Psycho Pass is a Compelling Cyberpunk Mystery (And It's Only Half Done)

Nearly two decades ago, Japan redefined the cyberpunk genre with the groundbreaking anime Ghost in the Shell. A police mystery, Ghost in the Shell used its futuristic framework to explore the relationship between cybernetics and the very nature of the human soul. This season in Japan marks the release of a new anime that is also a futuristic police mystery. But instead of focusing on cybernetics and the soul, Psycho Pass carves its own path as it explores the connection between the mind and criminal actions. [*Note: minor spoilers to follow.]


Good — Brain Scans for All

Set a hundred years in the future, Psycho Pass presents a world where all it takes is a simple brain scan to label you a criminal—regardless of whether you have committed a crime or not. Those who fail the check, but have yet to commit a crime, are called "latent criminals" and—if therapy and drugs don't work—are given a choice: jail or hunting down other latent criminals.

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Therefore, because of these scans, Psycho Pass shows an interesting future where "mental beauty" is as sought after as physical beauty. It is also a future where the police's job is little more than to watch the latent criminals they control—because if they did any real detective work, they might start to think like the criminals they are trying to catch and thus become latent criminals themselves.

Good — A Futuristic Murder Mystery

First looking at cases where normal people are pushed by stress, trauma, and emotional distress into failing their brain scans, the show quickly moves on to crimes involving the worst criminals

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in this futuristic society. One case deals with a series of murders at a factory completely removed from the brain scanning network. Another deals with a murderer killing internet celebrities and taking their places. Yet another deals with young girls being dismembered and made into public works of art. All of these mysteries are excellently explored inside the framework of this futuristic world. And how the criminals manage to circumvent the brain scanning system each time is nearly as interesting as watching the police solve each crime.


Good — The Criminal Consultant

All these crimes—and the series itself—are tied together by a puppet master antagonist working behind the scenes. Much like the Moriarty character from BBC's Sherlock, the main villain of Psycho Pass is a "consulting criminal." While he rarely dirties his hands himself, he is the man working in the shadows to supply the murderers with the resources they need to get away with their crimes. In this way he is shown to be brilliant, competent, and more than a little terrifying—despite the ultimate failures of each of his murderous clients.


Mixed — I AM THE LAW!

While no doubt Ghost in the Shell paved the way for shows like Psycho Pass, Psycho Pass seems to be more reminiscent of bad Sylvester Stallone movies than Ghost in the Shell. The police and their latent criminals all use a gun/portable brain scanner called the "Dominator." Much like the "Lawgiver" gun from Judge Dredd, it can fire different kinds of ammo and can be used to execute on the spot those who are judged guilty. The world itself, where even bad thoughts have been rooted out of society, is reminiscent of another Stallone movie, Demolition Man.


However, while Psycho Pass may have much in common with these movies, it handles the subject matter far better than either of the aforementioned films.

Bad — Deus Ex Machina

The only really bad thing in the series so far is the plot twist/revelation at the series' midway point [so skip this section to avoid major spoilers]. Throughout the series, the main villain has been set up as a genius who outsmarts the police—as well as the brain scanning system—at every turn. Yet, when face to face with the villain, we learn his secret: He hasn't

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outsmarted the system or otherwise tricked it when it comes to himself. It's not that he works behind the scenes in such a way that he never technically commits a crime, nor is it that he has somehow convinced himself that he is not committing crimes and is therefore innocent—thus fooling the scanners. Rather, the scanners just read him wrong, no matter what he thinks or does. He doesn't know why himself. He just says that it has always been this way for him.


It's just a straight up Deus Ex Machina: He is immune because the creators say so.

And sadly, this makes the villain seem much less threatening. Sure he's smart, but not nearly as much as we had previously thought. Rather, he is just some guy with an arbitrary special power that lets him literally get away with murder.


Final Thoughts

Psycho Pass is not a groundbreaking anime. It clearly draws from various other cyberpunk media to craft its world and story. However, that doesn't make it any less enjoyable. It presents a series of compelling murder mysteries set in an interesting future saturated with brain scans and holographic technology. It's dark, gritty, and action packed. If you like cyberpunk or murder mysteries, you will find a lot to like in Psycho Pass.


Psycho Pass is currently airing on Fuji TV in Japan. It can be watched in the U.S. and subtitled in English at Stay tuned to Kotaku East for the review of the second half of Psycho Pass later this year.



===== SPOILERS ======

Yeah, sure. Revealing that Makishima is immune to the Sybil system is a Deus Ex Machina. The scene is still powerful, however, because it plays right in tune with the underlying theme that's been in development since episode 1: that relying solely on technology to persecute criminals is flawed.

Notice how helpless Akane became once she realised that she couldn't judge Makishima with her Dominator to save her friend? We, the viewers, would not have needed the authority of a Dominator to choose to subdue Makishima. Once he clearly announced his intent to kill his hostage, we would have gone and subdued him regardless of what a dinky gadget told us. Akane wanted to subdue him as well, but without the approval of a system she and the rest of society have become so indoctrinated in, she couldn't, even after being given a conventional firearm that gets around the whole safety lock thing.

This same message was given in episode one, when the rape victim was judged by the Sybil system to be exterminated. Again, we viewers would not dare judge the victim with such a heavy hand. Rather, we would, without reservation, take her under our care and provide her with therapy to overcome her trauma. And sure enough, she was spared, provided with therapy, and made a recovery, but only after Akane went so far as to shoot the enforcer who was about to kill her, then made a good, old-fashioned appeal to the victim to calm down.

Then there's the whole business about hunches, those suspicions that detectives use to solve crime when they have nothing else to rely on. Inventing a system that scans people's minds for criminal intent is supposed to do away with these hunches, since they are, after all, subjective, and thus a detective who relies on them is prone to error. Nevertheless, on multiple occasions we've see enforcers rely on hunches to get to the bottom of murders when the Sybil system couldn't possibly assist them. In fact, the hunches of one enforcer, the veteran Tomomi, are so reliable that they actually got him branded as a latent criminal. How ironic that a hero over crime is himself branded a criminal by the society he risks his life to protect! Again, this shows the flaws of the Sibyl system, and this time without a Deus Ex Machina.

The entire series is shaping out to be a stern warning about preventative crime. Preventative crime is impersonal, insensitive to context, drives people to paranoia, and weakens people's autonomous judgment. At some point in the series, Makishima will need to be judged without use of the Sibyl system. A single, lucky character will need to discard the convenience of technology and settle for some self-righteous ass-kicking. (My guess is it'll be Akane - watching her fail at it in episode 11, then succeed in the climax will make for a nice character arc.) In doing so, he or she will vindicate the merits of autonomous judgment we rely on in the real world.

I am not expecting the series to explain how Makishima cheats the system. Frankly, it doesn't need to. As a parable, it's already done its job.