A lot of words have already been shared regarding Production IG’s big return to dystopian sci-fi, PSYCHO-PASS, so a part of me felt like there was little else I could truly contribute to the conversation — That is, until a number of things began to collectively gnaw at me over the course of watching it. In the weeks before the first episode aired, and thereby began streaming, much noise was made about this being the return of writer Gen Urobuchi (this time with Blood C movie’s Naoyoshi Shiotani as director). Coupled this along with the team taking on what many (on the internet) had labeled a hardcore cyberpunk cop show. With such a word being so liberally attached, it seemed inevitable that one would have to see just how close the show came to capturing the spirit of such a relic of its time, and a personal favorite place to visit in book form. And while mentioned, I was quite ready to be taken in by the world of the series, it may troublesome that I report that Psycho-Pass is about as cyberpunk as a bowl of noodles, and nowhere near as involving.
Set in yet another dank, and hyper-technological future Tokyo, society is now largely governed by an all-knowing form of artificial intelligence known as SIBIL. The supercomputer has gained enough control over the lives of the citizens that it is capable of determining not only the roles in which we play in the world of employment, but it can also monitor the individual psyche, watching over it to the level that it may deem thoughts and behavior dangerous, or at the very least, borderline. The form of law enforcement that ensues is not unlike the world of Minority Report, where the police are tasked with preventing violent crimes before they happen. And the shared method by which all citizens are checked within this system, is by way of their Crime Coefficiency, which is essentially reflected in their Psycho-Pass, a card that is meant to maintain a clean and healthy blue, otherwise placing those in possession in danger of capture by the CID-a police agency that has the unique function of working as handlers for what are known as “Enforcers”. Often former captured violators, and borderline cases, they do the dirty work of what used to be the realm of officers and detectives. In pursuit of new, potentially dangerous perpetrators, the final judgment comes almost DREDD-style, on site by way of the supercomputer networked sidearms of Enforcers known as Dominator. These modular, multi-purpose guns can deem a suspect worthy of numerous types of judgments that range from “apprehend” to “kill” upon target-sight recognition.
As the show begins, the CID has received a new recruit in the form of Akane Tsunemori, a seemingly ordinary young lady now appointed to the role of Inspector. We are swiftly introduced to her assigned team of Enforcers, ranging in ages and genders, but the quiet, almost sullen Kogami Shinya seems to bear something of a troubled past that haunts and attracts Tsunemori, as she becomes better acquainted with the world of preventative psycho-crime fighting. Her beliefs are constantly put to the test, as the criminals and the program itself come to challenge some of humanity’s most basic attributes & instincts. This is the urban hellscape of Psycho-Pass, and it is in little way of what the internet claims it to be.(And, no. Making backhanded references to Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic, as well as the domestic use of the Eye-Phone and VR gloves, do not a cyberpunk show make.)
Something was bothering me from the opening moments of the series, and continued throughout until they finally began hitting me like a tactical strike. After several episodes, I have come to the conclusion that Urobuchi tends to focus more on the emotional immediacy of a situation, rather than the logic of it, which is something of a strange choice considering the world and the story he is attempting to tell. There are patches of dialogue here that reflect something far more akin to fantasy, or atypical anime.
“I realize you’re strangely connected to him by fate.” – Yeah, this has something closer to fantasy in mind that anything. As non-cyberpunk as it gets, really.
Even for Production IG, a studio famous for producing dense, yet entertaining hard science fiction, this is something of a steep slip downward, as the contradictions of subject matter and approach are loud enough to render a lot of what occurs within the majority of the series pretty toothless. If Urobuchi is attempting to comment upon contemporary Japan’s seemingly inevitable role in Kurzweil’s Singuarity, then it’s not serving anything but an alarmist’s position, which is de-facto for most mainstream takes on our co-existence with technology. And I guess that’s the central culprit in what doesn’t work. For a proper system like this to function, there has to be the human element that manages matters on higher levels, as opposed to letting SIBIL handle everything. (If this is indeed a point that is intentionally being made, then it is a pretty hamfisted way making a condemnation of our current relationship with technology managing our daily lives.)
On to the two large blocks that hinder my personal enjoyment of Psycho-Pass:
One- The Audience Surrogate Is a Problem
In stories such as these, the more accessible approach is to create a character that represents a window for us to better understand the world of the story, and empathize with their reactions to it. Tsunemori, while clearly made to appeal to certain demographics, does not work in this universe simply because I cannot reconcile that someone this pure and naive about the system would ever be made Inspector. Early scenes indicate that she is not even familiar with the Dominator system, as well as how to handle Enforcers. When she later asserts that she is far more familiar in spirit to her ragtag bunch of street cops, it only makes SIBIL look incredibly dumb. And while the bespectacled Inspector Ginoza informs her that they are short on work numbers, this in no way excuses the clear lack of understanding of the job and what it entails. Being that the show begins “en media res” amidst an incident with a potentially bloody violent psychopath on stims, one might assume here that the show was rushed into production, and a prologue was omitted from an early draft. Because if Tsunemori herself were initially appointed by SIBIL to work in data analysis, only to be drafted into the streets by way of error, this would make a whole lot more sense. As it stands? Either a bad committee idea, or forced move by an angry writer. Either way, it’s patently absurd.
Two- Dominator Judgment System(and in turn, SIBIL): Counter-effective
Seriously. A established system that has functioned uncontested for years must be so with good reason, no matter how speculative. Especially when dealing with something as far-reaching and for the public good as law enforcement, this is crucial. So when we leave a green character with a perfectly clean psycho pass like Tsunemori to be able to temper something as overt as Dominator’s judgment system without getting a little distressed, it’s a recipe for creating that which you condemn. It isn’t as if the gun’s use of lethal force is clinical, or even efficient. The damned thing fires, ultimately liquifying the target, leaving human parts in a Jackson Pollack-esque splatter on the floor. Call me silly, but to think that such a mess would have zero effect on your enforcement officials is more than a little questionable.
And these two elements alone lead to what is famously known as “shaky foundation, shaky roof”. It doesn’t matter how much a writer tries to cover up these elements after the fact, these niggling details fly in the face of what could have been something more than a petty Shock-A-Minute, which would have been fine if it had a lot more fun with the premise.
Since the days of The Terminator, it has long been the cliche of many a screenwriter to take the human element out of an essentially human-borne dilemma, laying blame upon technology for our greater ills. Psycho-Pass does what it can to swing the needle in an opposing direction, but in the end, the real villain is the central network that overlooks an often messy remains of civilization. Touches such as the drones who walk the rainy streets bearing overtly friendly holographic costumes over their rolling trash can chassis throws it back into almost “Cool Japan” criticism, being that nothing can be taken as remotely serious by the metropolitan population without being glossed over with a “kawaii” mask to lighten any altercation in plain sight. The need for denial to be cast writ-large over humanity’s less than desirable sides is a nice touch, but is often undermined again by the more obvious problems inherent in the central plot. If the world of Psycho-Pass is to be one where those who mete out a greater need for harmony, then isn’t it imperative that they understand the system before being brought into a clearly dense & dangerous fold? To be fair, the core theme of the series seems to be that technology is inherently bad, because it is a reflection of us. And while that may seem balanced on the surface, it never feels as though the rainy, bloody streets of Psycho-Pass’ Tokyo is any different from the funhouse of mirrors planet of Puella Magi Madoka Magika. It’s a mix that simply doesn’t work as well here.
Where Madoka existed in a more flexible, metaphorical universe, Psycho-Pass does not, and thus has less excuses to play fast and loose. It’s no secret that many a film scribe tends to revisit similar themes within their work, often with the best ones exhibiting a certain knowledge about the trappings of each world to make the themes click on a deeper level, It just seems like the team behind this show seems to have a lot less grasp on what they are telling. I say this because I don’t want to feel like dropping this completely on Urobuchi’s lap, although it should most likely do so. With this show, it’s pretty clear where his strengths are, and it isn’t here. While there are many eyebrows-raising moments to be experienced in this series, far too much of it feels like window dressing to cover up a certain lack of depth within the world and narrative. In the end, a lot of the package feels pretty shallow.
In the end, the dystopian nightmare presented here is done do with less a reverence for the type of fiction made famous by names such as Gibson & Stephenson, and more a general lack of trust in our collective ability to manipulate it for greater reasons. It is not so much interested in the science, so much as the morality of living in a globally networked world. It is the antithesis of cyberpunk, it is a didactic dystopian fable punctuated by some frustratingly on-the-nose writing, and a lot of forced logic. When characters who are presented as experts in enforcing the law, one would expect certain hazards to be part of the everyday. But within a world where SIBIL exists, it seems like the very core purpose it is hamstrung on nearly all fronts. For a procedural to function, it’s imperative that these rules are well understood by all parties. Apparently someone forgot to tell the writer..
BTW- Did anyone else squee over the casting of Noriko Hidaka as Dominator? I did.