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Saturday, 27 September 2014



Am I doing the original series or the re-edited version, though? Oooooh, aaaaaah, you'll never kno – kind of both, actually. Mostly the edit, because I watched that more recently, and I think that if I tried to comment on the differences between them, I would inevitably screw up somewhere.

Psycho-Pass, from the ever delightful brainmeats of everyone's favourite anime writer Gen Urobuchi, is a cyberpunk noir story set in a world in which everyone's psychological state is constantly being monitored by a supercomputer. In this world, criminals are arrested (or sometimes just killed) not based on committing crimes, but on whether the supercomputer, Sybil, judges them to have sufficient potential to do so. In this regard, Sybil's agents are the MWPSB, composed of inspectors, mentally healthy people who act as handlers for their enforcers, and the enforcers, latent criminals turned police hunters.

Akane Tsunemori, a newly minted inspector, arrives on the scene of her first mission, and is introduced to gruff enforcer Shinya Kogami. From there, the series spirals out to cover their missions, the strange world they live in, and their pursuit of Makishima Shogo, an erudite terrorist who Sybil is incapable of judging.

Look at these competent professionals.

In conversation with people before, I've compared Psycho-Pass favourably with other pieces of dystopian fiction (because make no mistake, the world of Psycho-Pass is a dystopia), including The Hunger Games and Divergent, because unlike those two it portrays a dystopia which you can see happening. The roadmap there is clear.

Part of that is that The Hunger Games and Divergent both play off a problem which is very real, but also very current: The baby boomer commodification and dehumanisation of young people, an Irigayan ideal of commerce in which an empowered generation does violence to its children for the sake of sexual satisfaction.

… Incidentally, one of the things I studied at university was dramatic theory and social anthropology. Just – in case that last paragraph didn't make that entirely clear.

But, yes. The problem which fuels those two books – or at least their resonance with young readers - is manifestly real, but also finite. It is limited to one space and one span of time, at least in how it relates to young people: That ideal of commerce has been something ethnic minorities and women have had to cope with for a very, very long period of time.

In Psycho-Pass, women sometimes have to deal with having oddly
shaped eyes, too.

Which kind of leads me into talking about Psycho-Pass' ideal of a dystopia, because that draws off a problem that is as enmeshed into our society as the treatment of women and ethnic minorities: Our treatment of the mentally ill. As societies, we tend to demonise the mentally ill, casting them as violent fiends who, even if they seem safe, could snap at any time and murder everyone around them, despite the fact that the person that somebody who's mentally ill is most likely to harm is themselves. In a strange kind of twist, though, despite constantly claiming that the mentally ill are a massive threat, the services we have set up to help them are often maligned, underfunded, improperly vetted and ineffective.

That's the world of Psycho-Pass, if you turned that up to eleven. There is not a single enforcer – and they are all meant to be just one alarming moment away from committing some kind of horrible crime, if the non-enforcer cast are meant to be believed – who is a danger to people at large. Kogami, the only one who has any interest in committing a crime, is specifically focused on a single person. In contrast, Makishima Shogo, our main villain who murders, assaults, incites crime in others and is noted several times to have limited self control: Well, he's not a latent criminal. He's mentally healthy.

The world of Psycho-Pass is absurd, but also very real. It's ridiculous that a society so obsessed with mental health would have therapy centres set up with poison gas emitters that are so bad at treating people that they're noted more than a few times to make people worse – but ask anyone who has been through the mental health system, and you'll find no shortage of people who've been made worse by it. It's utterly absurd that a society would have no way of punishing people who have actually committed crimes, and that you'd have police officers standing around worriedly talking about how they don't think it's possible to prosecute someone based purely on evidence: But look at things like the trial of George Zimmerman, or the fact that Darren Wilson still hasn't been arrested, and tell me that we do a good job of prosecuting people based on the evidence against them.

Yeah, those two things vex me too, Makishima.

That's what makes the show compelling as a dystopia: Because it doesn't require an apocalypse. If we had the technological means, a world like the one shown here might not be that strange at all.

I've rambled a lot about the world here, but that's fine, it's important for both cyberpunk and dystopian fiction. But this is also noir, and noir has its own set of rules, much more to do with characters.

(The series looks the part, by the way: It's beautifully animated in those very cyberpunk-y shades of cool blues, greys, and purples. It's also very fanservice-y, but only for one character in particular: One unbreakable edict handed down to the animators was that they shouldn't try to include skeevy fanservice of Akane, and that any fanservice, any at all, should be directed at male main character Kogami instead. Oh, how the animators did run with that: Kogami loses his shirt more than James T. Kirk at a beach, but more than that, every frame that he's in is drawn to somehow accentuate one of his physical features. Many are the shots that pan up his long legs, or linger enthusiastically on his neck. It's as if they went 'Make all fanservice of this one character? We'll show you fanservice.')

So, yeah, random cagefighting scene, that happened.
Okay, I joke, that did actually have a point.

The characters are all drawn squarely from noir fiction. Kogami is the archetypal hard-boiled detective through and through, Masaoka's grizzled worn-down policeman could have been ripped straight from the pages of a noir novel – we even get a femme fatale in the form of enforcer scientist Karanomori Shion.

The combination of genres plays out a little strangely, with these very noir characters often seeming to fit in poorly with the very cyberpunk world they occupy. That could very well be intentional, though: Unease with the world is a major theme of the show, and gosh, don't they want you to know it.

I say that with some sarcasm, because the major, critical flaw of this series – the only one I can really think of – is that the pacing will often grind to a screeching halt. I've said before that pacing can be difficult: This is not a case of the difficulties of pacing creating problems. This is a case of people sitting around and talking about nothing.

At one point, Kogami has a discussion with someone about Foucault. At another point, Makishima discusses the advantages of paperback books over e-books. At one point in the edited version, half an episode passes in which people discuss literature, social theory, and history. There's no movement of the plot. It just happens.

I know why. It builds on what we know of the characters, and it builds on the themes of the show. But you haven't known pain unless you've watched two people sit in a cafe discussing paperbacks for five minutes.

Psycho-Pass has a sequel that'll begin airing soon, aptly named Psycho-Pass 2. I expect it to be a very different beast to Psycho-Pass, not just because it has a new writer, Tow Ubukata, but because at the end of the series the state of affairs had changed massively, and that's necessarily going to alter the dynamic of the show.

Still, I am looking forward to it. 

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