Psycho-Pass Review

Minority Report meets Se7en in this futuristic SF detective anime thriller…

Psycho-Pass is one of those anime series that wears its influences openly and has all the hallmarks of being created by committee to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. There’s nothing wrong with that if those influences are good ones and they’re brought together well, and the production team commissioned by Fuji TV at least makes sure that the creative team for Psycho-Pass is a strong one. Production I.G is in charge as the animation studio, the scripts by Gen Urobochi (Madoka Magica) make the most of the richness of the cross-genre treatment, while director Naoyoshi Shiotani ensures that there’s a coherent purpose and brings a consistent look and feel to how the diverse elements and characters of the series come together. Whether it amounts to more than the sum of those parts is debatable, but the quality and professionalism of the series in undeniable.

The most obvious influence for the series, or at least for its underpinning premise, clearly derives from Philip K Dick and specifically from the PKD movie adaptations of Blade Runner and Minority Report. In this dark, futuristic, neon-lit and grimy world, citizens are routinely scanned by drones, their colour hue checked to ensure that their potential for criminal activity doesn’t exceed safe limits. Anyone whose reading is determined by the Sybil System to be above Psycho-Pass Criminal Coefficient threshold is taken into care and given treatment. Even though they have committed no crime, the potential is there for them to do so.

Some of the targets identified understandably resist arrest, and some become unstable and a danger to the public before they can be picked-up, so the Criminal Investigation Department has a specialist unit, the Public Safety Bureau, to deal with the most dangerous cases and ensure that there’s a human element involved. The NWPSB carry specialist guns, Dominators, that are able to read colour hues and take the appropriate action, which in extreme cases is a very messy execution. The officers also make use of Enforcers, criminals who very nature makes them a useful tool as hunting dogs to track down and kill the most dangerous threats.

Inspector Akane Tsunemori is the newest recruit to the NWPSB, and is teamed up with Enforcer Shinya Kogami on her first mission. She soon finds that while the system works and is ‘necessary’, it in many ways creates its own monsters. Anyone involved in these situations, police officers and victims alike, can have their own colour hues threatened by simply being witness to horrific actions, crimes and murders. And there is one very dangerous killer out there by the name of Shogo Makishima who remains elusive, immune to the traditional detection methods. Kogami, a former detective himself, has had experience of his actions in a previous case – the Specimen case – and it was the one that pushed him over the edge. New recruit Akane is to find her own approach to criminal investigation is also challenged by this monster who operates outside of the rules.

In terms of genre, Psycho-Pass is everything from detective show with a horror serial-killer element to futuristic science-fiction thriller with a cautionary message about the pervasiveness and intrusiveness of powerful technology. The creators cite Ghost in the Shell and Patlabor as influences, but in addition to Minority Report and Blade Runner, you can also detect dark elements of Se7en with violence that can be quite gory and brutal. All of these diverse elements however sit well together, and there’s an extra layer of imaginative creativity applied in Gen Urobochi’s scripts and in Production I.G’s visualisations. The cyberspace world, the use of avatars, the wearing of holo-costumes and the implications of the ruling, controlling ‘infallible’ workings of the Sybil System all provide a solid if not necessarily original worldview (you’ll spot the references openly scattered throughout, from George Orwell and Joseph Conrad to Johnny Mnemonic).

Considering the dangers of trying to control the uncontrollable and confronting the very worst that humanity is capable of by looking into the abyss, Nietzsche evidently is also referenced. Initially there’s no great subtlety in the situations that explore this angle, the criminals all being twitching madmen under the control of an ice-cold master-criminal, while the cops all fit the templates of rookie cop, grizzled veteran, hothead maverick and stickler for the rules. The ensemble team dynamic between them is consequently fairly predictable. What matters is whether the series can strike out from the template and find its own direction. Psycho-Pass undoubtedly starts to find its feet and its characters come to life – as most anime series do – in the second half of the series…

For all its open referencing of Philip K Dick, William Gibson, George Orwell and Friedrich Nietzsche, Psycho-Pass nonetheless takes these writers’ ideas very seriously. Other anime series might just flirt with the imagery and the name-dropping to show their comprehensive research into the subject or even just to appear cool, but the creators of Psycho-Pass follow the implications through to the very real consequences they can have on society in general. It’s more than just a question of technology lacking the necessary humanity and running out of control. The very nature of humanity as a flawed and necessarily flawed creature is also explored here. I don’t know whether it’s a direct quote from one of those sources, but a statement made by Ko that “Doubting others is the basis for maintaining order” is a concept worthy of the writers-philosophers it references, and it’s explored convincingly in Psycho-Pass‘s second half descent into chaos. Where there’s no fear, there’s no protection.

It perhaps doesn’t need to be quite as brutal as it is in its exploration of this idea as the rage against the machine turns into outright anarchy, and – as the use of ‘Enforcers’ using ‘Dominator’ weaponry indicates – it can occasionally be quite heavy-handed in its treatment, its imagery and use of English terminology. Visually at least, Production I.G are well provide strong, dynamic animation that matches the intensity of the situations. The futuristic technology that Production I.G have a strong reputation for, doesn’t overwhelm the animation in 3-D CG, but is well employed for effect, notably in cyborg robotics and in the expanding design of the Dominator guns. Artwork and ideas fully integrated, this is a powerful combination that propels the series along to even through to a troubling conclusion that might be more talky and philosophically inclined than action-packed, but it’s one that leaves the sinister, ambiguous duality of the questions the series raises meaningfully and chillingly open.

Psycho-Pass – The Complete Series is released by Manga Entertainment on DVD and Blu-ray. On DVD, the 22 episodes of the entire series are spread over four DVD-9 dual-layer discs. The set is in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.

On DVD the image is clean and darkly colourful, with strong contrasts and excellent levels of detail. It’s inevitably softer than it would look in High Definition, but the Blu-ray wasn’t seen for comparison. I imagine this could look quite spectacular on Blu-ray, but for a regular sized-screen the DVD presents a clean, colourful and stable transfer that flows smoothly and has no significant issues. There are inevitably one or two faint instances of colourbanding, but only noticeable if you’re looking out for this kind of thing. The English dub is in Dolby Digital 5.1, while the original Japanese track is Dolby Digital 2.0 only. I found one or two fluctuations in sound level and between the voices and soundtrack in the Japanese stereo audio. It’s possible that the Japanese DD 2.0 is a stereo downmix of the original surround track which hasn’t levelled out the sound distribution perfectly. Whether this is an issue will probably depend on your sound system. For me, it was more noticeable when listening directly through television speakers, but barely an issue when channeled through amplifier and a speaker system. These issues inevitably don’t affect the English dub, but I have to say I barely spend any time listening to the American dub track. English subtitles happily are in a white font.

In addition to the usual anime extra features (US Funimation crew commentaries, trailers, textless opening and closing credits), there’s a good interview and a Q&A with the creators at the Sakura Comic Con in Seattle. This is split into two 20-minute parts and it gives a good overview of the ideas behind the series and the contributions of each of the creators. I would echo their plea for support for a series that has such rare intelligence and creativity behind it, and hope that its success does lead to an eventual follow-up series or movie.

Despite some initial reservations that Psycho-Pass draws on some very obvious science-fiction references, it becomes clear that the creators have taken a very thoughtful approach to the use of technology in matters of law and order, and use them only to enrich their own views on the subject. With a strong creative team and animation studio in place, Psycho-Pass is never anything less than thrilling, intelligent and thought-provoking anime that follows those ideas through to their natural conclusion, There are no easy answers here, so it’s by no means a definitive conclusion, but let’s hope that the series hasn’t reached a definitive conclusion either.


Updated: Sep 14, 2014

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
Psycho-Pass Review | The Digital Fix