Reviewby Jacob Hope Chapman, Apr 29th 2014
Psycho-Pass Season One
Blu-Ray - Complete Collection [Premium Edition]
Akane Tsunemori is a rookie cop working a strange new beat, where veteran officers are her subordinates, and the longer you stay on the force, the more likely you are to be demoted. In this high-tech far-flung future, every citizen's ID is branded with numbers and colors that determine their path in life: what career they will grow into, what interests they can pursue, and most importantly, a feature called the "Psycho-Pass." The Psycho-Pass program measures their "crime coefficient," a number dependent on stress, conflict, and deviancy in the brain immediately preceding dangerous activity. If your Psycho-Pass shoots up too high, you're labeled a "latent criminal" and put into rehabilitation until that offensive number goes down. It's all monitored by a supercomputer matrix called The Sibyl System, creating a perfect world where all conflict or suffering is invisible, unless you're part of the limited police force that hawkeyes the Psycho-Passes of the city, and eradicates the baddest apples with lethal force.
As it turns out, the watchdogs responsible for hunting latent criminals are latent criminals themselves. Labeled "Enforcers," the iron-willed Shinya Kogami and his peers are members of the Welfare Public Safety Bureau whose Psycho-Passes have gone radical from too many years on the job. Think like the bad guys for too long, and you become one yourself to the impartial Sibyl System. Enforcers are stripped of many civil rights but allowed to live outside detainment centers as long as they continue to support the side of justice. So fresh-faced Akane, with her pure Psycho-Pass, is labeled an Inspector, in charge of putting down Enforcers if they ever decide to abuse their limited power. She has faith in the system, but can't help but wonder if there's something wrong with a world where "good" people like her are rewarded with a position of inaction until they become "bad" enough to be punished with purpose.
Very soon, a wild serial murderer named Shogo Makashima will rise from the ashes of an older world to throw everything Akane, Kogami, and their friends once fought for into chaos, and bring into question the fairness of Sibyl's judgment. As old grudges and unsolved cases come bubbling through the cracks in the system, the babysitters and watchdogs of the WPSB are forced to wonder if justice can even be sought from a cold, objective force now turning its eye away the people it once protected.
Truly original IP, material not based on any prior book, game, or manga, is rare in anime, and often it's hard to tell where those new ideas come from. Sometimes it's ridiculously easy, however, as in the case of Psycho-Pass, a Production I.G. crime show set in the future and centered around a ragtag group of veteran and rookie cops with complex motivations and conflicted feelings about the system that employs them. Hm. Sounds familiar. An interview with the producers included on this bluray release lays the history of Psycho Pass' production out plainly: I.G. was interested in making a successor to Oshii's achievements with Ghost in the Shell and Patlabor and they hired Katsuyuki Motohiro, a live-action director known for successful cop procedurals, and Naoyoshi Shiotani, a veteran I.G. animator, to supervise direction. They decided to focus efforts solely on creating an impressive setting that would blend influences from L.A. Confidential, Blade Runner, Gattaca, and countless other tangential relatives. Then they sought out Gen Urobuchi for his revered writing talent and past successes with psychological pieces to give their project a story and characters, and he insisted on a Philip K. Dick-inspired dystopian narrative.
This origin story is not a surprising one, and at first, not necessarily a promising one. (Entertainment by committee? Too many cooks in the kitchen? Yet another Blade Runner dystopia?) However, the resulting TV series is fascinating on its own merits, and wildly exceeds the sterile-yet-erratic circumstances of its birth. Instead of resulting in a derivative and directionless chimera with too many parts in all the wrong places, season one of Psycho-Pass is a sharply written and produced adventure with love poured into every frame from hundreds of talented hands. It's a top-shelf creation that rivals both its live-action relatives and its closest animated one, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.
Yes, Psycho-Pass operates heavily on borrowed imagery, but the novelty of how it blends those influences works all on its own. The slick convenience of the city at large, with holographic housing and wardrobe for every citizen customized through floating panoramic screens, is clearly pulled from Minority Report, as is the basic premise for the show. Meanwhile, the underbelly of the city, where Enforcers race past pipes and broken neon signs wielding specialized weapons, is so Blade Runner it hurts. However, the blend between these worlds is what sets the story apart. There is no vast separation of privileged and poor, for all good citizens are equally comfy under Sibyl. And yet, Psycho-Pass' once-Tokyo is no charmed city in the clouds. Latent criminals often seek refuge in the remains of an older world beneath the city and yet firmly connected to the utopia built above, as if the glorious future seeks to push its grimy history deeper into the earth. Speaking of grimy, viewers should be warned that Psycho-Pass revels constantly in its own gory glory. This is an R-rated adventure filled with exploding men, dismembered women, and all manner of body horror and torture. The Terminator turns out to be yet another of the obvious influences in this series' world, and human or cyber-human anatomy is on detailed display from crime to crime, so don't approach it with a weak stomach.
There are unique visual ideas in the series as well, most prominently the changing shape of the Dominator, a gun usable only by the police that begins as a static machine but soon seems to be hiding an all-seeing alien malice that is more in control of its owner than the other way around. The Dominator is also one of the better uses of CG integration in Psycho-Pass, which blessedly restrains CGI to a complementary aid rather than depending on it entirely for mechanized characters or objects. There are some poorly blended missteps, like a rampaging CGI robot in episode 3, but for the most part, the compositing in Psycho-Pass is as smooth as it gets for anime, and the character animation is excellent, with different ranges of melodrama or subtlety applied to each member of the cast's expression based on their personality. The number of environments in the show is massive, all of them gorgeous and each with their own character formed from many diverse influences. There's a shot where antagonist Makashima imagines that he is staring into the jungle from Heart of Darkness that is absolutely breathtaking on bluray. On that note, since Psycho-Pass is largely a low-contrast show, bluray is the way to see it. All the little details pop fantastically in the high definition transfer. Even when the setting is a dark sewer lit only by a single sweeping flashlight, no clarity is lost, and the amount of work poured into the show's visuals can be fully appreciated. It should be intensely rewarding for fans who had trouble with the muddy limitations of the streaming encode that ran on Hulu. Yet for all its widespread ambition, Psycho-Pass always feels like it takes place in one cohesive world, and I.G.'s animation team is more than up to the task of making the impressive action scenes blend into every environment beautifully. It's a damn good-looking show start to finish.
The soundtrack is excellent as well, all minimalist, sinister buzzes and beeps until everything comes to a head in an explosion of loud guitar strings and dubstep chaos with a strange dirty grandeur to it. The OST is included in the collector's bluray set, along with some special edition goodies: a keychain, ID holder, business card case, and sticker decal, all branded with the Caduceus, logo of the WPSB. The set's English dub is passable, but that's about it. It rings of a dub produced in a big hurry, with a faithful script that largely works but folds to shortcuts like arbitrary pauses in. The middle of a sentence for. No reason that. Are poorly placed. Psycho-Pass is an extremely talky show, so exhaustion on the part of the adaptive team is understandable, but the result here is a mostly wooden dub where characters feel more like they're reacting in a void than reacting to one another. It's by no means bad, and improves slightly as it goes, but Funimation has usually done better than this: the lifeless, rushed feeling never really goes away. The casting is fine though, the important emotional beats still work, and it's nice to have a competent English option for a series with such intricate dialogue and great visuals to enjoy.
If you're in the market for a well-animated future-cop show, no more needs to be said: Psycho-Pass is top of the heap. Of course, speculative sci fi is nothing without biting social commentary, and this is a place where even the prettiest anime can fall flat. So it falls to Gen Urobuchi to give Psycho-Pass' bangin' body a beautiful mind, and he largely succeeds, though not at all in the same way as Ghost in the Shell or Patlabor. In replacing the grounded and political voices of Mamoru Oshii or Kenji Kamiyama with the mythically-minded Urobuchi, Psycho-Pass is given a timeless, grandiose vision all its own. It's high-concept, horrific, and somewhat silly, just barely held together by Urobuchi's equally strong desire to create worlds where all the rules are followed, even if the rulebook is impossibly bizarre. Perhaps realizing that the show was a visual gumbo of dystopian classics, Urobuchi turns Psycho-Pass' narrative into a speculative think piece that actively comments on the dozens it steals from: Orwell to Gibson to Jonathan Swift, all wrapped up in a unique world where those books were written, then banned, then unearthed and commented upon by a lone hero. Except it's not a hero, but a villain, who sees the world the way we do.
While most of our heroes seem unaware that they live in a high-concept short story, acting as more simple, relatable anchors to the viewer's emotions, Urobuchi's fascination with humanizing evil rears its head again in the form of sympathetic-yet-scary antagonist Shogo Makashima. He is the voice who speaks to our minds, to the self-assured sci-fi lovers who have "seen this all before." Our villain prefers the company of old books to other people after he discovers that the words of the passionate dead are the only things that can make him feel human in a world of cold, purposeless convenience. He mourns the willful ignorance of a society that let such crazy fictional prophecies come true, and this balance of self-awareness and sincerity in Psycho-Pass' "what if" world strikes a chord. After all, Brave New World, The Truman Show, and many other speculative works were seen as "ridiculous" upon release only to be proven prescient years later, and for Psycho-Pass' universe, the stories are different, (most of them by Philip K Dick,) but the principle is the same. At the same time, Makashima is punished for being "too smart for his own story." The focused serenity with which he commits horrible violent acts makes him an anomaly to the Sybil system, a true sociopath without equal, and the riddle of his ability to thrive on his own in what should be a perfect communal system ultimately makes him Sybil's greatest victim, in a series of twists characteristic of the whip-smart Urobuchi. If you're willing to follow it there, the series is brilliant on a meta-textual level, using its immense pile of literary references both to actively comment on itself and subliminally lend its events greater emotional depth. (Anyone who knows the significance of the biblical Parable of the Weeds, which Shogo references, will have a greater appreciation for season one's finale and the seeds of hope being sown for season two.)
Psycho-Pass' villain is Urobuchi's act of rebellion against making "just another dystopia," and he's the key element that makes it a work of thoughtful art rather than wild entertainment. However, Psycho-Pass is clearly meant to be the most accessible of Urobuchi's work so far: aimed at an adult audience, but not one as niche as the otaku he has written for in Madoka or Fate/Zero. So the core ideas espoused through our protagonists are simpler, more familiar, and approached in plainer ways. The focus is on these earthier folks rather than Shogo, as it should be: mostly meat, a little spice. The cops are all normal humans who struggle under the system, and watching the idealistic Akane and the cynical Kogami struggle for mutual understanding while refusing to compromise their ideals is satisfying, comfortable ground for a cop story, but peppered with high-minded conflicts of Conformity vs. Free Will (among countless other ideas) that keep the show ever clever. While most of these ideas are explored visually, Urobuchi has always been a verbose writer, so viewers should be prepared for long, intense conversations between characters that plow through minute details of complex cases and the heavy philosophies surrounding how they should be solved. It could be enthralling for some and agonizing for others. The writing is sharp and true to character, so these monologues don't so much slow the show down as just demand close, thoughtful attention.
No, it's the "countless other ideas" in Psycho-Pass that threaten to beach the show at times. We've seen enough dystopian narratives to know that the Sybil system is secretly a Bad Thing. (It's named SIBYL for crying out loud.) That can't be revealed too early in a 22-episode series though, so the first half of Psycho-Pass becomes a jaunt through the weird lives of various criminals on the path to confronting Shogo and The Truth Behind Sibyl. They are all tied into the story at large, but just barely, and mostly function as reinterpretations of "things Urobuchi likes that wouldn't fill a whole show," like Johnny Mnemonic, Titus Andronicus, The Most Dangerous Game, and a couple dozen more squeezed in the cracks. These early episodes are good and build character well, but through it all, it's impossible not to drum your fingers with impatience at our heroes' devout obedience to what we know must be an Evil System. Psycho-Pass' real story is maybe 13 episodes, and the rest is decompression and bonus rabbit trails, which are nice but somewhat frustrating in light of how great the main event turns out to be.
Still, at the end of Psycho-Pass' many sideroads is a bastion of passionate resolve that speaks to fans of high-concept genre-fic and earthy police dramas alike. It's overflowing with insightful things to say about man's relationship to his fellow man, to technology, and most importantly, to the law. If the law becomes a static construct outside of humanity, what aspects of humanity does it ultimately protect? When people bow to the letter of the law in place of the spirit, what parts of their own spirit does it diminish? In the end, could it be humanity's job to protect the law instead? Well, there is no perfect answer, but the insight lies in the question, and the journey every character takes to finding their own answer both warms the soul and tickles the brain. This is an excellent series that uses the mouths of old stories to speak new truths, and a second season can't come soon enough.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Impressive and polished production, packed with fascinating ideas that it explores in complexity, strong and diverse characters that bear their weighty dialogue with grace, ultimately breathes new life into a tired premise
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