I have no plans to make any sort of big “best of the decade” post, purely because I became an anime fan right around the midsection of this decade and always feel I can become more cultured. However, if you all would permit one instance of passionate and opinionated hyperbole, it would be that Psycho-Pass is one of the best science fiction series of the past decade.
But that word “series” carries a certain connotation. After all, there have been three seasons of Psycho-Pass and about four films, not counting the novel and video game spin-offs as well. Furthermore, after season one, the quality of the series is contentious at best.
Some argue the first season is the peak and then all sequels pale in comparison to varying degrees. It’s a perspective that I can’t necessarily argue with, even if I enjoy most of the content after season two. Regardless, I think that the series’ continued lifespan speaks well of the intentions of the creators at the beginning: To create a new popular brand within the Sci-fi genre.
I want to take a closer look at the series piece by piece – similar to my Bungo Stray Dogs retrospective – and look at the franchise as a whole to see if it was a one-trick pony or not.
Psycho-Pass can essentially be put into two distinct eras: Phase 1, ranging from season one in 2013 to the film in 2015, and Phase 2, in 2019. The key difference between these two eras was time, given there was a three-year gap between the first movie and the three short films from the beginning of the year. In that time there was a shifting of staff and an alteration in approach to how to expand on the world of Psycho-Pass.
In the beginning, for all of the show’s grand ideas and philosophical concepts, it was rather localized to a singular setting and the conflicts within it. There wasn’t a lot of thought given to what the rest of the world was like in this far future. This is the case for season two as well. One could argue this lack of expansion gave the story a singular focus which helped it become as memorable as it was.
Psycho-Pass begins in the 22nd century long after Japan has implemented a system known as the Sibyl System, which places individuals into their stations in life, based on their aptitudes. The system’s goal is the greatest happiness for the greatest amount of people, in a true utilitarian fashion. It achieves this through a system that scans people’s brains.
In this future where mental health is put at the forefront, Sibyl can calculate the probability that an individual is capable of committing a crime. People are cordoned off and given counseling to rehabilitate and repair their “Psycho-Pass,” indicated by the color of their “hue.”
This future’s police do not carry guns, but instead, wield “Dominators;” high-tech weapons which are designed to assess threats by their Psycho-Pass. A high number will result in a non-lethal paralyzer, but too high, and the gun with fire a lethal charge that causes the victim to explode in horrifying fashion.
We follow Akane Tsunemori, a rookie whose aptitude test marked them as qualified for police work. She works alongside the hard-ass Nobuchika Ginoza as an “Inspector”, supervising individuals who have been marked as latent criminals, called “Enforcers.” They are viewed as criminals by the system but are allowed to aid in law enforcement. As Ginoza states himself “the best way to track a beast is with a beast”
The story primarily follows Akane’s partnership with enforcer Shinya Kogami, a former Inspector whose hue deteriorated after the death of a partner. The premiere wastes no time building up the epic story to come, beginning in-media-res with a look at the first standoff between Kogami and the season’s antagonist, Shogo Makishima.
The first 11 episodes are dedicated to building up this society and what makes it function. How people are complicit in its advantages and how the less fortunate become criminals within it. By looking at the society through the perspective of one enforcing its laws, it becomes easier to get a handle on these advantages and disadvantages.
A series of smaller stories seemingly connected by an unknown source later revealed to be the main villain, Makishima.
Right in the middle of the series, Makishima makes his first grand entrance to Akane in a horrifying scene that sticks with you for the rest of the series. It is at this moment that the rest of the series commits to deconstructing the society which has been built up that entire time.
How does a society which has experienced crime at an all-time low deal with riots when they don’t have conventional firearms, or when the weapons they have have been rendered useless? How does the Sibyl System deal with an individual who seems to circumvent its greatest strength?
In the case of narrative qualms like the former, the solutions are no doubt entertaining. As for issues deeply rooted in philosophy such as the latter, the answers are more debated. There is never necessarily an answer to any question. However, the characters within the story do an excellent job of turning those concepts into chilling dialogues.
The first time you watch, you will probably find yourself liking Shinya Kogami the most. He’s the coolest, the most attractive, and the most relatable in how he views the world. He’s a man out of time who would probably be the ideal hero in a world more comparable to our current one. However, Akane is just as, if not more interesting, for how she develops.
Akane lacks the conventional strength that someone like Kogami possesses, but she has a strong belief in justice and upholding it no matter the cost. What sets her apart is that if the Dominator tells her to kill someone, she’s more likely to talk them down so that they can be rehabilitated.
Even after learning the dark secrets of the Sibyl System, Akane’s ideals prevent her from denying the benefits the system has. Rather than trying to destroy what the audience considers a villain, she decides to work within the system to improve it.
Psycho-Pass is the perfect synergy of character and philosophy. The story thrives on the strengths of its characters and how their world has affected them. Not every character is as memorable and while some are certainly memorable like Shion or Jouji, some just feel underutilized or forgotten like Yayoi or Kagari. Ginoza does have a solid arc with old-timer ex-cop Tomomi Masaoka that leaves a great impact. Ginoza has quite a compelling transformation across the entire series and will likely become one of your favorite characters.
This show just screams Production IG. Seeing as how they produced one of my favorite shows of all time in the form of Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex, their foray into long-form science fiction had similar success. Visually quality could dip but stayed mostly consistent, offering some beautiful character art, plenty of great effects animation (both hand-drawn and CG) and even some great fight scenes.
Throughout this retrospective series you will hear me praise the work of composer Yugo Kanno (Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Batman Ninja), but the main theme of Psycho-Pass alone is praiseworthy for how much it sticks in your brain. On the topic of sound, Funimation’s dub is excellent and my recommended way of watching, especially for Alex Organ’s performance as Shogo Makishima.
Psycho-Pass more than earns a spot in my all-time favorites. It drew me in with memorable storylines with imposing villains and creative world-building. It stuck with me because of how compelling its concepts were, and how easily one could teach a course on ethics and philosophy with this show as the base.
Whether or not you feel like teaching a lecture on it though, Psycho-Pass offers a story that is hard to forget, even after six years since I first watched it.
In the next part of this series, I’ll be looking at the rest of Phase 1 of the Psycho-Pass series, including the contentious second season and the film from 2015. From there I will cover the franchise’s return this past year and assess how it has held up as a whole.
Naturally, I will avoid spoilers as much as possible since this is just a big series of reviews, but as I go on, some plot elements of season one are gonna have to be covered. So, on that note, if this review has encouraged you to watch Psycho-Pass, WATCH SEASON ONE. It’s hands down the best part of the entire franchise and you won’t regret checking it out.
Part Two – Season Two & the Movie
Part Three – Sinners of the System & Season Three
Psycho-Pass Season One is available for purchase on Blu-ray through Funimation and is available for legal streaming through FunimationNow.
What do you think of Psycho-Pass season one? Excited for my reviews of the rest of the series? Leave a comment below and tell me what other franchises I should do retrospectives on!
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time.