Psycho-Pass Season 1 Review: Brilliant Sci-Fi Thriller

Imagine a society where one’s worth as a human being is determined by some artificial construct, a system that is capable of analyzing and evaluating every individual’s mental/emotional states as well as their aptitudes (and thus their career decisions). In essence, every person’s life is more or less determined by this system. This also applies to criminals as well; if one’s analyzed mental/emotional state is stressed to a certain level, they are marked as “latent criminals” and are judged accordingly by law enforcement. Sounds creepy right? This is the universe of Psycho-Pass, where individuals are governed by the Sibyl System. Now Psycho-Pass, produced by studio Production I.G. with the first season written by Gen Urobuchi (who has written other anime classics like Fate/Zero and Madoka Magicka), is not a new show; in fact it first premiered in 2012, though I just watched it relatively recently after putting it off for so long. The show also spans three seasons with several movie spin-offs as well, but my review will only cover the first season, which is a self-contained story.

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Psycho-Pass takes place in a rather obvious dystopian setting (omniscient government surveillance and overall having an overbearing presence on citizens’ lives). I would imagine a lot of people in today’s age would not wish to live in a world under the Sibyl System, especially when the will to pursue our dreams no matter what they may be is a core part of the American spirit (whether that is real or not is a different story). However, the system also removes a lot of the conflicts associated with that ideal, as individuals no longer have to struggle with figuring out their identities and their life’s meaning, and society happens to be more stable and efficient as a result. It is not a perfect set-up, as even in the world of Psycho-Pass there is crime (albeit greatly reduced), which is where the main cast of characters comes in. Most of Psycho-Pass’s main cast works for the Public Safety Bureau’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID), which is the Sibyl System’s form of law enforcement, and most of the show revolves around the team solving various criminal cases.

Psycho-Pass executes well on basically all fronts, but one of its notable strengths is in its main cast. The show has two protagonists: Tsunemori Akane and Kougami Shinya. Akane is a rookie Inspector and acts as the audience’s “point of view” in a sense, and she starts the show as both a naive idealist but also an outlier to the typical Sibyl System civilian where she wonders if her choice to work for the CID was the right move (as most people do not question the Sibyl System’s decisions). Shinya is an Enforcer (latent criminals who have unique skills that let them work under Inspectors as opposed to being thrown in jail), and is basically a badass with a strong sense of personal justice, often using unorthodox but effective methods to resolve crimes. Akane’s idealist attitude clashes with Shinya’s more cynical, “realist” view of things and the two play off each other well, and Akane’s character growth throughout the show’s progression is a pleasant surprise considering typical characters of her archetype. The supporting cast unfortunately is a bit less consistent, with some characters being developed more than others, but the primary supporting characters are also written well (Nobuchika Ginoza and Tomomi Masaoka stand out in particular). The show’s main villain, Makishima Shougo, is probably one of my favorite villains in media, and while I cannot elaborate too much on him due to spoilers, in short he is a charismatic individual who has a lot of view points that may be similar to our own despite ultimately being the bad guy.

While the characters in Psycho-Pass are great from a standalone perspective, what makes them really fleshed out and fascinating are their relationships to the overall world. The show’s decision to focus on characters from the CID is key, because crime is probably the one murky area where perhaps the Sibyl System’s judgment is fallible. The Sibyl System uses Inspectors and Enforcers to investigate crimes, and the primary method of law enforcement is through the use of Dominators, AI-powered guns that can shift between a taser or an over-the-top lethal force that makes people explode, and it determines which mode to use based on the target’s mental/emotional state (specifically their “crime coefficient”). This is all fine and dandy assuming the Sibyl System’s judgment is perfect, but early on the show more or less indicates that it is not when you look at the CID. Some of the Enforcers are actually former Inspectors who have been demoted due to their mental/emotional states being stressed from the nature of the work they do, and one of the Enforcers specifically was tagged by the system as a latent criminal at the age of five despite not having done anything wrong. Are they actually criminals who are a danger to society? Probably not, and thus they have become victims to the system in a way. There is also the potential possibility of encountering a criminal who is “immune” to Sibyl’s judgment, which means the Dominators will be useless as Dominators only activate against targets the Sibyl System can accurately analyze.

Another part of what makes Psycho-Pass so brilliant is its self-awareness, both in its characters and in the overall show. Most of the CID more or less recognize that the “perfect” world they live in is not so perfect, and thus this creates an interesting dynamic when they come across an opposing force that wishes to bring the system down. Sure, who wouldn’t want the opportunity to dismantle an oppressive construct that has basically ruined their lives? However, what if that actually comes to pass? How will the rest of society deal with the aftermath of their central system suddenly collapsing? The show also makes no attempts to hide its influences, directly referencing a lot of literature’s notable science fiction/dystopian writers, including George Orwell and Philip K. Dick, so for those who see similarities with the movie Minority Report there it is; Psycho-Pass basically pays direct homage.

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A gun that represents the Sybil System’s law enforcement; both a taser and a human blender in one.

The show also looks and sounds great, albeit I am no connoisseur regarding animation and sound quality. The soundtrack mixes both techno and classical music depending on the scene, which elevates the general atmosphere of whatever is currently happening. I love the cyberpunk themes and the art style, and the fight scenes all looked and felt cool and visceral. Everything regarding the Dominators is also great, though I feel like making a criminal explode into nothing more than a bloody pulp is excessive as far as lethal force goes. This sort of ties into a warning about the show; Psycho-Pass is not a show for the faint of heart with its visuals and themes, so I do not recommend this to anyone who does not particularly enjoy watching darker, “grittier” stuff (the fact it is written by Gen Urobuchi should be enough indication for anyone familiar with his work).

Overall I have very few negative things to say about Psycho-Pass’s first season, with perhaps my only real criticism with some of the supporting cast not receiving enough love characterization-wise. The core main characters are all thoroughly fleshed out and intriguing, the narrative is tight and suspenseful with each criminal case keeping me on my toes, and I finished the show thinking a lot about the various themes and questions it poses about society and free will. Psycho-Pass also does a great job of not falling into the myriad of tropes a lot of people have come to associate anime with, and thus is an excellent show to watch even for people who are not particularly interested in anime in general. All in all an excellent show.

Rating: Phenomenal show. If you like science fiction and/or thrillers, and are not afraid of some visually brutal scenes, go watch it.

Software engineer and gaming enthusiast, writing reviews to share quality media; check out my personal site at www.edmondwu.dev

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