If you knew someone was dangerous, would you stop them? If someone you care for is guilty, can you condemn them? In today’s review I look at a world where you no longer need to think about right or wrong, and anyone that might hurt you is put away before they can.
Title: Psycho Pass
Original airing: October 12th, 2012 to March 22nd, 2013
Studio: Production I.G
Duration: 23 minutes per episode
Genres: Action, Psychological, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Where I watched: FUNimation (English dub)
Brief Synopsis and First Impressions
Justice, and the enforcement of it, has changed. In the 22nd century, Japan enforces the Sibyl System, an objective means of determining the threat level of each citizen by examining their mental state for signs of criminal intent, known as their Psycho-Pass. Inspectors uphold the law by subjugating, often with lethal force, anyone harboring the slightest ill-will; alongside them are Enforcers, jaded Inspectors that have become latent criminals, granted relative freedom in exchange for carrying out the Inspectors’ dirty work.
Into this world steps Akane Tsunemori, a young woman with an honest desire to uphold justice. However, as she works alongside veteran Enforcer Shinya Kougami, she soon learns that the Sibyl System’s judgments are not as perfect as her fellow Inspectors assume. With everything she has known turned on its head, Akane wrestles with the question of what justice truly is, and whether it can be upheld through the use of a system that may already be corrupt.
With the dystopian future theme being so popular in the last few years with books (and films) like The Hunger Games and Divergent, it’s not surprising that anime would explore the genre as well. What makes Psycho Pass so interesting is that it explores these themes in a more or less Utopian setting. A society where everything is perfect may not lend itself to compelling narrative, but as Murphy’s law suggests something is bound to go wrong sooner or later.
While I had always been interested in it, I chose this anime because it won my first “What should I watch next?” poll. I had tried to pick varied titles for the poll, but I shouldn’t have been surprised to see this win. Standing out among the others in popularity, it has a large following thanks to its wide appeal. Popularity does not always equate to quality, though. While I had little doubt as to whether or not I would find this series enjoyable, I looked forward to the chance to find out if it lived up to the hype.
This review is also marks my passing the halfway point in my Anime Challenge, so if you haven’t seen what that’s all about do check out the link. I’m, predictably, farther ahead in my viewing (24) than my reviewing (15), but I hope steady persistence will pay off.
Humankind’s ever accelerating use of technology to improve every facet of their daily lives has led to the creation of a Utopian society in Japan. In this world, most every choice can be guided to produce results that benefit society the most. Everything from ones’ career aptitude to their emotional state of mind is surrendered to the guidance of an overarching system that governs the country and ensures its continued progress. This system, known as Sibyl, administers the country’s civil needs with machine like precision. It can analyze each individual person’s capabilities, to place them in their ideal job, as well as their risk of disruption to the system it so carefully maintains.
Sharing thematic elements with a host of other media, including 1984, Minority Report, and The Matrix, the setting of Psycho Pass describes a society where individual free will is either closely controlled or, in extreme cases, stamped out entirely. But unlike other dystopian work where the populace is forcibly subject to these systems, there doesn’t appear to be any unwilling subjugation of the people under Sibyl. As if moved toward this extreme scenario out of growing fear of anti-social elements, the people by and large want Sibyl to rule their lives. Very few people question the system, and even fewer seem to act out against it. Espousing the idea that human behavior can be curbed or trained into compliance, Sibyl controls education and media to produce the most mentally sound human beings it can. This expectantly leads to a society of overly docile people who don’t quite know how to react when a mentally unsound element is introduced.
The exact details of Sibyl’s operation are unknown to the greater public, but they are not reliant completely on machine control. To help enforce the safety and security of the populace, Sibyl employs the Ministry of Welfare’s Public Safety Bureau (MWPSB). This group consists of human police who use Sibyl’s monitoring and threat assessment tools in order to enforce laws. The method of assessment is where the series draws its name, and the larger part of its theme, from. Every human, from the innocent law abiding citizen to the most irredeemable criminal, can have their mental and emotional stability quantified into a ‘Criminal Coefficient.’ Acting as an indicator of criminal risk, the person is assigned an easily understood ‘Psycho Pass’ score. Anything above 100 makes them dangerous to society and requires rehabilitation. A score higher than 300 makes them too much of a threat to continue living.
The greatest tool at the MWPSB’s disposal in responding to a high Psycho Pass is the Dominator Portable Psychological Diagnosis and Suppression System, or Dominator for short. Appearing in the form of a gun, the Dominator shares a wireless link to Sibyl which can immediately assess the Psycho Pass of the target it is aimed at. Automatically switching modes (from disabled, to non-lethal paralyzer, to lethal eliminator) based on the threat level, the weapon decides on the operator’s behalf how to best subdue the target. Gone are the days where police gun down an innocent suspect who is simply reaching for their identification or kill a suspect who has committed a non-violent crime. In this world, police need only point their weapon at a suspect to ensure that they are making a fair and correct decision.
Inspectors are given the same standardized upbringing as every other citizen, sheltered from crime and violence. In order to properly combat the sometimes unpredictable criminal element, the MWPSB employs latent criminals in the role of Enforcers. These men and women possess irredeemable Psycho Pass scores and are allowed to forgo lifetime imprisonment by working for the police. Using criminals to put down other criminals is not a new concept by any means, as seen in other well known titles like Suicide Squad, but it creates an interesting dynamic within the police agency. Given authorization to carry the Dominator themselves, they carry out the majority of law enforcement and relegate the inspector’s role to that of a handler. This serves to shelter the inspector from dangerous situations, but also to protect their mental health in a career that exposes them to criminal behavior on a daily basis.
If this review sounds overly focused on Psycho Pass scores and mental health thus far, it’s because that is the great majority of the show’s focus as well. The major conflict in the series then revolves around ways in which a Psycho Pass assessment, and perhaps the Sibyl system itself, is bypassed. As one might expect of any purportedly perfect system, there are a few exceptions to the rule like when a serial killer emerges that seems to be able to confound the MWPSB’s ability to track or subdue him. While the series at its most basic level focus on the police’s efforts to catch him, the level at which this villain is able to challenge Sybil allows the story to take on a deeper and more complex nature.
Head writer Gen Urobuchi is well known for stories that focus on deconstruction of whole genres (Fate/Zero, Puella Magi Madoka Magica). In this series, he sets up a well defined world that seems to operate with minimal disruption before introducing an element that upends everything that the viewer, and the characters in the story itself, assume. If nothing else, it is an effective storytelling technique in the sense that it naturally draws interest without relying on cliffhangers or simple shock factor. The tension scales as the series progresses, creating more and more dire situations until everything threatens to boil over. Viewers likewise cannot help but wonder how the story will resolve the deep internal flaws that it presents and what effect such drastic revelations have on the characters that inhabit it.
As the story is told primarily from the police point of view, most of the characters are members of the MWPSB First Division. The relationship between Inspector and Enforcer is thus a major focal point in this series, showcasing the differences personalities that people can have when it comes to objective reasoning or passion fueled action. Nowhere are these differences highlighted more strongly than in the case of Inspector Akane Tsunemori and Enforcer Shinya Kougami.
Akane is the ideal product of the Sibyl system’s conditioning. A generally bright and upstanding young woman, she was found to possess a high aptitude for a number of respectable career choices. Somewhat humorously, this leaves her in a conundrum with what to actually do with her life. Because no one else in her class scored perfectly for aptitude in police work, she believed the MWPSB came closest to what could be called her calling in life.
Shy and naive at first, viewers see over the course of the series exactly what makes Akane suitable for the job, at least with respect to Sibyl’s standards. Her unwavering Psycho Pass allows her to approach situations with a mental clarity unhindered by emotional stress, while her keen analytical ability leads her toward investigative paths that her colleagues sometimes miss. Though her resolve is tested repeatedly by the events of the series, her steadfast approach to her work and life in general make her the ideal character to mirror society’s trust in the establishment and willingness to comply. Still, Akane isn’t merely one of the sheep led along by Sybil’s guiding hand. On numerous occasions she goes against the blind judgement of the system to make what is clearly a better choice.
On the other hand, Kougami represents the sort of mentality that is punished by Sybil. His ability to think like a criminal allows him to reliably act on his instinct, where others may need harder evidence, but that mentality is exactly what gives him a Psycho Pass beyond rehabilitation. Early in the series he astonishes Akane with his brash nature and tendency toward violence, despite his professed desire to become an inspector rather than a hunting dog. It is soon revealed that Kougami was indeed a former inspector who let his Psycho Pass slip while working on a case which affected him personally. Acting as a constant reminder of what can happen to an inspector if they become too emotionally involved in a case, he serves as a something of a guidepost to Akane as she continually pushes the limits of her personal investment.
There are a host of supporting characters, consisting of several Enforcers and one other Inspector that the series spends some time on, but aside from the inspector, Nobochika Ginoza, none of them are explored very deeply. Ginoza’s arc is genuinely interesting, if not a little predictable. He spends most of the series acting as Akane’s more experienced partner and chides her reckless methods out of concern for her Psycho Pass. His overly strict demeanor naturally comes as the result of some closely guarded past experience, but watching him struggle with his own shortcomings is perhaps the most compelling of any of the supporting character work.
Production I.G seems fully in their element with series of this type following in the footsteps of their various Ghost in the Shell iterations. Though this series came before the studio’s more visually impressive work like Attack on Titan or Amanchu!, it holds its own against its contemporaries. Using a style and colors representative of a futuristic metropolis, the different locales and character designs offer a lot of visual variety.
Character designs for the MWPSB members range from a typical looking blue police jacket to the individualized styles of the Enforcers. Because these characters naturally don’t fit into the mold of society otherwise, their appearances reflect their personal tastes. All the characters are depicted rather naturally, though Akane in particular feels a bit off. With larger eyes than most of the cast (though they are closer in similarity to other younger characters), she seems to stand out. Adding to that the somewhat odd positioning of her facial features can be a little distracting, but it gets easier to look past it eventually.
The futuristic setting allows for several interesting effects to be done with the animation as well, albeit with heavy CGI assistance. Interior design is largely accomplished through holograms, and clothing seems to be instantly configurable as well (though I don’t really understand how it materializes into anything tangible). But the most commonly seen tech in the series is the Dominator. The gun is able to relay information directly into its users’ eyes, creating an almost game like HUD within the character’s point of view. Also able to change shape according to its firing mode, the series features several shots where the gun responds to the Sybil system’s judgement to show some interesting effects, both on the weapon and the target.
Taking the viewer from busy city streets to underground passages and wide open countryside, Psycho Pass offers a lot of opportunity for the animators to show off their environmental designs. Everything from light sources to weather effects are executed well, allowing for the backgrounds to meld with the scene in an immersive way. The alleyways and city streets lend themselves to many darker scenes. There are definitely parts of this anime where it is difficult to see exactly whats going on, but most of it is done for natural reasons. Some of the darkest scenes are depicted purposely as the characters themselves express difficulty seeing.
Given the overall tone of the show, it does avoid a lot of silly anime tropes and steers clear of fanservice for the most part. Even in the scene where a girl is forced to strip off her clothing there is a plot related reason behind it. There were definitely a few scenes that amounted to little more than blatant gratuity, but given the mature theme of the series it’s not too presumptuous to expect a likewise audience.
ED2: All Alone With You by Egoist (eps 12-22)
The OPs used for this series are rather different in styles, but both give off a modern tone thanks to the rapid beat. Abnormalize reminded me a lot of of the Tokyo Ghoul OP: Unravel the first time I heard it, and with good reason. The guitarist/vocalist from the same band was the singer of Unravel. As such, it has a lot of stylistic similarities, coming off as a catchy and energetic song that seems to be better suited for TK’s unique vocals.
The band that did the EDs for this series has an interesting story on their own. Ryo, leader of the JPop group Supercell, was tasked with forming a fictional band for the series Guilty Crown. Selecting a young (17 yr old) singer named Chelly for vocals, they created Egoist to perform the music for the band in the series (ref). Impressed as they were with the duo’s work, the studio kept them on hand to work on the endings for Psycho Pass and other productions as well.
With the English dub available on Funimation, I had to give it a try as their productions are usually very well done. Kate Oxley played Akane, and though I wasn’t familiar with any of her work aside from a small role as Major Armstrong’s younger sister in Fullmetal Alchemist, I thought she did reasonably well in the main role. Her performance didn’t offer a lot of range, but it was fitting for Akane’s character as she was so rarely flustered enough to show emotional response. The more impressive act, however, came from Robert McCollum as Kougami. With a large number of supporting roles under his belt, the roles in which he can take the spotlight are recognized for their quality. His work in Psycho Pass in particular went a long way in making Kougami’s character so appealing. Not to forget a hidden gem in this series, Jason Douglas did a fantastic job as the Enforcer Masaoka. His portrayal of a gruff older man was done so well that I doubt I would have had the same experience had I watched it in Japanese.
From my first look at this series, I didn’t expect much more than a police procedural in the same style as Ghost in the Shell: SAC. But just like that series, there was a lot more under the surface than initially apparent. Dealing primarily with the notion of preemptive action against possible criminal behavior, the story borrows heavily from the film Minority Report (Which itself is adaptation of the short story by Philip K. Dick), but there are enough differences to make it an enjoyable original work.
The most fascinating part for me was the exploration of mental health. As I mentioned earlier, the Enforcers’ thought patterns give them Psycho Pass scores that make them unfit for free society, but not all of them became that way through criminal acts or past experiences. One character in particular (Kagari) was flagged at age 5 and had been stripped of his freedom ever since. Without a chance to ever be raised as a functional member of society, his choices as an adult were limited to imprisonment or MWPSB Enforcer. As a sad reminder of his plight, peoples’ general opinion of him is less than trustworthy even if he has never committed a crime. The real world Japanese legal system offers rehabilitation programs for trial defendants who are deemed mentally insane in an effort to treat their condition, but what do you do when the system you rely on to guide you deems that person beyond rehabilitation?
The other theme I found intriguing was the debate of freedom versus security – something that seems to come up more and more these days. Sybil’s iron fisted rule no doubt made Japan objectively safer, but at what cost? Is the advancement of the majority worth compromising the rights of the minority? Is free will really so valuable when you have the guidance of something that knows better? Psycho Pass addresses these question brilliantly by never taking a clear side. The main villain commits murders to oppose Sybil system and all that it stands for. That can be seen as placing favor toward the system, but the main characters fall on opposite ends of that sentiment. By using Akane and Kougami in a way that encourages the viewer to want them both to succeed, it leaves the questions up to the viewer to ponder.
One thing that may leave viewers with some disappointment is the lack of a complete conclusion or explanation of how most of the technology shown in the series actually works. The ending of this series is not a cliffhanger, as it resolves the story focused around Kougami and his pursuit of the killer, but leaves itself open enough for the existence of Psycho Pass 2 to make sense. Though I have yet to watch that series, I can only hope that it explores some more of the fascinating world that this series set up but only skimmed the surface of in terms of detail.
Summary and Recommendations
Psycho Pass offers an exciting take on the dystopian future theme in a utopian society. By using a system of friendly oppression and its methods of determining innocence and guilt as its main story points, the series is able to deliver a compelling crime thriller.
The Dominator and its link to the Sybil system’s use as the primary means by which to apprehend a suspect is the series’ main focus. It explores the flaws in the system, both in concerns/opinions raised by the characters and the in events that unfold in the narrative. Sybil operates on the assumption that humanity will act in accordance with the greater good, but its inability to fit all people into a single mold represents an existential threat to the society it governs.
Using a variety of settings and color choices, the series never becomes visually dull and looks consistently good throughout. Fights and action scenes are executed with great attention to detail, creating fluid scenes that are exciting to watch despite their realism. The futuristic setting allows for all manner of technology to be used for special effects, reminding viewers of imagery they might see in Ghost in the Shell.
The opening and endings capture the mood of the series well, and are good songs on their own. The choices of background music are executed nicely as they add to the immersion by truly complimenting the scene rather than dictating its mood and pace. If you choose to watch the English dub, you won’t be disappointed with some great work by some of Funimation’s less frequently featured talent.
The series has a lot of engaging content, with enough underlying philosophy to keep the viewer thinking well after they’ve stepped away from the screen. By avoiding heavy handed dictations or showing any side as morally right, the series presents the story in a way that asks viewers look within at the merits of each way of thought.
Watch if you:
Like Sci-Fi stories that are grounded in realism
Enjoy Police/Crime thrillers
Love shows that explore philosophy
Don’t watch if you:
Prefer lighthearted anime
Get annoyed by underdeveloped characters/settings
Are squeamish about violence
With minor drawbacks, Psycho Pass is a thoroughly enjoyable series that leaves you wanting more than it gives. I give it 4.5 out of 5 Akanes.
While I strive to avoid spoilers in my reviews, I’m tempted to break my own rule to talk about how much I appreciated the portrayal of the series’ main villain here. With such a deep understanding of his own capabilities and the weaknesses in his opponents, the series was able to frame Makishima as a truly terrifying prospect. Predictable in his intent, but not in his methods, his ability to confound the MWPSB was akin to a skilled hacker exploiting weaknesses to sow chaos. In this case, he was hacking the entire status quo.
Preemptive action against possible threats has been a longstanding debate and I’ve heard reasonable arguments on both sides. With global terrorism a bigger threat these days than ever before, the exploration of its merits in comparison to the ethical implications has seen ever growing interest. This inevitably leads to profiling to determine exactly what a possible threat is, which yields to discrimination and injustice. But without a doubt it’s fear, rather than an objective desire for improvement, that governs this line of thought. Benjamin Franklin’s quote comes to mind here: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
The quote is often misapplied to a wide variety of privacy or security concerns, as the basic sentiment resonates with many causes. Whether you agree with it or not, the statement “little temporary Safety” is perhaps the most unnerving part. As Makashima showed, no matter how perfect Sybil looked on the outside, there was always a way to overcome it and create problems that society was no longer equipped, mentally or physically, to deal with. Many sci-fi works feature machines and supposedly perfect algorithms to help determine the best course of action, but anytime the unpredictable element of the human mind is put into play the result is never certain. A formula simply can’t be applied to every solution, and human instinct, flawed as it may be, is often needed to make the best decisions.
Though given the ending of the series, you might say that Sybil agrees with that.
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