Gen Urobuchi is a rarity. Usually writers doesn’t get much credit in anime, movies or just about anything for that matter. Urobuchi though is famous enough that people were anticipating Psycho-Pass even before it had a name or anyone knew anything about it. It was simply known as that show Urobuchi was writing. He previously wrote Madoka Magica, Fate/Zero, and also several well liked visual novels and managed to get his name out there. For a brief moment he seemed infallible. Psycho-Pass though crushed any such illusions. It’s a massive waste of potential, and not a good show no matter how you slice it.
What is it about?
Psycho-Pass is a sci-fi cop thriller, think Judge Dredd mixed with Ghost in the Shell. It takes place in a city simply referred to as “the city”, where a mental monitoring system called Sibyl keeps track of the stress level and criminal potential of all its citizens. The police use guns called “Dominators” that analyze both the person holding the gun and whoever it’s pointed at. Depending on the stress level measured the Dominator will deliver an appropriate response, either to obliterate the target or just sedating it. In the first episode we join Akane who is a recent graduate to the police force. She has been determined by the Sibyl System to have excellent aptitude as a detective and gets thrown right into the thick of it in the first episode. The people she works with are borderline criminals who were given a choice to either become police enforcers or to spend the rest of their lives in psychotherapy. The detectives like Akane thus work as decision makers behind the enforcers who then carry out the dirty work and have to bear most of the psychological brunt that comes with carrying out the law. Over the course of the series we get to learn more about the enforcers and just what pushed their mental state over the edge to put them in the situation they’re in now. In almost every case it doesn’t seem particularly fair, but they seem to be fine with the situation they’re in.
The problems with it
To start with there is critical information missing in Psycho-Pass which the show should have made clear. For example we’re never given any clear idea of what the world is like. As a contrast, in Judge Dredd the cities are called “megacities” and the world outside them is barren wastelands. The need for police which are “judge, jury and executioner” is clear as the crime rate is ludicrously high. In Psycho-Pass there are references to foreign countries existing, and one of the primary antagonists is apparently a foreigner. Does the Sibyl System exist there as well? Probably not as they repeatedly refer to it as the system which monitors “the city”. If a world outside the city exists, why bother trapping criminals in perpetual psychotherapy facilities, instead of just tossing them outside?
I found it hard to care about the Sibyl System and the brand of justice the police were fighting for, as I didn’t know what was really at stake. I guess the city is supposed to be a utopia, but it never really comes across as one. We constantly see the problems with the Sibyl System, and rarely see any benefit to it. There had to be an extraordinary situation in the past which required a system like Sibyl to be implemented to regain control of the population. We never learn about anything like that. The system simply exists and the population is perfectly fine with it for purely arbitrary reasons. You never feel like you’re watching a show with a rich setting full of well thought out ideas with history to them. Everything feels like basic outlines for ideas and concepts that you might be part of a first draft for a story.
In the first episode we’re introduced to the methods used by the enforcers in their police work. Almost immediately holes start appearing in the logic of the show. The enforcers have no problem blowing away civilian hostages if their stress level has risen while being in captivity. If the arbitrary number says the person needs to die, it’s standard procedure to shoot first and ask questions later. The show demonstrates that it’s possible to lower the stress levels easily by just talking to the victim, so it makes little sense why they would be so trigger happy. These ruthless cops don’t care though. How could the civilian population possibly condone such a police force? When the LAPD abused minorities we got the 1992 LA riots. You can’t have a police force run by abusive psychopaths without the population rising up.
Because this is a sci-fi show there’s a ton of future technology on display. The way it’s used though is idiotic to say the least. We are shown almost on a per episode basis that there are holographic clothes, holographic windows and that it’s even possible to disguise huge areas with holograms. The limits of this technology aren’t explained, so we don’t know if they have limited battery life or anything like that. It’s used whenever the story feels like it, rather than being an integral part of the story and the world. You could make an entire show about how the holographic technology could be used to disguise criminals, bombs, vehicles etc. In one plot arc we are introduced to mechanical hunting dogs. They could’ve used the hologram tech to blend into the environment by turning into boxes, pipes or whatever. In another episode a person is thrown out of a hologram window. The person passes straight through the field with no resistance. Isn’t this incredibly dangerous to use for windows in a skyscraper? What if children lean against the window and fall to their death? Also do the windows stop air? I would assume so as there aren’t mad gale winds blowing through the room behind the holo windows. This could’ve been a completely different show had the technology been better thought out.
You could argue that these details don’t matter and that I’m just nitpicking. In another show I might agree that the details aren’t super important, but in Psycho-Pass they really do matter. The conceit of the main plot revolves around the Sibyl System technology and threats against the technology that controls the city. When the ideas behind the technology are so flimsy and poorly realized it’s hard to care or take it seriously. Who cares if the Sibyl System is taken out? Wouldn’t that just turn the city into a regular city like all the others that exist in the world outside of it? The show has failed to convince me that it’s a system that works. The leaders responsible for the city and the system have shown themselves to be rigid and unwilling to rethink the system to improve it. It’s not a system worthy of public support. It fully deserves to be smashed by terrorists.
It’s not all bad though
Despite all the problems I’ve seen some people online that like the show. As mad as it seems to me I can kind of see why. While it might completely fail in the world building and overall story, it hits some high points when it comes to the characters. The entire cast is likable, and their designs are alright. It’s just too bad that the world they live in with hardly any thought put into it. I was never able to forget about the world and all the things that annoyed me about it, as the story always relies on it to some extent. In the arcs that focus on moment to moment emotional tension and action the show works best. When the action heats up you’ll often get intense scenes with life and death scenarios. If you were somehow completely blind to all the problems in the show I could see how you could attach yourself to those aspects and find some enjoyment here.
At time of writing 18 episodes of Psycho-Pass have aired, so I guess it’s unfair to call this a review of the show. But it’s obvious at this point it’s beyond all hope. We all get different things out of the entertainment we seek out. A thousand people watching the same movie or tv show can get a thousand different things out of it. That’s why there are a billion different opinions on everything available online. I guess it’s the ultimate proof that we are all actually unique. That’s why I can never really fully condemn anyone for watching anything, for any reason, no matter how much I dislike it. Psycho-Pass is an obvious and complete failure from my perspective. I’m struggling to think of any reason why anyone would enjoy it. Everything it tries to do is poorly thought out. Urobuchi desperately needed a producer while writing the show to point out how terrible the entire script and all his ideas were before they reached production. Psycho-Pass makes the 1995 Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd look like a thoughtfully designed masterpiece. It doesn’t even look particularly nice. I usually love staring at sci-fi cityscapes. That’s where half my enjoyment of all the Bubblegum Crisis shows comes from. I just stare at them and think “look how fucking cool that is!”. In Psycho-Pass I gaze at the city and feel ambivalence. The writing should have been the greatest strength of Psycho-Pass. Instead it ruined everything, including all the efforts made by the rest of the team who worked on the show.