Ergo Proxy is a highly experimental show, and just like all shows of that kind it always divides the viewers into two camps: while the ones enjoy its complex story and thought-provoking symbolism, the others fiercely criticize it for "pretentiousness" or simply scratch their heads in perplexity, wondering what this whole thing is supposed to mean.
As for me, I firmly believe this is an amazing series with no exaggeration about it, and with this review I'll try to explain you why. Since the anime has a site description you can always read, allow me to skip further introductions and get straight to business.
Obviously, the most contentious part of Ergo Proxy. The story and the method of storytelling this anime employs are highly unusual, and that is by far the main reason why quite a number of people dislike it. However, I think this story does not "pretend" to be clever - it is clever indeed. Moreover, it makes Ergo Proxy one of the most clever series I've ever watched.
First of all, the story at the core is a journey of self-discovery, hence the main idea is pretty simple yet great, at least as I comprehend it: you should find your own way instead of being somebody's follower or lower-rank copy ("proxy"); for that you should realize who you are, what you live for and how the real world looks. The anime certainly makes you ask important questions and reflect on your own life, and that always counts as a great quality in my book.
Second, Ergo Proxy is a highly experimental show as it presents a diverse mix of genres: cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic, sci-fi, action, mystery, drama, psychological mindf*ck, road movie and even a bit of comedy, romance and slice of life. Consequently, it results in a very unorthodox narrative full of plot twists & genre switches that many viewers disliked as they felt trolled and confused while watching. Well, I do understand those complaints: it is indeed very unusual, confusing at times and probably not to everybody's liking. Besides, one may argue that the anime goes a little too far with experiments in episodes 15 and 19 which makes them too different from the rest in their style. Perhaps, the show could've done better without those two, as it would've also made the 2nd half of the series more compact to provide better pacing and better build-up for the ending.
Aside from that fairly tolerable issue, the plot is very well-written & coherent despite its complexity, and the credit for that goes to Dai Sato - the author of the original story and one of the best Japanese scriptwriters who also participated in writing scripts for Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. In fact, it still makes me wonder how he and his team managed to weave all those genres and events into one logical & continuous plot. So, not only those swings & changes are very interesting and uncommon but they also don't exist there just for the sake of it - instead, they actually form the story, with each episode adding something brand new to the plot & character development, and that's amazing indeed.
However, the main reason why this anime seems unintelligible to so many people probably lies in its third peculiarity which is the astounding number of symbols & allegories employed: almost every single name & situation is allegoric and requires your interpretation to get the whole story. Moreover, not only those allegories turn out relevant & contributing to the plot but also extremely diverse, referring to Greek mythology, Descartes' philosophy and Shakespeare's plays among other things. No doubt, the high degree of symbolism is what makes the series quite a riddle at times; yet it is in fact a very entertaining and well-thought-out riddle where every element serves its purpose to convey the show's message, and I personally had lots of fun deciphering it.
With all those complex aspects the story never turns into pretentious nonsense or something really incomprehensible because it actually answers most questions, though often in roundabout and not obvious ways. That means it just demands a little more attention than in your average series, and if you pay it, you get it. Well, I don't consider myself an intellectual and yet I understood almost everything from the first viewing. There were a couple of moments I didn't grasp but it took me 3 minutes (!) to use google, click the first link and read an insightful explanation that satisfied me.
And even if you don't get something it's not a reason to dislike the show - it is actually a great motivation for you because this anime is highly rewatchable, and during every viewing there will be new discoveries that will enrich you.
ANIMATION & SOUND
Ergo Proxy's art style is easily recognizable for its omnipresent dark colors and realistic yet unusual character designs that give the series a westernized & very artistic look. The animation quality is great except for a considerable inconsistency in character drawing, and the style fits like a glove although some viewers may need time to get used to its murky appearance.
The music is a number of ambient tracks by Ike Yoshihiro, a U2-esque opening theme by Monoral and an ending song by Radiohead. All the tracks are nicely composed to create the engrossing and mysterious atmosphere of the series, and even those who dislike the show agree that the soundtrack is simply amazing.
The voice-acting is also very well-done as the voices perfectly fit the characters, and the seiyus did a very good job at conveying emotions.
To sum up, the production values are impressive indeed, and the style is memorable & totally appropriate for the show.
Well, Ergo Proxy is an anime about self-discovery, hence its primary focus lies on the characters and their development. The main difference from other shows of this kind is that the story for the most part doesn't emerge from characters' actions & choices - rather, the characters are put into an already crafted plot full of twists & symbols mirroring their inner conflicts, and they receive development while going through this labyrinthine plot & unraveling its mystery step by step. As a result, you get a story-driven series with strong emphasis on the characters, which looks paradoxical on paper yet works surprisingly well in reality, being one of the most original aspects of the show.
The other interesting aspect is how the characters don't feel overblown in any way. Unlike many other series that endow each character with one or two exaggerated features (extreme cuteness, extreme coolness etc.), often at the cost of everything else, Ergo Proxy successfully avoids that common pattern by presenting a trio of very well-balanced protagonists in Re-l Mayer, Vincent Law and Pino:
- Re-l is a confident, no-nonsense investigator with very good analytical and shooting skills which, however, don't exceed the capabilities of a trained person and thus don't make her an invincible action hero or an omniscient genius. At first, she acts rather cold towards others (Vincent in particular) because she's a bit spoiled by her social position and because the circumstances demand her to be on guard all the time. However, as the show goes on Re-l changes quite a bit, and it becomes evident that she's a perfectly normal girl with normal human emotions. Also, she's very attractive but not oversexualized which is indeed an extreme rarity for this medium;
- Vincent lost his memories and a huge part of his identity with them, so he feels an obvious lack of confidence... and yet he knows how to repair things, how to hold a weapon and shoot, and despite acting very shy at the beginning he embarks on a dangerous & often bewildering journey of self-discovery and gradually develops into a completely different person by the end of the series. So, he ain't some useless angsty teenager typical for anime - rather, he is a very kind and helpful guy who wants to learn the truth about himself. His angst never feels overblown to the point where it gets annoying, and his development throughout the story is truly one of the most fundamental I've ever seen;
- as for Pino, she's an autoreiv that accompanies Re-l & Vincent, providing some nice examples of man & machine interaction as well as some lightheartedness to compensate for the grim & serious setting. She is an awesome & very lovable character who at the same time never gets sickeningly moe because she acts like a normal girl of her age and not some typical loli you often see in anime.
Also, the show has one more protagonist i.e. Ergo Proxy, but the identity & role of that guy is a huge spoiler so I can't tell you anything about him - you'll have to learn it yourself.
Overall, I would say that the right balance in characterization and the natural step-by-step development is what makes the protagonists very realistic, and while there may be people who don't like it because they find the characters "boring" (or not extreme enough in comparison to other series) I really enjoy this approach. What I enjoy no less is that the supporting cast receive a great share of development as well, with Raul Creed, Daedalus, Hoody and Iggy being the most outstanding examples.
So, in general the characterization is great, and even if you don't find the cast that interesting at first, just give them some time and see it for yourself.
Perhaps, the story could do better without a couple of questionable episodes, and the character drawings could be more consistent. Therefore, I can't really call this show a flawless masterpiece. However, I will easily give it an excellent rating and with lots of pleasure take it to my personal top-10.
My final advice for possible newcomers is simple: if you look for some lighthearted entertainment with J-pop, sugoi, ganbatte, tomodachi, squealing voices and bright haircolors, stay away from this anime as you will only waste your time. The same is if you look for an action-driven series because action is not the focal point of Ergo Proxy.
However, if you look for a compelling story, if you are not afraid of a certain intellectual challenge, if you are open-minded and able to keep attention for 23 episodes, I highly encourage you to watch this show. Of course, I can't guarantee you will like it as much as I do, but I'm pretty sure you at least won't regret it.