“Psycho-Pass” – A Morality Fable in the Form of a Science Fiction Anime

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Japanese animation (anime) is as versatile a medium for storytelling as comic books, film, live-action television and the like. Whereas much of western animation is predicated on broad family fare or comedies for older audiences, there’s a variety of content for any and all demographics that is more abundant in foreign, not only Japanese animated productions. A great thing about animation is its ability to portray concepts and worlds uninhibited by the limits of live action and textual mediums. Psycho-Pass is a 2013 22-episode series produced by Production IG (Ghost in the Shell, Blood+) and written & directed by prolific auteur Gen Urobuchi, who was responsible for such cult-classic anime productions such as Madoka Magica and Fate/Zero. Like his other works, Urobuchi is keen on transporting us to a new world to deal with many of the subjects we face in ours.

Imagine a world where a vast technological network is the judge, jury and executioner of society. This is a world where every action of every individual is monitored, judged and scored, and the system quantifies and dictates the kind of life a person can live while predicting their future. This is a world where one’s status in society is entirely dependent on their mental state which is monitored and broadcasted by the very same network controlling people’s lives. This is the world of Psycho-Pass. The anime series asks “do you want a free society or an orderly society?” The world of Psycho-Pass presents a society that values order above all else. The world can be seen as a utopia by those who live within its boundaries for it offers stability, safety and convenience. On the flip side, society  has limited opportunities for self-actualization within prescribed parameters since it is built around predictive algorithms that  data mine the human biology. A person is not judged by his or her actions; a person is judged by his or her “true feelings.”  This straightforwardness may seem great until you realize that people will be condemned by the community merely by feeling the “wrong emotions.” This anime series is an equal parts Minority Report and Gattaca science fiction thriller penned by Gen Urobuchi, but despite it’s obvious derivative nature, it is an excellently executed, challenging and morally complex sci-fi fable: which is the best kind.

After a promising start in its first episode, in which much of the show’s complex moral quagmires are introduced, things settle into a seemingly routine police procedural structure. This is all smoke-screen and world-building that pays off as the series slowly reveals what it’s really about: the conflicts, choices and consequences for the characters. Psycho-Pass is very much in the same vein of adult live-action dramas such as True Detective and Hannibal where the cop-drama and murder mystery aspect of the show is used as a foundation for character-driven dense psychological examinations and philosophical discourse. Each “case” reveals several clever layers of metaphor and meaning but they are all rooted in examining the implications of Psycho-Pass’ future-world. It would be easy for the series to ask if it’s right or wrong to arrest someone not only before they’ve committed a crime, or even to punish someone for merely thinking & “feeling” in ways that lie outside what mainstream society deems acceptable. Psycho-Pass takes that further by suggesting perhaps that a “utopian” society built upon absolute control of emotions perpetuates one of repression and complacency is one that is truly unjust. The “criminals” of the series are certainly disturbed individuals by any standard, but the show suggests that their behavior is a direct result of the oppressive and repressive world they live in, where none of them can live and act true to their own thoughts and desires. Further irony is added by the concept of this world’s police force, which uses “latent criminals” (those deemed psychologically unfit for normal society but who have not committed any crime yet) as enforcers to carry out arrest and executions  at the behest of their “superiors.”

Each of the characters portray the choices and consequences (good and bad) as it pertains to each individual’s distinct personality and beliefs. For instance, an ongoing thread lies in series protagonist, Kogami, a former inspector-turned latent criminal & enforcer, as he is caught between acknowledging the system he was sworn to protect and his need to act of his own will and sense of justice. Urobuchi has wisely structured a fable in a manner that shows the merits and weakness of each possible choice. The series’ primary antagonist is given a complex motivation that is not only understandable, it’s downright sympathetic. As the show slowly begins unraveling the foundation of this utopian society,   viewers may find themselves questioning things in the manner of its cast. Could it be that the goal of bringing down this society is praiseworthy and only the methods the characters choose are wrong? Who are the “real heroes” anyway?

This ambiguity proves that Psycho-Pass is not an anime to be thoughtlessly consumed – it demands active viewing as it guides viewers to puzzle through the logic, character development, and questions of morality. Unfortunately the show’s direction is often reduced to “talking heads” as characters have a tendency to monologue: they spew their plans, armchair psychological evaluations of each other, and rant on  and every detail about a point the show deems important. However, the sharp script with natural sounding dialogue and layers of subtext in each and every conversation makes up for it. That the sharp script holds in either language track or translation is a bonus. Despite the talk-heavy nature of this animated production it should not be mistaken that there is a lack of visual flair. The designers and artists have depicted a distinct vision of the future that at once draws inspiration from such films as Blade Runner, Fifth Element and Metropolis but also has its own unique aesthetic and visual identity. The visual aesthetics of the show are great even if they are sometimes obscured by odd lighting and intrusive color choices. Of course “anime” implies animation and the series definitely succeeds in that regard. Every frame is composed with cinematic widescreen flair. Action scenes are fast, furious and look almost as if they were rotoscoped from live-action footage of martial artists, there’s some influence from The Raid in terms of composition, pacing and choreography. Character movement and facial expressions during scenes are always on point. Every scene, either action or expository, is enhanced by the excellent sound design and musical score: close your eyes and you might believe you’re watching a big-budget live action series or film. Urobuchi and his animation team’s direction is of a quality that certainly services the series’ writing.

On the whole, Psycho-Pass is one of the most fascinating and layered anime series to come along. And it isn’t just because of the myriad of literary references sprinkled throughout the show (ranging from Pascal & Plato to Shakespeare & the Bible) the actual writing of the show is complex on its own. There is enough ambiguity to this saga to make viewers discuss and ponder long after end episode wraps up. Simply put, the finale can be read as either hopeless or hopeful and Urobuchi has left it up to you to decide which way the world of the series will go after the events. Psycho-Pass is a show that challenges the viewer to think about the dynamics of a society that must constantly compromise between the needs of the individual and the many. Brave viewers may even come to accept as many of the series’ core characters did: that there may be no real answers. THAT is Psycho-Pass: speculative sci-fi daring to challenge us about the future.

3 thoughts on ““Psycho-Pass” – A Morality Fable in the Form of a Science Fiction Anime”

    1. Yea, two sides of the same. They’re kindred spirits and in a way it’s Makashima’s actions that force Kogami to act on behalf of his own “free will” rather than Sybil or the MWPSB. Like how Hannibal is shaping Will, Makashima did so to Kogami.

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