Thursday, July 9, 2015

[Anime] Psycho-Pass S1 Review

Psycho-Pass - 8/10

"This loss (of freedom) means the fading from human life of values infinitely precious to it. There only remain ironbound conditions of employment and trivial amusements for leisure."
- A.N. Whitehead

As a science fiction series, Psycho-Pass creates a compelling world that undergirds the tension of its message. It is part Blade Runner, part Minority Report, and part CSI. And as a warning for anybody looking into it: it's both intense and graphic, so beware.

At the core of the series is the quandary of the Sibyl System, a collection of biometric scanners that are able to analyze and deduce a person's personality and future potential. It has created a society in which the greatest amount of good is conferred on the greatest number of people, but at the cost of crushing inequality for those that the system deems problematic. There is no recourse, for the system is always right. Using this world as a backdrop, the story follows the enforcement bureau as they deal with the cases that crop up in this brave new world.

The Good: 

The world that Psycho-Pass creates is engaging, striking a balance between the development of the plot and characters while also exploring the implications and realities of the Sibyl System. This made it eminently watchable as a series while also giving it depth. Not many series do this well in my experience, as often when an anime seeks to be deep it simply becomes convoluted and obscure. 

Building on this, the world of the Sibyl System is a unique world that at first appears dystopian, but has positive elements that cannot be ignored.  The problem is that the Sibyl System is right.  For all of its faults, and they are numerous, the Sibyl System is consistently superior to average humans when it comes to judgement.  This is brought up clearly when the nightclub dissenter is cornered.  He screams out that the Sibyl System has ruined his music career by dismissing his talent.  He is promptly rebuffed by the Enforcers that he should thank the Sibyl System, since it kept him from wasting his time.  Later on when Akane confronts the system directly, it/they are able to analyze and predict her perfectly.  Her sense of duty to society does override her revulsion, and she remains loyal even as she comes to loath it/them.  As much as it may gall us, the Sibyl System has transcended human capacity.

However, always being right has had a debatable impact on the rest of the world: nobody any longer feels personal responsibility when there is an easily-accessible and objectively correct arbiter in all things.  Kougami's old professor is out of a job because nobody feels the need to be insightful on their own.  Bystanders observe a murder passively, because if the biometric sensors don't respond then it must be okay.  Life degenerates to managing one's own hue, going about in a safe and unperturbed mindset.  It is a disturbing vision of the future for the individualist.

Last, I'd like to make special mention of Akane's character. I thought she was a fantastic lead because she was simply herself.  In my experience most female leads tend to fall into one of two traps: sex or badass (or both). But Akane wasn't particularly sexy; she wore nice holo-clothes when she was out, and was in uniform while on work. Similarly, they didn't try to make her "out-macho" the males to demonstrate how great she was. Instead the series allows us to watch her develop, and as it unfolds you see a truly impressive inner strength emerge as she is faced with so many difficulties, intellectual and emotional.  In the end she retains her humanity even as the "stronger" characters have broken down under Makishima's influence.  An admirable character all around.

The Bad: 

The name dropping.  When anime attempts to quote Western philosophical or religious works it almost always manages to mangle them beyond recognition.  Pyscho-Pass has some reasonable references at times, but still succumbs to the same tendency toward intellectual garnishing.  The references serve no purpose except to make the conversation sound more sophisticated, and at times manage to do the opposite.  The most egregious offender was the cyberspace impersonator, who in his final moments cites how his attempts at creating idealized avatars to replace the people he killed were like Plato's perfect forms.  No, I'm sorry.  This has nothing to do with Plato.  Try again.

Psycho-Pass also suffers from a degree of voyeurism toward its criminal subjects.  They do unspeakable things, and while some of them are tastefully avoided others are glorified for their shock value.  This is cheap, and especially darkens the first half of the series which tends to err on the side of vulgar attention-seeking to keep the audience engaged.  

Originally I was going to list the Sibyl System actually being disembodied humans as a negative element, but as the series progressed I found this was not an issue.  They were functionally the same as an advanced, sentient algorithm and never demonstrated bias. So while I was dismayed at that initial reveal, I actually found that they worked even better than anticipated. In fact, them having to deal with Akane's revulsion near the end was actually more interesting than it would have been if it had simply been a subroutine. I also liked their point they make back when Akane feels that justice should be done, noting that they do far more good for society in their present form than any punishment would have represented. They really weren't evil anymore.

GitS:SAC Evaluation: Throughout the series I found myself comparing Psycho-Pass closely to another series, in this case Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex. I often hold up GitS as an example of a great sci-fi anime series, but in some respects Psycho-Pass blew it out of the water.

Despite being billed as a philosophical series, GitS:SAC is not particularly philosophical. The original movie is weightier, but the subsequent series is rooted in the practical running of Section 9. Also its "philosophy" is more distributed into a vague question about what it means to be human. Psycho-Pass very neatly zeros in on a particular issue with the Sibyl System, and because of this focus was able to pursue its social and moral implications more extensively. Psycho-Pass's story was also lucid, compared to GitS:SAC's vague and meandering plot.

That said, GitS has much more substance to its history and politics. Psycho-Pass wasn't very clear until near the end whether the Sibyl System was world-wide or restricted to Japan (at least in the translation I watched, it seemed that "world" and "country" were used interchangeably). Everything occurred "in a bottle."

When it comes to main characters, Akane is far better than Motoko. As much as I love GitS, Motoko is one of the worst offenders for a female character that earns her laurels through being simultaneously sexy and tomboyish.  She has surprisingly little substance, and is salvaged by the company she keeps with more interesting characters such as Aramaki, Batou, and Togusa.

These aren't meant to be condemnations of either series as I think they're both great in their own respects.  If you enjoyed one I would strongly recommend the other  But it says something that Psycho-Pass was able to hold its own in comparison to a series that is often regarded as a classic.

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