I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: Netflix is pretty great. The convenience of having so much stuff available with just a few button presses of my remote can’t be overstated, especially when Real Life circumstances have left me with more free time than I know what to do with in the past few months. Their anime selection is pretty good too.
Take Psycho-Pass. Somehow it slipped under my radar, as things annoyingly all too often seem to do. With hindsight I can’t even explain why, because I soon discovered how it ticks so many boxes in terms of setting, writing and, well, pretty much everything.
Cyberpunk is one of those ‘comfort zone’ things that I keep coming back to, even when it fulfils just the basic requirements of being a futuristic film noir style story. Of course, originality isn’t everything: when William Gibson saw Blade Runner at the cinema he recognised its potential as a cult classic, but worried about what his debut novel Neuromancer could bring to the table. As it turned out, both titles are still highly regarded on their own merits and helped define cyberpunk as a whole.
Psycho-Pass was intended to sit amongst what has followed since, which is surprising when the anime industry has probably crowded the cyberpunk genre as much as anyone. As with Ghost in the Shell, Appleseed, Mardock Scramble and numerous straight-to-video efforts of the 80s and 90s, it has all those neon lights, high-rise buildings and stony-faced cops with guns that go ‘pew-pew’ instead of ‘bang’ to gleefully gory effect, so initially it doesn’t do much to set itself apart.
What’s even more astonishing is that, at first glance, Psycho-Pass is formulaic to the point at which it looks like it’s trying to sabotage its own success. Heck, one bit of dialogue is literally a discussion of cyberpunk fiction in which two characters liken their world to a Gibson or P K Dick novel (and in the same episode, there’s a flash of a crooked gold baseball bat as a nod to Satoshi Kon’s Paranoia Agent…as I said: this show ticks a lot of my boxes)!
There’s the well-worn premise of wide-eyed rookie paired with cynical old-timer too, but once the character roles of Akane and Shinya are established, it finally comes into its own. The crucial point here is the feat that Pyscho-Pass pulls off: it’s so damn good at what it does that I was able to forget that I’d seen much of it before somewhere else.
A futuristic worldview justifies itself through explaining both how and why it’s different from reality’s past or present, so seeing the way that a justice system is reimagined from the ground up was refreshing. Although it superficially looks like just another futuristic urban dystopia and although the science-y bits go all vague in the mechanics, Psycho-Pass’ world-building is really satisfying. It proposes an extrapolation of the ‘Surveillance State’ idea, but follows the train of thought through and examines the end results in gritty detail.
For instance: what do cops actually *do* when forensics are replaced by drones, and when the whole procedure of officer on the beat leading to trial-by-jury is replaced by the drawing of a high-tech smart-gun? With the introduction of such profound changes, the lowly status and resentful mentality of the Enforcers make a lot more sense.
In the first episode, the likes of Masaoka and Kogami – who in any other crime thriller would be the hero detectives – are painted as anachronistic and even dangerous. The reasoning goes, the world has evolved and they have been unable to move with the times, so have had to settle for a downgraded role. As their traditional approach has become redundant, the old-school detectives have to either mould themselves to the new way of doing things, accept relegation to the role of Enforcer or quit the job altogether.
I’ll be really honest here: I truly felt for the Enforcers, especially when they’re just as dedicated as everyone else. Even before Makashima rears his head and highlights the flaws in the new system, their ‘second class citizen’ status is doing them a disservice and isn’t a very elegant solution for a society that prides itself on its supposed perfection and fairness. They’re not valued or respected, but at the same time their skills are still grudgingly required.
The characters contribute greatly to what makes Psycho-Pass such a success. The sexual tension between Akane and Shinya is rather understated, instead portraying them as two people with vastly opposing points of view gradually coming to understand one another better…as professionals. The conclusion of which appears in the final episode when Akane is now the experienced Inspector taking a newbie out on the beat for the first time. The deliberate similarities to the equivalent scene in the first episode neatly highlight Akane’s growth into a badass champion for justice, and how she could be a force for positive change.
After a while, I felt the character study and moral questioning aspects were familiar; vaguely reminiscent of Kinoko Nasu or his inspiration, Natsuhiko Kyougoku. Its worldview reminded me a little of Loups-Garous and the whole setup isn’t far from how I’d imagine a Nasu work to be if he took a break from Type Moon and tried some SF instead. I realised the vital ingredient was Gen Urobuchi’s writing, which can explain why many aspects of the story clicked with me.
I daresay this is Urobuchi on top form. For all its poetic elegance, the storytelling of Madoka Magica had a coldly mechanical and emotionally-detached feel, possibly because it was an intentional pastiche of the magical girl concept, and Akiyuki Shinbo’s directing style is so attention-grabbing. Fate/Zero worked brilliantly too, but still had to fit into an existing franchise. The themes and setting of Psycho-Pass on the other hand felt like Urobuchi had been able to assert his own ideas without compromise.
He has this unflinching approach that I admire enormously: unafraid to take the story into dark places, but also prepared to kill off characters if the storytelling demands it. It’s effectively done though, so I reckon the ‘Urobutcher’ label is as undeserving as Joss Whedon’s notoriety for applying similar instances in his writing; it’s a departure from their contemporaries, which is a good thing. A certain climatic scene in the eleventh episode for instance had me open-mouthed in shock, thinking: “I can’t believe they just did that!” But guess what? It’s sure as hell effective in context.
I still can’t shake off how the writing of Nasu and Urobuchi have so much in common though. I know they’ve been interviewed together and collaboration was part of the Fate/Zero writing process, but their work backgrounds are similar and I have a mental image of them exchanging frequent e-mails and possibly catching up with a few beers every now and then before and since. Perhaps this is why the other lingering impression I had of Psycho-Pass was the nearest we’re ever likely to get to a full-on Nasu-esque SF crime thriller.
The gorier moments and the all-pervading sense of tension and fear might make it too graphic and oppressive for some, but for me that’s the point: there’s a lot wrong with the society that Psycho-Pass portrays, and it pulls no punches in demonstrating why. There are still good reasons why Akane and her team put their lives on the line to defend it, which makes their sacrifices all the more poignant and nuanced in meaning. They stare into the abyss and risk being dragged into its depths, so the rest of us don’t have to.