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Trying to explain why Psycho-Pass is one of my favorite shows is somewhat difficult, because if you asked me what I liked about it, I’d end up reading you the entire script. I enjoyed the concept of Psycho-Pass so much that after five episodes, the only thing that could’ve kept it from being one of my top five favorite shows would’ve been if it had done something to piss me off along the way. Every episode, the biggest source of tension for me was wondering if the show was going to let me down at some point–and it never happened. I enjoyed myself completely for twenty-two episodes straight. The best way I can explain how Psycho-Pass appealed to me so much is to explain how so many other shows have failed to do the same. I’m going to say some things that could be taken as spoilers in the process, but I will put up a warning before I directly spoil any of the show’s major twists.
If you’ve been watching my videos for the past month, you may have noticed that I’m a really big fan of shows that take place in the near future and heavily deal with the integration of humans and technology. This concept enamors me so much because it’s the kind of future I want to live in. I’m obsessed with living long enough to be a part of transhumanism and the continued increase in social welfare that comes with constant technological advancement. As such, I watch a lot of shows that deal with these concepts, and it happens that many stories of this nature tend to involve the philosophical and existential questions of what it means to be human when your physical self becomes integrated with technology.
Shows like this usually feature a conflict between those who embrace the merging of humans with technology, and those who believe that we lose integral elements of our humanity by becoming mechanized. Many of these shows take place in utopian societies, wherein medical and social advancements have brought the populace unparalleled happiness at the cost of their free will. In dystopian stories, where the system in control is flawed in some way, the system is usually viewed as evil, and the protagonists are rebellious against it. Psycho-Pass however, is the rare dystopian series that simultaneously acknowledges the flaws in its social system, while also viewing that system as an ultimately good thing.
Psycho-Pass takes place in a future Japan where science has found a way to quantify a human being’s mental behavior. Every person has been equipped with a system that monitors their mental state at all times. When a person starts to become anti-social and exhibit criminal tendencies, their crime coefficient goes up. At low levels, the system tries to get those people to undergo therapy and bring their status back to normal. If someone crosses a certain threshold however, then they are considered a latent criminal, meaning that they must be subject to long-term institutionalized therapy, or, if they have the aptitude for it, become a member of criminal investigations working as second-class citizens for the government.
I happen to think this system is fucking awesome. I’m of the opinion that our society would function best if every person was monitored by counselors who could help them to develop strong minds and make good life decisions. In the society presented in Psycho-Pass, the system determines each citizen’s aptitude at different jobs and presents them with the best options for them to function and be happy. The system works so well that almost no one even questions it. How fucking rad is that? I mean, if we had the technology to quantify aptitude, why wouldn’t we try and implement it this way? It would take an immeasurable computational power to keep track of all these things at once, and Psycho-Pass knows this and makes it a huge plot point. The series does an amazing job of achieving verisimilitude with its futuristic society.
In a lot of dystopian stories, it’s suggested that people are altogether dissatisfied living in a deterministic society. This never made sense to me though, because I feel like if people were on the whole dissatisfied, then open rebellion would happen pretty quickly. Maybe it’s because I live in a country that won’t even let its government institute really great social ideas because it’s so protective of its own misguided idea of personal freedom, but it’s really hard for me to imagine a government getting total compliance from its population if that population wasn’t incredibly satisfied with the results.
Most of the stories presented in Psycho-Pass show us where the system’s margin of error lies. We see how some people can abuse, or be abused by, the system, and eventually we see the darkest secrets that the system is keeping from the populace. However, at no point does the series suggest that people would be better off without it. Yes, there are problems, but on the whole, society is still at its highest level of accomplishment. This isn’t the story of trying to take down a corrupt system, so much as it is about trying to perfect a corrupt system.
The ideal woman for that job is Tsunemori Akane, the main character, whose job aptitude and psycho-pass rating are spotless. Even as she learns about all the ways that it fails, Akane has more belief in the system than anyone, and always operates under her ideal that there’s never an excuse to give up on another human being. As long as someone is alive, reform is always an option, and unless the circumstances lead to a person absolutely needing to be killed, violence should never be resorted to. Once again, this is an ideal that I share completely, and watching how Akane’s will was tested throughout the show was awesome as it made me wonder how I’d hold up if my will were tested in the same way.
I’m about to dive into some major spoilers now, so if you haven’t seen this show yet, skip to the timecode indicated on-screen and in the description.
The series main villain, Makishima Shougo, is an outlier–a one-in-two-hundred-thousand biological anomaly whose psycho-pass is unreadable by the system. Makishima is a fascinating villain in that he at once manages to have interesting ideals, while also being completely unsympathetic. His ultimate goal is to take down the system, out of a distrust for its deterministic nature, and how this has robbed people of individuality, as well as disgust with the system’s self-righteousness. The series presents his viewpoint as just that–not something the show agrees with or disagrees with, but a viewpoint we can understand him having. We learn about how some people actually became so reliant on the system to make decisions for them that they became vegetabilize; and we also see how people whose nature is inherently twisted are always going to be ultimately oppressed by the system.
Makishima believes in free will as an absolute. He believes that people’s decisions only hold worth when they are conclusions that the person has drawn themselves. If I were to argue against Makishima, I would say that even a guided decision is a decision nonetheless, though I’m sure he’d respond that it only means the decision is altogether less worthwhile. It comes down to a matter of personal taste with regards to other people, and Makishima knows this. He favors those who the laws oppress–people with a criminal mindset–people whom even the least regulated societies would still have to enforce justice upon. Even though Makishima’s ultimate goal is to create the kind of society he wants, his predilections are inherently anti-social, making him evil to the concept of society as a whole.
That’s why he’s so amazingly irredeemable. Even if you agree with some of his ideas, his radical approach to them still makes him a villain to all but the equally radical. Kougami Shinya acts as Makishima’s foil. Like Tsunemori, Kougami is ultimately an optimist who believes that collectively, humankind is more intelligent than they’re given credit for. He believes in the concept of society, but like Makishima, exhibits anti-social tendencies in his desire to murder Makishima at all costs.
As audience members, it’s hard to side against Kougami. We can easily get behind his quest for vengeance, because we know the atrocities that Makishima has committed; but if we were to consider the most functional decision to improve our society, ultimately it would be Makishima’s survival. By presenting Kougami as virtuous, and presenting Makishima and the Sibyl System as villainous and devious, the show strains both Tsunemori and the audience to the limits of social concienscousness by suggesting that sparing Makishima is the right choice. Ultimately, Kougami murders Makishima, and the audience is satisfied because we are not as strong as Tsunemori is.
If there’s one thing about Psycho-Pass that keeps it from being my favorite TV series of all time, its that the focus of the series is very narrow. Almost one-hundred percent of the dialog deals with the central conceit of the psycho-pass system and those working on either side of it. There is a pretty good amount of worldbuilding to show us how the Sibyl system has affected the lives of people in this city, but most of the dialog still centers around the psychological readouts of the characters. I would’ve liked to see some moments of levity in this show, or at least scenes where the characters do or say anything that isn’t immediately pertinent to the central theme.
I don’t think I’d necessarily remove anything in the show to make room, though. Psycho-Pass has an incredibly tight pace over its twenty-two episode run, and every single scene feels relevant to the story. However, if the show had more episodes and a little more breathing room, I would’ve liked to see it pull some more stand-alone episodes and feature the level of detail that I got from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Still, if anything, it’s a testament to how fantastic the series is when my biggest complaint is that I want to see more of it.
On a production level, Psycho-Pass is pristine. Awesome character designs, awesome background art, and awesome animation by Production I.G. The series is written by Urobuchi Gen, AKA Butch Gen, AKA Gen the Butcher, and if you haven’t seen his other shows to figure out how he got that nickname, this show will certainly educate you. I guess I should mention along with my recommendation that Psycho-Pass is EXTREMELY violent, with characters being horrifically gored on a pretty regular basis. This show is definitely not for the squeamish.
The main character happens to be voiced by my favorite voice actress, Hanazawa Kana, so that was pretty cool, and the main guy was played by Tomokazu Seki, who I’m a big fan of as well. Both of them were kind of playing against type as more serious, restrained characters, and I think Hanazawa showed some of her real acting chops in her role as well. Makishima is voiced by the master of awesome, silver-haired villains, Takahiro Sakurai. Seriously, look at this guy’s roles. He’s actually type-cast as silver haired badasses.
If I said any more at this point I’d pretty much just start recounting the entire show back to you in this video and explaining how awesome it is, so I’m stopping here, but hopefully I’ve given you a good idea of why the concepts explored in this series were so interesting to me, and how the presentation of those ideas was so satisfying in comparison to other series of this nature. If it sounds interesting to you at all, I highly recommend checking it out. The whole show is available for free streaming on Hulu, at least in my region, and a blu-ray set is available from Funimation. There’s also a re-edited version of the series slated for release starting this summer season, which will apparently include some new footage–as well as a second season coming this fall. I’m definitely looking forward to watching and covering each of this later this year, and I hope you’ll join me over on Digi Does Anime for episodic coverage when the time comes.