Reaper's Reviews: 'Psycho-Pass'
Production: Production I.G.
Format: 22 episodes
Release: October 12, 2012 – March 22, 2013
There is something morbidly appealing about the writing style of the renewed Gen Urobuchi. The man's prime is seemingly past him, but he still manages to write some truly absorbing and grimly thoughtful material more often than not. This year he even wrapped up his work on the Godzilla trilogy, the first actual anime Godzilla production in the franchise’s history.
Although it's safe to say that the "Urobutcher" will forever be known for three particular works. For starters, he is the original writer of the Fate/Zero light novel series, a prequel to the visual novel Fate/Stay Night that received a highly acclaimed anime adaptation in 2011. This also happens to be among my favorite anime of all time, and Gen's complex narrative is a key reason why.
However, Urobuchi's breakthrough work is generally considered to be fellow 2011 anime Madoka Magica, probably the most well-known magical girl series of the 2010s. It also bears many signs that became synonymous with Urobuchi's writing, including his dark atmosphere, macabre narratives and nihilistic themes. Unsurprisingly, those two shows set a very high bar for Gen to pass.
As his first major work after Madoka and Zero, Psycho-Pass had a lot to live up to, and it was also a futuristic dystopian cop show in comparison to Gen's previous urban fantasy/horror works. It was Urobuchi's fortune that his screenplay also received a talented production crew from the revered Production I.G., acclaimed for its work of another sci-fi anime, Ghost in the Shell.
And so, did it manage to live up to the author’s reputation? I think that the answer is obvious.
With this, let me officially kick off the review for the 2012-2013 sci-fi hit, co-directed by Naoyoshi Shiotani and Katsuyuki Motohiro, written by Gen Urobuchi, and produced by Production I.G.: Psycho-Pass.
Warning: the following review is very long.
Story & Setting
The story of Psycho-Pass takes place in a 22nd-century Japan, where the population at large is managed by a highly advanced system called Sibyl. Lives are built and ruined by the Sibyl System; people’s brains are scanned by Sibyl, measuring the person’s mind and the possibility of that person to commit crime.
In other words, if a person’s mental calculation - dubbed “Psycho-Pass” - is extraordinarily high, then they can get hunted down, arrested, or in more serious scenarios, executed on spot. This cycle is maintained by Inspectors of Japan’s Public Safety Bureau and their Enforcers - themselves being people with high Psycho-Pass and are watched constantly by Inspectors.
At the beginning of Psycho-Pass, the PSB recruits a new Inspector, Akane. As a young and naive newbie, Akane - and the audience - quickly realizes just how far from perfect Sibyl is. And she’s not the only one, as a mysterious man called Makishima decides to challenge the Sibyl System and the PSB, in particular taking notice at an Enforcer called Kogami.
The first episode beautifully illustrates the basics of what we need to know about Psycho-Pass' structure, setting and main characters. Unlike the rest of the series, it's mostly stand-alone, and it showcases Akane's first day on the job as she realizes that the life of a police inspector is a lot more muddier than she thought it to be.
We get an insight into the depraved beasts the PSB need to hunt down, but also about the unfortunate victims that are callously categorized the same as actual criminals. And we see the initial clashes of ideology and approach to the problem between rookies, seasoned inspectors and enforcers, and - in a classic Urobuchi manner - the concept of justice and morality in a dystopian environment.
All of this is within one of the best first episodes that I’ve ever watched, and the show only gets better from here on as it uses almost every minute to cleverly build towards the next piece.
Division 1's chase after the dangerously intelligent and morally wrapped Makishima doesn't begin overnight; the series starts off with seemingly unrelated degenerates and killers, but they slowly reveal just how big and ambitious the story's scope is. Psycho-Pass moves in a slick pace that still allows its story arcs to get fleshed out generously.
Psycho-Pass is a complex, thoughtful and ruthless series, as expected from a Gen Urobuchi-written anime. Even in its early episodes, Psycho-Pass is packed with social commentary on the so-called perfect society and philosophical debate about the morality of the Sibyl System, and it drips with foreshadowing and little details about bigger twists and revelations.
Small exchanges or even just some off-hands remarks thrown by the characters may eventually lead to big revelations on the events as they unfold (including ties between previously partly-connected characters and the nature of the Sibyl System), and thanks to brilliantly-placed pieces of dialogues or clues, revisiting older scenes will almost always give a new meaning to them.
Perhaps Psycho-Pass’ strongest aspect is its momentum. Urobuchi and directors Naoyoshi Shiotani and Katsuyuki Motohiro executed a story that elegantly dances - in the most gruesome of ways, of course - from one story arc to another in a perfect rhyme. One story arc focuses on the digital environment of the futuristic Japan, where it menacingly establishes the twisted forces that work to undermine the system.
A latter arc decides to go the opposite way and present a sinister, macabre tale of a psychotic artist, but it swiftly connects to the previous arc and expands on the plans and involved parties that Psycho-Pass has in stores, and so on. The series knows exactly where it wants to go, and its brisk, dense narrative contains almost no filler or paddling - all while maintaining a story that is still accessible enough without feeling cluttered.
And that’s not all of it, however, as those story arcs also do an excellent work at exploring different aspects and layers of Psycho-Pass’ society and setting.
A big reason why I enjoyed the inclusion of the Sibyl System is because the series not only explores its effects directly to thugs and criminals, but also regarding other elements of the setting, from the new internet culture that emerged alongside the technology advancements to the overhaul of worker conditions in factories and the impact it had on artistic liberty.
While Psycho-Pass has its fair share of long-winded philosophical and theoretical discussions, the series does a pretty good job at not only talking about the effects of the Sibyl System’s existence, but showing the new environment in the futuristic Tokyo.
The series constantly presents both potential advantages and disadvantages to the Sibyl System, although there is clear leaning to the negative side as the show progresses. That said, Psycho-Pass also presents multiple positive points as well, from noticeable decline in crime to a more stable and precise society.
Psycho-Pass doesn’t break new ground with its premise and concept, that much is true, but its exploration of the seemingly “perfect society” idea is a well done one. There is something truly fascinating about the show’s refusal to take a clear side at the conflict it presents, and perhaps it’s for the better that Psycho-Pass asks the viewers to think about their own answers.
That said, its near flawless progression from the pilot to the climax is somewhat broken in the second cour’s beginning. Sudden flashback episodes are nothing new to Mr. Urobuchi - in fact some of the best episodes in Madoka and Fate/Zero are the flashbacks - but Psycho-Pass’ turn feels very odd.
In the other two cases, both flashback stories helped connecting with one of the main characters’ ideology and goals. It felt like an integral part of the story that fleshed out the characters’ motivations and gave new meanings to previous scenes, so the return to the present-day storyline felt natural.
In Psycho-Pass, however, it feels more like a filler than anything. Sure, we get some interesting insight into the music industry in the age of the Sibyl System, but as a whole, this episode has no noticeable impact on the series’ overarching arc. It only serves to abruptly break the flow of the story, and it certainly doesn’t help that the episode focuses on the blandest PSB member.
Now, where was I? Oh yeah, the Sibyl System.
As I mentioned earlier, Psycho-Pass drips with philosophical debates and discussions. Some focus on the morality of the Sibyl System and its rates of success, while others question the ability of mankind to better itself on its own, or should it be consumed in its own violence without the artificial means to stop it.
The series also slowly shifts to other classic Urobuchi themes such as the cycle of revenge and the true horrors behind the idea of justice, and one could stay up for hours upon hours trying to research and analyze every single drop of wisdom in Psycho-Pass. And I like it, for the most part.
It’s a story that makes you think about its messages and meanings, in an era where most anime and other forms of media prefer to emphasis stock phrases and set-pieces. But at some point, it does get a little tiresome and falls into such trap.
I already voiced my annoyance of balant philosophical preaching in anime in my Hand Shakers review, where I even briefly mentioned Psycho-Pass. The latter series definitely doesn’t reach outrageous levels of pretentiousness, but as Psycho-Pass moves on to its final stretch, it’s hard not to feel that the script is somewhat forced in this regard.
Makishima’s obsession to quoting famous philosophers and authors becomes more apparent with each new episode. Urobuchi was never shy about his love for figures such as Nietzsche, Shakespeare and the like, but Psycho-Pass may be among his most on-the-nose depictions of this admiration.
But most of it is forgiven thanks to the intensity that is the final seven episodes of Psycho-Pass. The series’ boiling point is definitely the first of those, episode 16, but the build up to the final confrontation between Kogami and Makishima is almost equal in its intrigue and drama.
Pay-off, treachery, action, destruction and death all occur during those final episodes, with great loses and shocking twists. Although at the same time I have to admit that the feeling of the ending as a whole was not as conclusive as it could have been. It ties up many of the major plotlines rather masterfully, but the finale clearly teases for more, which does rob it a little from satisfaction.
Our main protagonists are the rookie Inspector Akane Tsunemori and former Inspector-turned-Enforcer Kogami Shinya. Against them stands the enigmatic and cool-headed Shogo Makishima, who represents the things they hate most.
Akane is the character with whom we spend time the most, including her thoughts and personal life. She’s the new meat of the PSB, and as such, far more naive and idealistic in comparison to the rest of the battle-hardened Enforcers and her partner/superior Ginoza.
As such, her development primarily focuses on her growing into her job and the sacrifices that need to be made in order to achieve success. In fact, she’s the one character that receives most development. As you’d expect from a character like this, Akane remains mostly optimistic and heroic even as the events surrounding her grow darker, but at the same time her solutions to find compromises get better.
Kogami is the poster child of the series, as well as the main focus whenever action arises. He is an experienced Enforcer who used to be an Inspector until a certain case caused him to be labeled as a potential criminal. Unlike Akane, Kogami has a much more critical and cynical opinion on the Sibyl System, which sometimes puts him at odds with both Akane and Ginoza.
While he does subtly changes as the series goes, Kogami doesn’t get as much as development as Akane. Actually, I’d say that he slowly reveals older shades of himself the more he pursues Makishima’s cases, all while embracing the Sibyl’s judgement of him. A big part of his character is how Akane seemingly influences himself to put his trust back in the system, which he simply can’t.
Due to their differences, the interactions between Akane and Kogami provide some of the best scenes in the entire show. At their core, they both strive for justice and peace, but the situation becomes complicated with approach to the problem.
Akane believes in upholding justice through the law, and she would often follow the Sibyl System to a fault. In contrast, she might try and refuse the system’s judgement when it targets what she believes to be a perfectly innocent victim, as seen in the very first episode.
Kogami, on the other hand, appears at first to take the Sibyl System’s decision to the extreme, sometimes for nothing more than to make a point. However, as implied earlier, he has no faith in Sibyl after it failed and discarded him. As such, he prefers to either pursue his own judgement on the case, or fall back to killing in order to save the trouble for his superiors.
So it doesn’t come off as surprise that their ideologies and opinions often clash; they sincerely believe in their own truths, sometimes to a fault, yet also make attempt at acknowledging the other’s points. But what I find most interesting about their general relationship is how, for all of their professional and personal arguments, their influence on each other, while noticeable, is not enough to make them change “sides” completely.
Of course, the piece that makes all of this happen is none other than the white-haired psychopathic Shogo Makishima, the series’ primary villain.
Makishima is, quite frankly, one of the most compelling and charismatic villains to ever come out of an anime. He is undoubtedly an awful person on most accounts, being a renewed sadist (both physically and emotionally) with no qualms about killing people just to prove his point. His calm and soft-spoken attitude hide beneath a ruthless monster waiting to drop another piece into place.
But at the same time, he’s not completely evil for evil’s sake. He genuinely believes that the Sibyl System is an awful concept whose very principals lead to horrible mistakes or redundant conclusions, and he’s more than happy to prove it by using himself as a walking example of the system’s shortcomings.
He is a dangerous fiend, but he is still grounded. Has it not been for his savage methods, he could have been considered a hero. Makishima is just so sophisticated, charismatic and hypnotic that it genuinely comes off as a surprise that he’s actually a psychotic lunatic, but he works so Goddamn well. He is not only a rarity in anime, but also in stories in general, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any better-written villain than him nowadays.
The only character to even reach Akane and Kogami (and Makishima) in terms of screentime and development is Ginoza, an older Inspector who serves as a mentor for the former, and has an enmity with the latter. I’d argue that Ginoza has the best development out of the three main protagonists.
His character arc begins with him being the most by-the-book member of the force, and he is one who strictly forbids straying from the Sibyl System protocols. But with each passing episode, Ginoza begins to slowly accept the cracks in the system, as well as reconciling with people he once believed to have betrayed him.
Similar to Akane, he opens up to the fact that the world is not just black and white, or rather… While Akane sees the world more as white and gray, Ginoza forced himself to see the world as good and evil accordingly to Sibyl. His change is definitely the most drastic in the series, but unlike Akane or Kogami, it’s not necessarily for the better of his mental health.
The trio is joined by the likes of of three Enforcers: the veteran and fatherly Masaoka, who serves as another mentor to Akane; the reserved Yayoi, the calmest and quietest member of the group; and Kagari, the resident clown of the show who is nonetheless just as skilled and cunning as his peers.
Masaoka gets a considerable amount of screentime in comparison to the rest of the supporting cast, and he is generally the resident old school badass of the series. While not as central as Kogami or Ginoza, he proves to be fairly vital to the plot, having a lengthy experience with the Sibyl System as well as personal connections to the aforementioned two, and his interactions with Ginoza stand as some of the best in Psycho-Pass.
Unfortunately, both Kagari and Yayoi ended up with the short end of the stick, especially the latter, amusingly enough. Kagari himself is notable for having been designated as a potential criminal when he was just a child… Yet the series never appears to explore it beyond this small mention.
He is extremely likable, with funny jokes and an outgoing attitude, but this feels like a missed opportunity for a complex and engaging character arc that deals with the effects of living as a dog for the PSB for the majority of his life. I love Kogami, Akane and Ginoza, but I would have also loved seeing Kagari receiving a similar treatment for having the most unique backstory.
Yayoi herself is the blandest and least interesting member of Division 1, despite the fact that she is the only character to receive her own backstory episode. This episode aside, she almost never gets key scenes and her backstory quickly becomes irrelevant outside of minor world-building.
It makes me think that her episode was ultimately an afterthought when the production team realized she had no actual importance to the plot and wanted to give viewers a short rest after the conclusion of the first cour. Because honestly by the end of the series all I knew about her is that she was musician and she likes noodles. And she’s a woman of culture who understands the superiority of the well-endowed blonde scientists.
On the other hand, the various secondary antagonists of Psycho-Pass hold up pretty well. They have limited screentime as each story arc is often only 2-5 episodes long, but it is time well spent that focuses on their vices and issues without throwing away certain details.
A few of them are tragic villains who either directly fell victim to Sibyl’s calculations, or had their environment affected by the various restrictions that befell on society. Others are just sadistic killers who enjoy the ride, but they do possess their own unique standpoints on humanity and life to add their character some depth.
But in the end, neither of them is a cliched truly evil creature. From a serial killer who uses corpses for statues to a cyborg who enjoys hunting people down, they are despicable beings, but you get to understand some of the things that make them commit their criminals. They have their so called “freudian excuses”, which don’t justify their actions at all, but make them oddly sympathetic.
Animation & Art
Production I.G. is one of the most talented animation studios in Japan, especially when it comes to science fiction. Psycho-Pass does nothing to challenge this notion.
That said, aesthetically, the series is somewhat bland, or generic if you will. It checkpoints the usual elements for a cyberpunk series: a moody atmosphere, hi-tech streets, silver skyscrapers with advertising or metallic improvements, bright neon lights, and the like. The art direction is excellent, make no mistake, but it does lack some identity to it.
I do like the character designs. They are mostly grounded and down-to-earth with muted colors and plain appearances, though they still maintain some anime-esque elements such as tall, spiky haircuts. I even like Akane’s design, which earned a lot of criticism. It helps her character, making her look younger, inexperienced and innocent.
The actual quality of the animation, however, is pretty good, even excellent at times. It doesn’t come off as surprise because Production I.G. is notorious for making anime that look beautiful even a decade after their airing. Just go watch Ghost in the Shell which first aired a decade before Psycho-Pass if you don’t believe me.
Action sequences are especially well-made, with slick movements and cinematic camera shots. Fights that involve hand-to-hand combat are even more impressive, boasting clever techniques and choreography while maintaining a consistent level of quality. CGI is used a lot, but it compliments the series elegantly and never gets in the way.
There are also a few shots and scenes that I can only describe as psychedelic, although I’m not sure whether or not that’s the term I’ve been looking for. Regardless, while they don’t offer a lot of animation, they are some of the more memorable scenes in the series to me.
Finally, I just want to single-out the animations used for the show’s opening themes, which is not something I usually do, but I can’t pass on talking about how slick and creative they are.
The first opening animation features gorgeously presented monochromatic visuals with a limited usage of bright colors. Amusingly enough, the second opening animation is probably the most colorful and dazzling part of the entire show, boasting with with vibrant and ever-changing shots.
Audio & Sound
Psycho-Pass’ music was lovingly composed by Yugo Kanno, which was actually the soundtrack that really kicked off his career, as he later went on to work on JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders and Gundam Reconguista in G. Before that he was mainly a composer for stuff like Ikki Tousen and Da Capo; man’s gotta eat.
Befitting a sci-fi thriller, Psycho-Pass’ soundtrack is comprised of various electronic and fast-paced pieces, ranging from the fairly upbeat “Dominator” to the rock-ish main theme of the series, simply called “Psycho-Pass”.
And it’s not just heavy reliance on electronic and guitars, and there are also other gems like the ominous and haunting “Sono Juukou wa Seigi o Shihai suru”, which just crawls under your skin before gradually becoming more intense.
Now it doesn’t often occur to me where I find all opening and ending theme songs to be enjoyable and catchy, but here we are.
The first opening theme, “Abnormalize” by Ling Tosite Sigure, starts off on a melancholic note with a soft melody and high-pitched vocals before intensifying itself into the chorus. Meanwhile, opening #2, “Out of Control” by Nothing's Carved in Stone, feels more relaxed and laid-back in its composition and lyrics. It’s also sung entirely in English.
Both ending themes were done by Egoist, and I don’t think this group needs any further introduction because almost everything they do is great. And those two songs are no exception.
As for the English dub, it’s simply fantastic; Psycho-Pass has one of the best dubs to come out of Funimation, which says a lot given Funimation’s usual track record. Kate Oxley and Robert McCollum lead the cast as Akane and Kogami respectively, and they have natural chemistry with one another.
The rest of the cast is amazing as well, including actors such as Josh Grelle as Ginoza (showcasing his wide vocal range; this is the guy who voices Armin in Attack on Titan), Jason Douglas’ fatherly voice as Masaoka, the criminally underused Lindsay Seidel as Yayoi, Scott Freeman as Kagari and David Wald as Makishima’s right-hand man Choe.
Speaking of Makishima, Alex Organ is phenomenal. While he had both minor and supporting roles before, Makishima is the first time he plays a major character that I know of. Let me just say that this is one hell of a breakthrough role to have. Organ brings the dangerous mastermind to life with a chilling performance from start to finish.
All things considered, Psycho-Pass feels like a worthy successor to previous cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk classics such as Akira, Cowboy Bebop, Ergo Proxy and Ghost in the Shell, especially the last one. It also feels right at home with western works such as Blade Runner and Terminator. And alongside Steins;Gate, this is easily one of the best sci-fi anime of the 2010s. What Psycho-Pass lack visually, it more than makes up to narratively and thematically. There is just no going around over the fact that Psycho-Pass is a work of genius.
Urobuchi's script is dark and unforgiving, but it is an enthralling and exceptionally-crafted story that uses whatever characters and elements it got masterfully, all brought to life by directors Shiotani and Motohiro's vivid work. It is a complex and insightful tale, but never too dense to become confusing or frustrating. Though it could delve deeper into some of its characters, this is all forgiven thanks to including one of the best villains in anime in Makishima. If not for a somewhat tasteless teaser, I'd call Psycho-Pass immensely satisfying, but even then... It's a masterclass of anime storytelling.
- A gripping and extremely well-paced story filled with twists and complex themes with a well-explored setting.
- Excellent main characters and supporting cast, with a slew of interesting folks and villains.
- Shogo Makishima may be one of anime's best villains in history.
- High production values from Production I.G. and a solid soundtrack.
- Supporting protagonists could have used more screentime to develop.
- Later episodes get a little tedious with increased philosophical discussions and quoting.
- While well-executed, the ending is somewhat inconclusive.
& the Ugly:
Whoever works as a janitor in this crime-riddled Tokyo definitely deserves some good vacation.
- Ghost in the Shell - The obvious recommendation. If you have never watched the original 1995 movie, its 2004 sequel or the television series but you liked Psycho-Pass, I highly recommend the GitS franchise. It features a similar setting, intense narratives and explores themes such as transhumanism which were only briefly touched upon by Psycho-Pass.
- Fate/Zero - Okay, I couldn't really resist recommending this series. If Psycho-Pass showcases the fragility of justice and heroism in a cyberpunk setting, Fate/Zero is its urban fantasy counterpart. It's just as intelligent and brutal as Psycho-Pass, if not more.
Questions & Answers
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