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March 25, 2013 / Bradley

Before We Can Fight the System We Have to Learn to Live Under It: Psycho-Pass

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It’s a cruel opinion, but I had assumed for a long time that Psycho-Pass wasn’t popular on its own merits. I had figured that folks were so starved for a third season of Ghost in the Shell that they’ll take something that only vaguely resembles it, like dating the sister of the girl you really had your eye on. There didn’t seem to be anything special about the early episodes of the series, the ones that focused on procedural investigations of bizarre murders. The world it inhabited was drab, the characters were broad strokes who didn’t feel very real or dynamic, and the actual procedural aspect was mundane. Folks sometimes joked about the series being CSI: Anime, but it lacked the rhythm of investigation that makes NCIS, Law and Order and CSI so compulsively watchable. So since there’s nothing special about this, I surmised, folks must just really want a new cyberpunk anime. I know how egotistical that line of thinking is, but it took me a long time to lose that feeling, so it seems worth mentioning. I eventually found my own reasons for liking the show, in part because it honestly got better, but also because it did a good job reconciling its earlier episodes into a cohesive narrative, and a good rumination on justice in an unjust world. The final result is a show that feels more true, perceptive and relevant to the real world than anything Ghost in the Shell or most other science-fiction anime have come up with so far, despite its flaws.

The best thing about Psycho-Pass is how it’s a dystopian story that doesn’t act like other dystopian stories. It’s worth revisiting the probable genesis of the story in writer Gen Urobuchi’s mind: a visual novel that was highly derivative of the movie Equilibrium. Most dystopian stories are actually morality plays, and in morality plays, characters are more “types” than anything else; servants to a broader point about things like communism or totalitarianism or meritocracies. But in Jouka no Monshou and Psycho-Pass, Urobachi seems much more interested in how people learn to live in a dystopian society, rather than making their relationship to society serve a broader point. It’s not just: how do you enforce justice in an unjust world, but  how do the defenders of an unjust society feel about their job? It takes a while to get there- for nearly eleven episodes, the series is downright meandering- but once it gets there, it becomes a compelling watch.

But I’m meandering too now, so let’s organize things with a synopsis. In a near future Japan, society is organized around the Sybil system, a hyper-complex, hyper-intelligent network that can analyze people’s emotions and potential. Everything relies on this system. It keeps crime low by tagging potential criminals and sorting them to therapists and prisons, it sorts the talents and economic energies of the country through tests that determine one’s job and value to society, and it controls a police state where its judgement is absolute. If the Sybil system figures your criminal potential is too high, you can be executed on the spot by one of its police using a gun called the Dominator. The Dominator is an interesting weapon: it essentially acts as judge and jury, and the police merely carry and aim it. It can instantly analyze anyone to calculate their mental state by connecting to the Sybil system, and will immediately render judgement: if you can be saved, you’ll be stunned and sent prison or therapy. If not, you’ll be blown into red goo on the spot.

Akane is a new detective to Unit One. She’s a naive thing, judged by Sybil to be full of potential but meek and unassertive in her new job. Part of her job description includes not only handling the Dominator but also commanding Enforcers, people labeled as potential criminals who are allowed to help the detectives, and not much more than that. The assumption seems to be that they are useful because, as “potential” criminals, they understand the minds of “real” criminals, and are invaluable to hunting them down. If anything, the Enforcers are commanding her. This is one area where Unit One can feel vaguely similar to Section 9, and the comparison isn’t doing it any favors. This group of crack law enforcers aren’t as colorful or well thought-out as the ones in Production IG’s earlier project. You could replace names with broad types- a Naive Rookie, the Weathered Veteran, the Sexy Hacker- and you would have fairly captured every aspect of those characters. This seems to be something Urobuchi generally struggles with- the same was true with Madoka Magica. But what Urobuchi seems to be consistently good at is taking these broad types and putting them in stressful situations, forcing them to change. And they become much more interesting once they do, in part because it seems to be their only chance to show any dynamism.

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If you generously ignore the two or three members of Unit One who seem to have no real point- and this is easy to do- what you’re left with after several routine story arcs is a unit that goes through hell and then comes out the other end drastically changed. The catalyst for all this is Makishima, a philosophical psychopath who also isn’t all that different from an established anime trope: he’s an evil, long-haired anime dude who commits horrific crimes with the same expression he uses when he pours tea. But what makes him interesting is his role: he has the best grasp of the full horrors of the Sybil system, and would like nothing more than to see it all burn, and if millions have to die along the way, that’s just the cost of change.

And so it is that the folks who are normally the villains of a dystopian story become its heroes, and its heroes become its villains. This ends up carrying a lot of what makes the show interesting, even if its subplots, like a revenge arc, are fairly typical. It makes me think of how incredibly unjust my own country is, and I’m sure Urobuchi was thinking of his own country’s fucked up bureaucracy and government when he wrote the finale. Psycho-Pass is really about adjusting to our own dystopias, and it has a legitimate answer to that.

But not only does the series become more meaningful its second half, it benefits tremendously from the new focus on Makishima from roughly episode thirteen onwards. The pace picks up, and it becomes the kind of taunt thriller it really wanted to be all along. This is when the series comes into its own, and after eleven uneven episodes it feels like it was worth the wait. Its sister series Robotics;Notes is a good example of the opposite of this- it’s disappointing ending is making me forget why I liked it so much in the first place, and if I didn’t have a written record on my blog saying I liked it once, I might have forgotten. Psycho-Pass comes together into something worth watching, and in the end, it gets out from under Section 9’s shadow. It’s not just any science-fiction anime anymore- it’s certainly its own, warts and all.

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