Psycho-Pass is a grand example of the wrong way to merge genres. It wants to be a large-scale political drama, an intimate character drama, and a raw action show, while throwing as many allusions at the audience that can be fit in the script. In the end, it’s an inconsistent mess loaded down with pretensions of its authors. Psycho-Pass had a lot of potential in its early days, but it builds and builds until it collapses beneath the weight of its plot holes, unrealized character development, and bland twists.
Psycho-Pass is set in a dystopian future where Japan is controlled by the “Sibyl System,” a mysterious mechanism that measures residents’ danger levels in a test called a “Psycho-Pass.” The protagonist, Akane Tsunemori, is a new member of a police squad designed to deal with potential criminals through the use of “Enforcers,” people with high chances to commit crimes kept separate from general society. As she becomes sympathetic to their plight, everything in the police unit goes topsy-turvy when they discover a series of crimes orchestrated by a mysterious man whose Psycho-Pass cannot be measured.
It’s quite simulacratic, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; everything is unoriginal to a degree, and the cyberpunk genre built itself off of its unique merging of science fiction and noir storytelling. The problem with Psycho-Pass is that it doesn’t merge its influences together into a consistent product.
Early on, quite a lot of focus is placed on building the world, but the world itself is very compact. No explanation is given to the state of Earth outside of Japan. Very little information is provided as to how the country works outside of the vast city the majority of Psycho-Pass takes place in. It’s comparable to The Naked City and its idea of the city as a living being, but it’s odd that Psycho-Pass goes into detail about the state of technology and the Internet in its setting yet has nothing to say about how Japan somehow went from a globalized state to wholly isolationist again, even in a world where the Internet still exists. Its attempts to be large-scale hard sci-fi become ludicrous when one considers the world outside of Japan. After these arcs resolve themselves, the scope moves back to the main cast and the antagonist.
Sadly, once Psycho-Pass pulls its focus back from world-building and onto the characters, it doesn’t improve. Since its early arcs are primarily focused on building the setting, the shift back to the character drama comes before much of the cast gets much development or moments that make them likeable to the audience. Most of them don’t get this development, and the few characters who are developed aren’t used much in the remainder of the series. One of the most prominent and obnoxious characters doesn’t make an ounce of progress until the penultimate episode; a side character gets a whole episode dedicated to showing her intriguing backstory, and then all she gets is a few throwaway lines and a needless sex scene near the end.
It doesn’t help that the writers seem to use the dialogue as a platform for self-aggrandizement rather than character building. Many conversations exist only to have characters name drop writers and philosophers, from Gibson to Kierkegaard. It’s rarely used in a way that makes sense for the characters or is needed for the story. One murderer explains their whole motivation through a monologue on Kierkegaard that never ends up tying Kierkegaard’s philosophical views back to why they need to kill people for what they do. A few minutes of dialogue are used to only show that two characters know who William Gibson is. The final shot of Psycho-Pass is a copy of Swann’s Way on a table, despite the conclusion having nothing to do with that novel. It’s rarely necessary, if ever, and it comes off as pretentious. Allusion isn’t supposed to be used this way; it’s for symbolism and comparing themes across different texts, not for writers to show off their worldliness.
The overarching story isn’t much to write home about either. Like any good thriller, it builds itself off of tension and intrigue. Early arcs focused around singular crimes and building the world are great to watch, despite little of the cast having much depth. There’s always a sense that anything can happen, that things can go totally off the rails at any point, and then they go off the rails in the most hamfisted way possible. Psycho-Pass digs its own grave through its excellence in creating tension. Before its reveal, it’s a genuinely enjoyable show, one of the best hard sci-fi stories I’ve seen in a long time. Once it lifts its mysterious veil, all that’s left is a crudely-constructed world with misused characters. There are no thrills to what happens subsequently; it’s predictable, and all of the tension it needed to be a good thriller was thrown out. The few tricks left feel more like they came out of the writers’ asses than their sleeves. A few moments of world development come, but they only serve as last-minute excuses to make a climax after the initial climactic reveal came up short.
Just like its story, the animation quality in Psycho-Pass begins impressively; there’s a great sense of motion to the action, and the gore is appropriately organic. Production I.G. initially gave it a healthy budget, and it seems like they had a lot of their best animators working on it at the time. At its best, its as visually thrilling as I.G.’s previous work on the Ghost in the Shell franchise. After the mystery is revealed, that animation quality goes as far down as the story does. The off-model shots sharply decline in detail. A character loses and gains a suit jacket and tie multiple times over the course of a single scene. It’s just pitiful. Around the same time as the reveal, I.G.’s other series Robotics;Notes got a significant boost in budget for its computer-generated robots, so there’s a good chance this resulted in resources being diverted away from Psycho-Pass. By this point, Psycho-Pass wasn’t especially deserving of that budget anyway.
Psycho-Pass has an identity crisis. It clearly wants to be the best in its genre, a shining example of adult fiction in a medium steeped in moe tropes. Its writers attempt to emulate the ideas of Shirow Masamune, Chiaki J. Konaka, and William Gibson, but they don’t do anything of value with their predecessors’ works. They just take their innovations and cobble them together into a weak, unfocused narrative. Psycho-Pass is nothing more than a big-budget Hollywood action film weighed down by its own pretensions of being something more.