for what it managed to accomplish.
Ergo Proxy makes the point that no one can choose who they’re born as. But when your initial purpose leaves you, you seek another purpose. You seek a greater personal truth which gives you back the meaning you’ve lost, regardless of what you need to sacrifice within yourself in order to attain it. And while Descartes was the foundation from which the series structured its story and thematic debates, a quote from the novelist Samuel Beckett, at the end of his 1953 novel The Unnamable, seems to fit the tone of the show’s final moments, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”