Reviewby Nick Creamer,
BD+DVD - Season 2
In the wake of the Shougo Makishima incident, Akane Tsunemori has stepped up as the lead Inspector of Division 1, joined by new arrival Mika Shimotsuki. But the peace of Sibyl's society is soon challenged by a new threat, one who seemingly can't even be recognized by the eyes of Sibyl. Is this ghost a true threat to Japan, or is Akane finally losing her own grip? The case soon spirals into a series of killings and disappearances seemingly aimed at dismantling the police force itself, as the mysterious “Kamui” challenges a world that cannot judge him.
The original Psycho-Pass was a real hit back when it premiered in 2012, one of the first hits in a long time for the once-renowned noitaminA anime block. The show was composed and partially written by Gen Urobuchi, a man who'd gained significant fame both in the visual novel world and for his recent series Madoka Magica and Fate/Zero. Psycho-Pass demonstrated all the hallmarks of his style - it imagined a flawed utopia where justice was measured not as a response to crimes, but through the system's ability to scan and remove people before they committed them. Someone's “Psycho-Pass” was their mental stability according to Sibyl, the world's mysterious overseer - a clear Psycho-Pass would help you lead a free and healthy life, whereas those prone to instability or criminal thoughts would find their hue clouded and choices restricted. At the extreme end, those with heavily clouded Psycho-Passes would end up being judged by Inspectors, who'd either take in or eliminate potential criminals based on the decree of Sibyl.
It was a strong premise that lent itself towards precisely the kind of story Urobuchi likes to write - stories that frame the overall world as dark and punishing, but individual people as courageous icons of hope. Stories that challenge the fundamentals of utilitarianism, or any philosophy that sees the individual and their beliefs as subservient to the greater good (in Fate/Zero, for example, this framework is challenged through the different power structures of the series' mage families). Urobuchi's stories can occasionally drift towards the impersonal, but the strong centering influence of Psycho-Pass's protagonist Akane Tsunemori kept the narrative engaging and emotionally sound. It was a successful and award-winning work, one that quickly earned both a sequel series and planned film.
But Urobuchi's a busy guy, and so even though he'd return for the film, the writing for season two was handed off to Tow Ubukata. Experience-wise, Ubukata seemed like a fine pick; not only was he the creator of Mardock Scramble, but he'd recently finished work on the newest version of Psycho-Pass's most clear influence, Ghost in the Shell. Even if his own thematic bugbears might not have perfectly matched the ideas that consistently haunted Urobuchi, it seemed reasonable to assume he'd offer a coherent twist on an established franchise.
Unfortunately, as Psycho-Pass 2 clearly and consistently demonstrates, Ubukata is just not the right match for this series. In fact, I struggle to think of how this second season could have been much worse. Psycho-Pass 2 demonstrates not just failures of entertainment and narrative composition, but a fundamental lack of understanding of the thematic questions underpinning the original series. Psycho-Pass 2 is one of those vanishingly rare instances of a writer literally not understanding the show they are writing.
Psycho-Pass 2 opens conventionally enough, with a routine case leading to Akane Tsunemori showing off her new style of law enforcement. While Sibyl believes it is only the law that can make society work, Akane believes it is only individuals who can make the law worth protecting, and so she tries to embody justice and fairness herself. Though Sibyl judges her first suspect as worthy of elimination, she manages to talk him down, touting the merits of his passion even within the confines of a society as restrictive as Sibyl's. As the first season revealed, Sibyl tends to punish anyone who can think outside of safely defined perspectives, be those educators, anyone with a heavy creative slant, or even the police officers best able to get inside the minds of criminals. This is a damaging flaw for Sibyl, but not one Akane considers insurmountable; with enough social support, even those prone to unclear hues can manage their color.
Akane succeeds in lowering her suspect's hue, and takes him in for questioning. Unfortunately, her plans to discover his own motives are foiled when that suspect's hue falls even further, to the point where he's no longer a target for enforcement at all. On top of that, the Inspector sent to follow up on his threats ends up disappearing, leaving only a dead Enforcer behind.
This is a fine setup for a new season of Psycho-Pass, one that would presumably challenge the assumptions of Sibyl from a new perspective. How can someone lower their hue that effectively, and how can someone else avoid the scanners entirely? Shougo Makishima was able to beat the system, and the revelation of why that was ended up reflecting the fundamental nature of the system itself. Clearly these new mysteries will eventually lead to new reflections on the nature of human psychology and the utilitarian principle as well.
At least, that's what you'd hope. In truth, the answers to these questions are a little less thrilling - they are (and these are spoilers, so avoid if you must, but engaging with Psycho-Pass 2 necessitates engaging with its answers) “by downing a bunch of Psycho-Pass-lowering drugs” and “by actually being composed of over a hundred dead bodies stitched together” respectively. These are not answers that challenge the nature of Sibyl - these are scifi gimmicks, ones that not only exist laterally to the world Psycho-Pass originally occupied, but in their own ways cheapen the questions of the series itself.
While the original Psycho-Pass had its share of violent capers and crime procedural subplots, the narrative underpinning those moments was bulletproof from start to finish. Everything in that series reflected a clear set of questions and themes, illustrating a society that challenged individuality for understandable reasons but was lesser in various ways for it. Sibyl had a very clear meaning. The Dominators worked in a specific way. The various police officers all had distinct, tangible motives. All of these pieces worked together to create a story that challenged the greatest happiness principle, and engaged with the complexity of human behavior in its own way.
Psycho-Pass 2 does none of this. The answers to this show's questions generally come down to “because it seemed like a cool idea,” offering no greater reflections beyond the immediate gut thrill of violent spectacle. “Can a Dominator judge an Enforcer,” it asks - and answers, “yep! Look at that blood spray.” “Can a Dominator judge an Inspector,” it then asks - and answers, “yep! Take a look at that body count.” “What if we had, like, five Inspectors and ten Enforcers and a bunch of robots and then there was this online game that was secretly about killing the Enforcers with the robots and-” it rambles - and the answer, of course, is “let's watch 'em explode.”
As a writer, Ubukata seems more interested in scifi rules for their own sake than rules as a reflection of some thematic truth. As a consequence, his season of Psycho-Pass contains no truths, and because the original series was not built to reward futzing around with arbitrary scifi rules, it ends up coming off as completely ridiculous. His absurd villain breaks all the rules as established in the original series, and in response, the cops look helpless and idiotic. It's not really their fault - how could the police officers within their world understand that their writer has forsaken them? And so they rail helplessly against the absurdity of their case, making terrible choices and continuously assuming the system is infallible and generally proving that if you make police officers stupid enough, they will indeed fall into any trap you want to write.
The fact that Psycho-Pass 2 abandons the thematic and general internal logic of the original series doesn't just make it a terrible sequel - it also means it fails as a self-contained narrative. There's no tension in the conflicts presented by this series, because there are no rules governing the behavior of either the characters or the world. Characters will spit lines like “we're running out of Dominator shots!” and wait, that was a thing, Dominators have ammo now? If anyone can have their hue cleared by eating the right drugs, law enforcement becomes an actual joke - the single power that defined Makishima Shougo as a villain, and ultimately ended up revealing the true nature of Sibyl, is now just an infinite shield that can be applied to any bad guy, regardless of their psychological temperament.
On top of that, Psycho-Pass 2 is just not a convincingly constructed story even within its own world-breaking madness. A running subplot through the season's first half is the question of whether Akane's obsession with the ghost in Sibyl means she's going insane. This could easily be played as a legitimate conflict - stick the viewer close in to Akane's head, offer some moments of reasonable doubt, and actually give her grounded personal tension to cloud the rightness of her judgment. But in Psycho-Pass 2, we not only know from the start that Akane is sane (since we actually see the villain she's theorizing), but her sanity is so clearly supported by the evidence that to suggest otherwise only makes all of her coworkers come off like idiots. The supporting characters are even worse-served by this narrative - new Inspector Mika Shimotsuki's character arc runs from “I am a narratively improbable antagonist who will contradict Akane at every point for any reason” to “I am still that person, but also in denial about it.” These idiot characters run through a story with no clear rules or direction, wetly detonating body after body along the way.
Which moves us towards Psycho-Pass 2's final narrative failing. In addition to being a terrible sequel and a terrible self-contained narrative, Psycho-Pass 2 is also just profoundly unpleasant to watch. There was a violence that drifted into discomfort even in the series' first season, but in this arc, you get the feeling the show actually relishes showing people get hurt and bodies explode. The fourth episode features a sequence of terrified civilians being gunned down one after another, proving no point, simply offering shock value for its own sake. A side character close to one of the protagonists is introduced just to be beaten to death, again offering nothing but hollow shock. One scene features a character killing two puppies, and another has a mansion burn down while the tortured people inside scream and weep.
Violence like this does not offer the series greater seriousness, or point to some larger meaning. Violence like this is just ugliness, a deep, fundamental ugliness that points to either an adolescent misanthropy or something even worse. It's not enjoyable to watch these things happen, and not fun to see them applied to a series that once actually did have something to say. Urobuchi's works may be heavy, but there is a brightness in them that reflects his fundamental belief in the human soul. I see no such soul in Psycho-Pass 2.
As far as aesthetics go, Psycho-Pass 2 is a clear step down from the original series. Psycho-Pass has never had the most compelling direction, but many scenes here default to flat, primetime crime-procedural angles. There is some compelling color work from time to time, but the world overall is a murky one, and there's very little animation to liven the experience. By the end, the show's lack of animation actually becomes somewhat noticeable - it's not an egregious failing, but it's certainly not a strength.
The music is a bit more distinctive, featuring a mix of electronic and rock tunes that nicely fits the show's cyber-crime aesthetic. The dub track is unfortunately much less reliable, with the central performance of Akane Tsunemori being the biggest problem. Kate Oxley's performance is marred by that common dub issue of a character over-enunciating all of their words, leading to stilted deliveries that never feel quite natural. There are plenty of lines in this series that wouldn't sound natural delivered by any human being, but this particular performance is still a bit of a hiccup.
In addition to that dub, Funimation's release comes with the usual textless opening/ending and commentaries featuring a variety of the english cast, including the director and the actors playing Shimotsuki, Shisui, and Kamui. They talk early on of the unique process of dubbing a show as it was airing (Psycho-Pass 2 was one of Funimation's first broadcast dubs), which required making casting and directorial decisions without actually knowing what story events would be coming down the line, and with actor availability in mind. It's an interesting look into what's becoming more and more of a common practice. The conversation between the director and Kamui's voice actor also gets into their own debates on the morality of the character's choices, and how the show's eventual direction ended up making that kind of a moot point (“you're gonna be doing some evil stuff today” “Kamui doesn't do evil stuff, he does ambiguous stuff” “nah, this is pretty evil”).
Overall, Psycho-Pass 2 stands as one of the most disappointing works I've ever watched to completion. It's not just a failure as a sequel and a failure as an independent narrative, it is a legitimately unpleasant and dispiriting experience, one that makes me feel a little sorry for the staff that had to bring this story to life. In most bad shows, it's easy to sweep aside their badness because you don't care about anything happening - but Tow Ubukata had the luxury of characters who had already earned emotional investment, and this series is even more unpleasant for it.
Overall (dub) : F
Overall (sub) : F
Story : F
Animation : C+
Art : B-
Music : B+
+ Music fits the material nicely, and the animation only gets truly bad in the second half.
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