Combining an Orwellian future with elements of a police procedural, the anime Psycho-Pass is a mix of action, philosophy, and science fiction. With two television series acting as background context, Psycho-Pass: The Movie (written by Urobuchi Gen of Madoka Magica fame) brings the story of police officers in a dystopian society beyond the borders of Japan, asking questions about government, governance, and how much civilized society takes its safety for granted.
In the world of Psycho-Pass, the people of Japan find their emotions monitored and their lives regulated by a complex network named the Sibyl System. The series protagonist is Tsunemori Akane, who begins the story in season 1 as a rookie officer and over the course of Psycho-Pass, Akane learns the terrifying secret of the Sibyl System. Having entered into a deal with the Sibyl System or the purposes of trying to change things from within, four years later Akane is now a veteran of the field. Her mission takes her to the SEAUn (Southeast Asian Union), a nation ravaged by civil wars that is running an exported version of the Sibyl System on a trial basis, in the process reuniting with her old partner and now fugitive from the law, Kougami Shinya.
I watched the film dubbed into English, which threw me off as I had not heard the cast before. Some issues were perhaps just unfamiliarity, such as how Kate Oxley, who plays Akane in English sounds and plays the role extremely different to her Japanese counterpart, Hanazawa Kana. Other issues were just typical English anime dubbing problems, such as stiff delivery of lines and a tendency to pronounce Japanese names just wrong enough to be jarring. Otherwise, the dub did not distract too tremendously from the content of the film.
Given its subject matter, and the fact that many of its characters love to recite philosophy, the similarities between Psycho-Pass and Ghost in the Shell are difficult to ignore. This is only compounded by this film. Just as the television series of Psycho-Pass are closer in feel to Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex TV, so too does this movie sequel veer closer to the first Ghost in the Shell film. The atmospheres, depictions of teems of people, and the interaction between man and machine all evoke much of what make Ghost in the Shell stand out. That being said, the film is not simply a copy of GitS.
One of the on-going questions about Psycho-Pass is how the people of Japan even allowed the Sibyl System to be implemented in the first place. It may come across as unrealistic that people would so willingly give up their sense of freedom to a system that is shown to be inherently flawed from the first time we see it, but the movie actually hints at an explanation. Describing the world outside of Japan as one of constant war and strife, it becomes easier to see why Japan would accept even an imperfect or potentially dangerous system when every other place is falling apart. The fact that the SEAUn is in an even more precarious position works with the notion that sometimes the Sibyl System is what the people need.
However, the Sibyl System is shown to have its own troubles within the SEAUn, and it becomes difficult to determine to what extent the flaws come from the Sibyl System itself versus the context of the SEAUn and any elements of corruption or abuse that arise from its state of civil war and everyday violence. For example, in the SEAUn “latent criminals” (those shown with a high potential for committing crime) are controlled through the use of collars that can administer anesthetic or even poison. While in Japan such people are kept in facilities in order to have their feelings kept at a safe level, the collars not only provide a perpetual state of slight fear for those latent criminals, but the symbolism that comes from the collars becomes a marker to essentially class people as lesser being.
It’s not quite to the extent of, say, a Star of David in Nazi Germany, but seeing one latent criminal get abused and the attacker (who is considered normal) get away with it hints at the ease by which a visual determinant of one’s status in society can affect people on a deep and mental level. When people are forced into dangerous situations where their lives are on the line, their “latent criminality” will inevitably rise as well, and this can act as justification for continued atrocities.
By the end of the film, Akane learns the truth about the SEAUn, which re-opens one of the questions the anime ask: what happens when the Sibyl System is turned on itself? One solution was provided in the second series, while the movie takes a different angle that acts as a reminder that what works in one society might not work in another because the very conditions for a system or way of governance to take a foothold can be so dramatically different. Another point emphasized by Psycho Pass: The Movie is that the Sibyl System is not evil. It aims for what it believes is best, and in fact it’s an on-going process that is designed to evolve. However, the lack of humanity, as well as the fear of “what might be” hinders it tremendously. At the same time, the Sibyl System, as it is meant to be, is a system of control, but not a system of power. While it is powerful, its end goal is more to remove the threat of power from human beings, protect them from themselves.
Psycho-Pass: The Movie feels noticeably more robust than the television series, but keeps its more action-packed and violent elements of its world and presentation at the forefront. The sophistication demonstrated by the film comes from acknowledging both its loftier ideas and its visceral excitement.
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