They say there’s nothing new under the sun, and Psycho-Pass is not shy about wearing its influences on its sleeve. Unabashedly namechecking Philip K Dick and William Gibson (among other notable writers and philosophers – this show does love a good intellectual shout-out) Psycho-Pass reads like a mix of Minority Report, Brazil and Ghost in the Shell, with a healthy dash of Neuromancer for good measure. It’s a good example, in my opinion, of how tried-and-tested ideas can be cut apart and pasted back together to create something familiar, but interesting in its own right.
So, what is Psycho-Pass about? Sometime in the future, Japan has isolated itself almost entirely from the rest of the world. Society is governed by the Sibyl System, which determines everything from a person’s future career (based on aptitude tests) to whether or not they are fit to participate in society. The titular ‘Psycho-Pass’ refers to the way Sibyl measures a person’s mental state – as stress increases, so does your Psycho-Pass (or ‘Crime Coefficient’). If it goes above a certain number, the system – observing you through street scanners as you go about your daily business – flags you up for mandatory therapy.
So far, so dystopian. It gets worse, though. True to its cyberpunk roots, Psycho-Pass‘s Sibyl system has rendered crime a thing of the past by diagnosing people predisposed to those behaviours as ‘latent criminals’ – a utilitarian approach which, nonetheless, is deeply flawed. Before a person has even committed a crime – before they’ve even considered committing a crime – the system determines that anyone exhibiting signs of being a ‘latent criminal’ be isolated away from functioning society. Similar to Minority Report, the likelihood of committing a crime is as much cause for incarceration as actually committing one. (The implications of this are clear from the first episode, in which a man flagged as having a high Crime Coefficient goes on a kidnap-and-rape spree on the basis that he’s going to be treated like a criminal anyway.)
Enter Akane Tsunemori, your typical wide-eyed, naive rookie, whose job as the newest, shiniest Inspector in the Public Safety Bureau requires her to seek out and neutralise anyone breaching the peace. Her ideals are, predictably, crushed from the get-go. You see, Inspectors are expected to take charge of a team of Enforcers. Enforcers are themselves latent criminals offered the choice to work under the Sibyl system. The word ‘choice’ is used loosely here – the only other option is lifetime incarceration in an isolation facility. To top it off, the weapon she’s expected to use is a type of smartgun, engineered to work in tandem with the Sibyl system – if Sibyl determines an individual non-threatening based on their Psycho-Pass reading, the trigger stays firmly locked and no damage can be dealt. But if the numbers are high and the system decides they’re a threat, a range of interesting options from ‘temporarily paralyse’ to ‘blow into chunky bits’ are offered. And of course, the multitude of issues, failures and abuses of such a system are explored in surprisingly philosophical detail.
Then there’s this guy:
Enforcer Shuusei Kagari is, for me, the most interesting character in Psycho-Pass. On the surface he’s a comic relief character, keeping toys at his desk and delving into a giant jar of jellybeans while his teammates discuss the case they’re working on. What makes Kagari interesting is that, as we learn early on, he was diagnosed as a latent criminal at the age of five. Effectively, he’s never had the opportunity to be a part of society – and, as a result, he’s been treated like a dangerous animal his entire life. Fast forward to the present and Kagari’s only chance to have anything resembling a normal life is an an Enforcer working for the very same system that has kept him locked away since childhood. Comic relief indeed.
There’s an awful lot of philosophy going on here, and plenty of politics – references to Japan’s insular nature and rigid social structure abound, although many of the questions asked regarding the nature of crime and ‘the greater good’ could just as easily apply to the West. But Psycho-Pass is also gorgeously animated, with smooth motion and beautifully detailed action scenes. Female characters do more than just prance around in their skimpies, which is always a bonus (in fact, equal opportunities fanservice is offered in the guise of brooding, sometimes shirtless Kogami.) There’s also a canonical, apparently functional lesbian relationship (racial diversity is lacking, although Japan’s withdrawal from the rest of the world at least makes this plausible.)
And if you’re watching the sub, once you hear Kogami utter the words ‘Spooky Boogie’, you’ll be hearing them in his voice forever.