The real test of a show's genius is not just what it can set up, but what it can pull off — how far it can go with its ideas without chickening out, and how well it understands the implications of what it brings up. The best of shows fuse all that with a story worth watching and characters worth caring about. Psycho-Pass's setup and payoff are both original and daring enough to make most any other complaints I could have about the series irrelevant. If this doesn't turn out to be the best show of 2014, I will have a hard time imagining what could top it.
What doesn't come as a surprise is the show's pedigree. It aired on Fuji TV's Noitamina block, the breeding ground for some of anime's highest notes and greatest creative peaks as of late. Its writer was Gen Urobuchi, he who gave Puella Magi Madoka Magica its distinctive edge, and who also crafted another good-to-great SF entry that pole-vaulted over its initial idea into even more interesting territory (Gargantia on the Verduous Planet). And its animation team was Production I.G, a studio known both for its polished and technically advanced styles but also for its knack for picking projects that reflect well on its ambitions: the Ghost in the Shell franchise, Moribito, Blood: The Last Vampire, FLCL, Eden of the East. Psycho-Pass hews closest to the first and last entries in this list, and stands comfortably alongside either of them for sheer ambition and clarity of purpose.
Bang, bang, bang / Down you go / It's just a job I do
Psycho-Pass is set some hundred-plus years from now, when a computer oracle called the "Sibyl System" reigns over all. Police have become judge, jury, and executioner, thanks to the special "Dominator" weapons they carry. Point one at an individual, and it reads their "Crime Coefficient", an index of how likely they are to be a criminal. Those with a bad coefficient merely get stunned and thrown into a psychological rehabilitation program, one as likely to drive you insane as it is to cure you of anything. Those with a really, really bad coefficient get blown to pieces where they stand.
Akane Tsunemori knows there was a time when things weren't like this, but she's accepted the Sibyl System — however hesitantly — as being worth the cost it provides in social harmony. But once she joins the Public Safety Bureau's Criminal Investigation Division as a newly recruited inspector, she sees the system that much more from the inside, and is all the less enamored of it. (Those who love either the law or sausage should never watch them being made.) For one, the police know that someone as upstanding as Akane isn't always going to be the best person for the job, since one of the best ways to catch a criminal is to think like one. To that end, she has a slew of underlings — "Enforcers" — all latent criminals, all armed with Dominators, but all of which can be put down by her at a moment's notice if they step out of line.
That kind of workplace tension isn't what she had in mind, especially when one of her Enforcers, the tall and brooding Shinya Kogami, steps out of line during her first mission and has to be brought down. Ironically, he sees that as a sign of her potential: the last thing he wants is to work for someone who'll let him devolve into a full-blown murderer, and he'd rather be a detective (like he used to be) than a killer. But the temptation to do so remains strong in him, mainly because he's harboring a vendetta against one Shogo Makashima, a criminal mastermind behind the case that got him demoted to Enforcer.
Makashima is one nasty piece of work, not least of all because he presents a thorny problem to the Sibyl System. He's a sociopath, and so her registers either a minimal Crime Coefficient or none at all, making him impossible to take down with a dominator. This empowers him to do things like slit the throat of Akane's friend right in front of her — something which puts Akane far more into Shinya's shoes than she ever imagined possible. Despite being given an old-school projectile weapon by Makashima himself, she's unable to put him down — not just because she's inexperienced with such a thing, but because she just plain doesn't have it within her to kill outside the system.
But it isn't long before she discovers the very system that sustains her and gives her purpose may be even worse than the things it's been erected to protect them from. Their pursuit of Makashima soon turns into something far larger, when they find that the Sibyl System is interested in bringing in Makashima alive. Not to question him, it turns out, but to make him part of the system itself -- something, Akane discovers, is not an aberration or an abuse of the system at all but rather how the system itself was designed to work.
I got a name / I got a number / I'm coming after you
For the first half of its runtime or so, Psycho-Pass racks up points for being a strong, smart amalgamation of many of its SF and criminal-thriller predecessors. Judge Dredd, Demolition Man, Minority Report, Blade Runner, SE7EN, The SIlence of the Lambs, and RoboCop (the brilliantly satiric original, not the limp, confused remake) all come to mind, but the show's got enough of its own strengths that having them cited as reference points on a map doesn't detract from the show's own energies and achievements. Much of the plotting involves Makashima only peripherally, and takes a more freak-of-the-week approach better suited to something like Dexter, with the team clearing one increasingly clever (and sadistic, and grotesque) crime and criminal after another.
Then comes the second half of the show, which has the same pull-back-the-curtains effect on the audience as The Matrix did — not just the first film's head-twisting reveal, but the even more chilling one at the end of the second film (which, flawed as it was, I give points to for having the kind of intellectual ambitions not seen in Hollywood movies until then). That's when Akane finds out the Sibyl System is, literally, powered by sociopathy: the few sociopaths that exist out of millions are not hunted down, but instead are incorporated into the system's intelligence, since their very lack of emotional involvement with human life makes them perfect, impartial judges. Akane is aghast by all this, but at the same time she knows all too well that pulling the plug is out of the question: it will kill millions and devastate the lives of all those she protected, herself included. She will continue to work within the system — but that doesn't mean she has to like it, and she's now convinced she needs to work within the system to destroy the system. If such a thing is even possible, that is, and the series — the first season of it, anyway — ends, rather bravely, on that open-ended and ambiguous note.
If this brings to mind anything else from the previous roster of SF (the show is immensely literate, in multiple senses of the word), it's Colossus: The Forbin Project, where two supercomputers, one Russian and one American, join forces to save mankind from itself whether it likes it or not. Despite the dated Cold War atmosphere of that story, it still packs both a wallop and a chill: we're if anything becoming all the more eager to turn over our lives to automation and algorithms, and we're forgetting that by doing so we leave ourselves that much less of a life to have in the first place. Psycho-Pass has many of the same worries: the Sibyl System has so thoroughly insulated people from not only crime but the need to think about its consequences that Makashima is able to cause immense destruction by simply knocking over a few key dominoes. He wants mankind free of the grip of Sibyl, but not because he's any kind of hero or altruist — he just wants that many less rules in his way.
I mentioned RoboCop for the sake of its satire, and while Psycho-Pass isn't in the same blackly comedic vein, it does intermittently function in the same way. When the detectives go out in public, they wear holosuits to avoid alarming the citizens, and look like giant incarnations of the silly, cartoony mascots that various Japanese municipalities have devised. It's funny the first time, and then it becomes increasingly creepy, just as it ought to. The Dominators themselves are another mix of smarmy and creepy: they don't work except in the hands of their designated owners, and only then to enforce the Sibyl System's codes in soothing, automated-voice-system tones. It's like all the questionable aspects of a smart gun merged with all the annoyances of Microsoft Clippy. Small wonder Makashima relies on a straight razor to do most of his hands-on dirty work, and Shinya eventally resorts to similarly old-school violence later on: a revolver, a nailgun (!), and straight-up fisticuffs. And ultimately Akane herself gets into the act: when Makashima's cronies uses a helmet to trick the Sibyl System into substituting their Crime Coefficients with those of nearby others, she uses one for what can only be seen as a symbolic act: nearly smashing someone's brains in.
Even if you're innocent / You can cause too much embarrassment
An anarchic streak has long existed in our entertainments, one where all forms of authority are considered inherently suspect and subject to constant skepticism and questioning. Once, it manifested as a call to reformation: the system might be corrupt and riddled with incompetence, but it's the only one we have, and we need to make the best of it (e.g., many of John Ford's movies, or Frank Capra and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). But later, the tone and the message changed. The problem was no longer seen as a fundamentally-workable system that had become corrupt, but that the system was corruption itself. And so came the skepticism and cynicism of movies like Network, Blue Collar, Wrong Is Right (a movie I staunchly insist was completely misunderstood by the audience of its time and deserves a reappreciation), and maybe also Terry Gilliam's Brazil, which saw leveling the playing field as being the only solution to the whole mess.
By the late 1990s, the message had shifted even further. The system was not only corruption incarnate, but had made everything that was not corruption incarnate unworkable (I mentioned how the first and second Matrix films touched on this idea). Leveling the playing field would do no good, as it would only provide the system with yet another opportunity for assimilation. The system exists to be gamed, and anyone trying to work outside the system will only suffocate. Psycho-Pass is right in line with this mode of thinking, but holds out just enough hope: the fact that people are the subject of this system means there remains the possibility of human intervention, human dissent, and ultimately human salvation.
What it does not do, though — at least not yet — is present any agenda for how that would happen. It stakes its faith entirely on Akane and her stubborn insistence on doing the right thing — the entire right thing, not just whatever piece of it is convenient. It's the same attitude Winston Smith evinced towards his torturers near the end of George Orwell's 1984: he doesn't know how or from where resistance can be raised against Big Brother, but he only knows it has to happen. The alternative is unthinkable. The problem, of course, is that to brand such a thing "unthinkable" is to lose to those who have already contemplated the unthinkable and set about to implement it. Maybe that's the lesson for the next season of the show: how to fight such a system, and what it will ultimately cost.
Psycho-Pass has such an embarrassment of thought-provoking riches to put on display, there are times when it almost seems at a loss which to choose from next. This means there are episodes when it comes dangerously close to the Mamoru Oshii School of Talking Ideas To Death, where people sit around and discuss something until the audience's collective head nods forward and it drools on its shirt. Fortunately, the show doesn't resort to that as its primary way of making things interesting, let alone driving things forward: it understands first and foremost the function of a show is to entertain, and it does. And it does something above and beyond that which few shows do, let alone well: it has the nerve to leave us in a place where not every question is answered, and where it seems likely not all of them ever will be. For a show that touches on as troubling an idea as a system that thrives on its own corruption, that might well be the best approach.
(I tried to work a Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said joke into the title, but no dice.)