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Psycho-Pass is one of my favorite animated series of all time. Meanwhile, its sequel, Psycho-Pass 2 was a gigantic disappointment. In this video I’ll be seeking the answer to one very simple question: “what happened?” Like, literally, what happened? What actually occurred in Psycho-Pass to make me love it so much, and what went on in Psycho-Pass 2 for it to fail so hard at capturing the same magic?
To figure this out, we’ll need the answers to two more specific questions: What happened during the production of these two series, and what were we presented with by each of these two series? The answers to each of these questions will thread a rich tapestry of insight into how these shows came about, how each of them was presented, and how the audience reacted. In the process of getting these answers, I am going to talk for a very long time before getting to the point–so strap yourselves in, cause this is a five-part video.
—Part One: What Happened?—
To start with, let’s take a look at the production background of Psycho-Pass, and see if we can’t get some clues into what the team was going for in making this show. Thankfully, there are quite a number of interviews and quotes from the main creative staff of the series, through which they explain their influences and ideas for how the project came together–meaning that we don’t have to speculate much to figure out what happened.
Psycho-Pass was initially born out of animation studio Production IG’s desire to construct a new high-quality sci-fi intellectual property; specifically, with the hopes of following up on their success with the works of Mamoru Oshii, such as Ghost in the Shell and Patlabor–which are often regarded as some of the greatest works in the animated medium. In order to accomplish this, the studio hired a popular live-action film director named Katsuyuki Motohiro, best known for the Bayside Shakedown film series and other police procedural dramas, to come up with an original idea for a police drama with a sci-fi twist.
Motohiro had been interested in working in animation before, but felt that he would only do it if he could find a charismatic screenwriter. When someone showed him the mega-hit 2011 series Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica, Motohiro became curious about writer Gen Urobuchi, read all of his books, and decided that he would be ideal for this kind of project. Motohiro and Urobuchi worked closely to hash out the kind of world and story that they wanted to create, drawing inspiration from Western films such as L.A. Confidential, and from sci-fi authors such as Philip K Dick, while strictly trying to make something gritty, masculine, and anti-moe.
Once Psycho-Pass made it into the production phase, the studio assigned veteran animator Naoyoshi Shiotani to direct, while he was coming right off the heals of directing the Blood-C movie. Shiotani has stated in several interviews that he was on a very tight schedule with Psycho-Pass, thanks to being brought in right when the production cycle had already begun; but he also said that he was able to accomplish most of what he wanted to do with the series thanks to executive director Motohiro sticking up for him when dealing with the producers. It was important to everyone involved in the production that they create what they felt was a work of artistic merit–and from the sound of their interviews, it seems that they succeeded.
It’s also pretty clear from these interviews that Motohiro was excited at the idea of turning Psycho-Pass into a larger franchise and directing more projects based on it, as long as the series was successful. Motohiro specifically asked that nothing be put into the series which couldn’t be done in a live-action film, just in case he got the chance to do an adaptation of it at some point; and after the success of season one, he was immediately talking about his excitement to work on a sequel. Psycho-Pass quickly began receiving tie-in novels, games, and manga; and it wasn’t long after the original show’s airing that both a second season, as well as a full-length animated film, were announced.
However, it should be noted that the production and reception of Psycho-Pass didn’t necessarily run smoothly from start to finish. Episode sixteen, which is often considered the high-point of the series, was also the point after which director Shiotani and his staff felt that they were at the end of their mental ropes, and decided to take a sort of break. They outsourced episodes seventeen and eighteen to another studio–leading to a noticeable dip in quality, but allowing them to recuperate in order to focus on making episodes nineteen through twenty-two as good as they could be. Episodes seventeen and eighteen were redone for the home video release by Production IG, but I think the fact that this happened at all is noteworthy when trying to speculate on what may have happened during the production of season two.
In many ways, the reasons for Psycho-Pass 2 being so different from the first season are obvious: it simply was not made by the same people. While the planning for season two was supervised by Motohiro and Urobuchi, neither of them actually returned to their positions of executive director and scriptwriter for season two. They instead dedicated their efforts to the feature film, which was being produced at the same time as season two of the TV series. With Production IG working full force on the film as well, they handed the production of Psycho-Pass 2 over to one of their subsidiary studios, Tatsunoko Productions. Director Shiotani, now working on both the film and the TV series, was assisted by Tatsunoko Pro’s up-and-coming unit director Kiyotaka Suzuki on Psycho-Pass 2; and the screenwriting responsibilities were handed over to Tow Ubukata, who had previously written the Production IG originals Le Chevalier D’Eon and Ghost in the Shell: Arise.
Working with a different team wouldn’t necessarily mean that Psycho-Pass 2 was automatically going to be worse than the original, or even that it had to be completely different (considering that it’s not like the original team wasn’t involved at all). However, there were a few hints which made it evident that something wasn’t quite right from the very beginning. Director Shiotani has stated in interviews that there were a lot of troubles with trying to write the second series; not because of working on the film at the same time, but due to what he refers to as, “the inflexibility of the story.” He remarked on how it’s difficult to add new ideas into such a tightly-constructed sci-fi world without breaking anything–and you’ll notice that there aren’t any quotes from him about how they went about fixing that issue.
In the interview wherein Motohiro and Shiotani discuss the problems with episodes seventeen and eighteen of the original series, one of them comments that the studio they’d commissioned to handle those episodes must have had difficulty capturing the feeling and atmosphere of the sci-fi world which they’d constructed. If that feeling could so easily be shattered even within the animation production of two episodes which were already fully planned out by the original creative team, then it’s not a stretch to imagine that an entirely new writer and animation studio would have a difficult time capturing the feel of the original–especially when the main creative minds behind the series are busy working on another project.
Even if we simply compare the output of those involved with making the original show against those involved with making the sequel, it’s obvious that there were going to be issues. Regardless of how you may feel about the controversial Gen Urobuchi, there is no denying that his writing has been highly successful and gripping within stories such as Madoka Magica, Fate/Zero, and even his old games like Saya no Uta. Tow Ubukata isn’t necessarily a bad writer, but his most engaging works have arguably his goofier pulp cyberpunk stories such as Mardock Scramble. Projects like Ghost in the Shell: Arise pale in comparison to the other works of the franchise; and nothing which Ubukata has written quite stands on the level of Urobutcher’s work.
Likewise, Tatsunoko Production have been responsible for plenty of high-quality original works over their fifty-three year history, with some interestingly experimental recent work in the likes of Ping Pong, Gatchaman Crowds, and C – The Money of Soul and Possibility Control. That said, it’s nonetheless difficult to consider their body of work comparable to that of Production IG, which is often regarded as the single best anime studio in existence. Between their work on Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, the films of Mamoru Oshii such as The Sky Crawlers and Jin-Rou, other films and TV series such as A Letter to Momo, Seirei no Moribito, and Eden of the East, and the work that they did on GAINAX shows like Evangelion and FLCL, Production IG has continually been responsible for some of the best productions in the industry over the last thirty or so years.
Looking at it from this perspective, it almost seems like Psycho-Pass 2 was damned to inferiority right from the conceptual stage. Not only does it lack the creative team which made the original series great, but the stand-ins that it uses in their place hardly live up to the credentials of the people whom they’ve been made to follow. Even though a lot of the same people worked on various stages of the production of both series, there’s no question that the flavor of the second one is undeniably different from that of the first; and it would almost be foolish not to assume that this is largely attributable to the differences in how it was produced. What the production background says to me about Psycho-Pass 2, is that it was basically a side project made to keep up interest in the franchise while the main creative staff went to work on the film–and it’s hardly surprising that the result of this is a significantly worse series. This might not have even been a problem, were it not for the fact that Psycho-Pass 2 is a direct sequel which stars the same characters, and which effects the ongoing series narrative; making it a sort of slap in the face to fans who were expecting a product on the level of the original.
But while this may explain why the second season of Psycho-Pass isn’t as good as the first, it still doesn’t really explain how that is the case. We know now what potentially caused the second season’s problems, but what were the effects? What actually happened in this series that made it come out inferior to its predecessor? To figure that out, we’re going to have to spend some time watching each series and piecing together what exactly the first season did right, so that we can then identify where the second season failed to do the same. This video will only contain spoilers for the first episode of season one, and minor hints at things which come later, but I would highly advise at least watching that episode before continuing with this video. You can find it legally for free over on Hulu or Funimation.
—Part Two: What Happened?—
Due to the fact that Psycho-Pass is twenty-two episodes long, whereas Psycho-Pass 2 is only eleven, I feel that it’s only fair to compare these shows on the basis of their similarities. The first half of Psycho-Pass consists mostly of world-building and establishing characters, whereas both the second half of season one and the majority of season two are dedicated to more straightforward ongoing narratives. As such, I’m going to spend a long time talking about the first half of season one before I even mention season two–so get ready for a long ride.
Now, I’m sure that everyone’s reaction to what goes on in these shows will be governed primarily by personal taste–but for me, it did not take long at all for Psycho-Pass to get my attention. As a big fan of the cyber-noir and cyberpunk genres, the instant I saw sweeping helicopter shots of a slightly futuristic metropolis beaming out of the darkness, I was excited for what was to come.
The first episode of Psycho-Pass season one begins with a flash-forward cold open, which serves at least three purposes:
Firstly, to establish the setting as a bustling city in the not-too-distant future. This setting resembles modernity enough to feel like it’s not too far ahead of us; however, little clues such as the police robots, the holographic walls of this big tower, and glimpses of Kougami’s crazy gun, tip us off to the fact that it’s at least somewhat futuristic.
Secondly, it serves to introduce us to the rivalry between Kougami Shinya and Makishima Shougo. We may not yet know whom either of these characters are, nor why this scene is significant; but from here we get the sense that Psycho-Pass is going to have a continuous narrative, and a central conflict which will eventually bring us to this point. This knowledge is crucial because the first arc of the series consists mostly of episodic stories, which we only learn are connected a few episodes later. Without this scene, viewers might not realize that the series intends to go for an over-arching narrative at all.
Thirdly, this scene exists to show off the ambitiousness of the series. The decision to go for a cold open, with the opening theme playing over the scene, combined with hyper-detailed backgrounds, a brief but nicely-animated combat sequence, and hints of explosive gore, all give the impression that this is going to be a high-budget action thriller with a dark and violent slant. Right off the bat, the series wants us to know that it’s got bigger ambitions than most of what we’ve come to expect from TV anime.
Because of this scene, even if we’re not really sure what’s going on or why we should care about the characters on-screen, we’ve already been made to understand what kind of series we’re watching, and what kind of things we can expect to come up further down the line.
The next scene is paced pensively, with low-energy music and a lot more sound effects to set the tone and character of the episode. We see shots of alleyways, heavy rainfall, and crowds of people outside a strange, futuristic police barricade. Immediately, the imagery calls to mind a neo-noir tone in the vein of works like Bladerunner, while also being just unique enough to convey a sense of mystery regarding these police robot things.
Tsunemori Akane arrives on the scene in a hurry, soaked through her clothes, and apologizes for her lateness. We immediately perceive her as a somewhat clumsy newcomer when she has to force her way through a crowd of people to make it onto the scene. Meanwhile, her senior Ginoza’s first line of dialog has him interrupting Akane mid-sentence and curtly explaining that he won’t have time to treat her like a new recruit.
People like to accuse Gen Urobuchi of focusing too strongly on exposition in his writing; but in this scene we’ve already witnessed how exposition can cleverly be used to give us clues about the personalities of the characters. Akane and Ginoza have been on-screen for less than a minute, and have only said lines which are immediately relevant to the situation–but thanks to the way that Akane arrives on the scene, and the way that Ginoza interrupts her right off the bat, we get a sense of what these two are like, and what kind of chemistry they’ll have together.
Even the framing of shots reinforces these feelings. The first shots we see of Ginoza are both from low angles, which puts him above our eye level and has him looking down at the camera; whereas the first full-body shot of Akane is from Ginoza’s perspective looking down at her, while she’s looking up at him. This instantly makes her look both younger and lower than him. One of the most important aspects of Akane’s character is that others perceive her as being too cute and innocent to be handling this job–but she always proves that she’s a lot tougher than she looks. This shot puts us into the eyes of the other characters in the series, so that we understand what they see when they look down at her.
Again, in the following scene, we’re mostly greeted with exposition about the upcoming mission; but in this case, not only are we introduced to some of the systems and technology of the Psycho-Pass universe, but also to some of the core themes of this season.
The basic premise of the MWPSB’s missions are that they have to deal with the people who’ve fallen through the holes in society’s safety net. Their target in this case is a man who was picked up by cymatic scanners for having a clouded psycho-pass hue, but who continually denied psychological treatment until his number escalated, forcing him to go on the run to avoid arrest.
To escape from the system, he’s retreated into a city block which has, itself, fallen through the cracks in society. This area is apparently not properly controlled by the Sybil system, meaning that it can’t be accessed by the city’s drones, and has become a habitat for the homeless. Right off the bat, before we even know anything about how the sybil system works, we’ve already been shown that it’s full of glaring holes and weaknesses; which are more or less what the entire series sets out to explore.
Even though this exposition scene is relatively short, a lot is done to keep it interesting. We see use of a number of cinematic camera angles and meticulous background details, both in the landscape and in the information presented on Ginoza’s holo-screen, thus continuing to bring out the life of this world as the scene goes on. The rain in the background is also used to make it feel like something is always moving on-screen, yet not distracting from the dialog.
When Ginoza introduces the enforcers, we get to see the way that Psycho-Pass cleverly integrates the opinions of characters into their explanations, so that it doesn’t feel as much like Ginoza is explaining to Akane something that she should already know. A lot of viewers accuse the series of doing this anyways, but personally I felt that while these lines were obviously made to inform the audience of what enforcers are, they also serve a purpose in the narrative as Ginoza’s way of pushing his mindset onto Akane. He tells Akane not to think of the enforcers as people, but as nothing more than attack dogs under her command.
Throughout the series, we’ll come to see that different inspectors have their own perspectives on the use of enforcers–and that one of the biggest conflicts between Akane and Ginoza will be their opposite treatments of their teammates–so it’s important that we establish from the get-go how Ginoza perceives the relationship between inspectors and enforcers. These differing perspectives are reinforced moments later when Akane bows and asks the enforcers to look after her, as she would do to a senior at work; whereas Ginoza refers to them as dogs and tells them that Akane is their new owner.
During Ginoza’s explanation, the music and camera angles are obviously meant to communicate that the enforcers are the cool kids–who of course are all dressed in slick business-casual attire. Kagari is the first of the enforcers to speak up, and we get a sense of both his carefree attitude, as well as a reinforcement of the way that everyone perceives Akane when he calls her a little cutie. The others seem more standoffish and are all facing in different directions while Ginoza briefs them on the mission, giving the impression that none of them really feels any need to pay attention since they’ll just be going through the motions like they always do. The back-and-forth jabs between Kagari and Yayoi, as well as between Masaoka and Kougami, suggest that the four of them are more friendly and unserious towards one-another, in comparison to their relationship with Ginoza.
The subsequent expository dialog is a lot more egregious with Masaoka explaining things that Akane should already know, but it’s not really suggested that Akane doesn’t, in fact, know these things. It’s possible that Akane has never handled a Dominator before this point, though unlikely that she wouldn’t understand how they operate–but then again, everyone still sees Akane as just a hapless little girl. Masaoka even refers to her as, “ojou-san,” which is akin to calling her, “princess,” and both he and Kougami insist that she just needs to sit back and watch while they do all of the work. Kougami explains that if Akane doesn’t like what he tries to do, then she can just shoot him with the dominator–implying that he doesn’t respect the inspectors as anything more than the holders of his leash.
After this, we cut to a brief scene with the episode’s antagonist, as he explains his motivations to the hostage while in the midst of tormenting her. While his motivations are fairly cliched, they give us some insight into the way that criminals are perceived in this society. This guy is so afraid of being persecuted for having a clouded hue that he’s refused treatment to the point where his mind has unravelled; and now that he feels he’s been purged from the possibility of normalcy, he just doesn’t care what happens to him anymore. Already, we’re learning about the dangers of a society that puts so much emphasis on quantified mental states that a criminal will feel that their entire life is over the moment they’ve even thought about doing anything wrong.
As Masaoka and Akane patrol a gorgeously detailed series of streets and alleyways, we get little insights into Akane’s background and state of mind. She’s pretty on-edge and isn’t quite sure of what to make of her situation, nor the fact that Masaoka seems to be a normal guy in spite of his heightened criminal coefficient. Masaoka rambles that she should forget about the things she’s been taught with regards to doing this job, stating that all of the theories and logic which she’s learned won’t help her in real-life scenarios.
From a technical standpoint, the purpose of this dialog is to make us feel that we’re on a level playing field with Akane in terms of how well we understand the situation. Masaoka is basically saying that anything which she’s learned up to this point is useless–so as the audience, there’s also nothing else that we need to know going into this series. However, this also poses as a sort of challenge both to us and to Akane. Masaoka is trying to push his worldview onto us and to do things his own way–but I think we share a healthy dose of wariness when it comes to trusting him entirely. Again, the most important aspect of Akane’s development is how she forms and sticks to a strong sense of self, while proving over time that she knows what she’s doing. By having Masaoka essentially advise her to turn her brain off, he gives her a standard which she can go on to challenge as the episode and the series continues.
Here we come to a set of action sequences, throughout which we learn more of the rules of this world’s systems. We see that the dominator’s Non-Lethal Paralyzer mode can be useless if the criminal is hopped up on stimulants, and we learn about how people who can’t handle the stress of being put into dangerous situations will often enter a dangerous mental state themselves. As Masaoka explains this, Akane says that she wrote her thesis on this concept, proving that she does indeed know a lot of what Masaoka is explaining already, and is mostly listening to him ramble because she’s too wrapped up in the present situation. Again, while you may accuse this series of speaking too much exposition for the sake of the audience, I really don’t think it’s unusual for an old veteran to ramble endlessly at what he sees as a hapless new recruit–and I certainly don’t think it’s out of character for Masaoka.
Once it comes time to kill the criminal and save the hostage, we are presented, in explosively gory fashion, with the central conflict of Psycho-Pass. Namely, that in a system with so many holes and contradictions, it is inherently flawed to make an arbitrary distinction between who does and doesn’t deserve to be considered a criminal. Here, after witnessing the tragic murder of a man who only went insane because of the persecution that he feared from society–and the subsequent persecution of the victim whom the criminal had kidnapped–Akane first comes to realize that the system is wrong. Even if there’s nothing that could’ve been done to help the man who was killed, she recognizes an inherent problem with deciding to be the moral authority on whether someone is worth keeping alive.
When Masaoka tries to incapacitate the victim as per their job as enforcers, Akane desperately stops him, stating that the use of violence is unnecessary. The situation gets worse as the victim runs into a warehouse and her crime coefficient increases, making her a candidate for lethal elimination. Akane stops Kougami from pulling the trigger using her own paralyzer, and then talks the victim down into a calmer state before Ginoza shoots her with the paralyzer; proving beyond any doubt that the sybil system’s method of determining which criminals deserve to die is flawed, and that the methodology of the enforcers is, perhaps deliberately, lazy.
The reason I’ve broken down this episode to such an extent is so that we can get a good taste for the flavor of Gen Urobuchi’s writing on this series. What we’ve got here is a dark, gritty, and heavily wordy series whose thematic interests lie in social commentary, human psychology, and ethical dilemmas. Right from the start, we’re given to understand the flaws of the system which governs this society, and made to explore this world through the eyes of someone who has immediately become disillusioned towards her work.
People like to throw around the phrase, “show don’t tell,” like some kind of weaponized critical easy mode, but I think that Psycho-Pass does a perfectly fine job of showing and telling at the same time. While the first episode is packed with expository dialog so that we can quickly become accustomed to the rules of its sci-fi universe, it also introduces us not only to the basic personalities of the main characters, but also to the power dynamic between them; and to both the interpersonal and social conflicts which Akane is going to face throughout the series.
This episode functions as a sort of mission statement for the first season of Psycho-Pass. It may not be the most engrossing way to start a series, but it’s a workhorse for getting us into the mood and premise of what’s to come, while delivering on some entertaining and memorable scenes along the way. This might not be the type of writing that you prefer to see in an anime series, but from a technical standpoint it gets a hell of a lot done–and I wouldn’t say that anything about the episode is particularly flawed. I’d even say that it does a fantastic job of giving the viewer enough tools to start thinking about and analyzing the narrative themes on their own, which better prepares them to interpret and appreciate all of the ethical questions which the series will tackle across its run.
So now we’ve got a sense not only for the style of writing and directing which Psycho-Pass employs, but also for the characters and themes that it aims to portray. In my next video, we’ll be diving deeper into what Psycho-Pass has to offer as a story, and we’ll begin to compare it against Psycho-Pass 2. Stick around on my channel until then, and if you’d like to support my content and make sure that I can keep producing these videos, consider supporting me via patreon or paypal. See you in the next one!
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