I suddenly developed a strong urge to see some kind of good anime. Preferably some kind of cyberpunk/mystery/mindfuck/noir combination with good animation quality and a style that I enjoy aesthetically. Possible? Apparently not. I was recommended Psycho-Pass and sure enough, the synopsis sounded interesting and what really drew me in was the fact that Darker Than Black was the third recommended show on Anime-Planet. For those that don't know (hint: look at my avatar) I am a great fan of Darker Than Black. Darker Than Black isn't perfect, but it's a good example of what you can do with great direction, storytelling and characterization. You feel drawn in when you watch the first episode because there is suspense, mystery and the concepts and characters are interesting enough for you to stay. This remains throughout most of the season.
Now, compare to Psycho-Pass. I have to say the show is an extreme lackluster and does not, based on what I've seen, live up to its reputation of being rated as a solid 4 out of 5. Psycho-Pass has the potential to be great. The cast is just about interesting enough to stick with some proper development and characterization and the concepts and the world itself could potentially be very fascinating if decently explored. Does Psycho-Pass do any of these things? No. Instead what Psycho-Pass does is that it gives you a very boring and uninspiring opening epoisode, a neurotic female lead I wish I could strangle slowly, and a potentially interesting but unfortunately flat male lead that really should have been the main lead but is not the main lead. What the fuck? Nevermind that the rest of the cast manages to irk me through hell too.
There is absolutely zero reason to have Akane in the story. She is in fact one of the primary pitfalls in terms of storywriting and characterization. As such, her role and her part of the cast is utterly needless. The story should have focused on Kogami; it is after all his background story that is the focal point of the anime. Furthermore, the plot is gratuitous and voyeuristic but not in a good way. Considering the rape scene in the first episode. Necessary? Not really. Am I supposed to stick to this show due to its shock value elements? If it's voyeurism that I seek, I might as well go and pick up some tentacle rape hentai. At least there is a point to the voyeurism.
The first episode also utterly fails to establish the world in which the plot is situated and yet make it interesting and mysterious. Compare to Darker Than Black again. What makes Darker Than Black work is that the supposed antagonists in the series are developed to be just like us; their nature as antagonists is ambiguous and they serve to show how there is a moral grey of who is bad and who is good that is necessary for most plots, especially those that fall in the -punk subgenre. While Darker Than Black isn't obvious -punk, tech-noir isn't a bad description either since noir as a film technique overlaps a lot with cyberpun since cyberpunk is derivative of noir storytelling techniques.
In contrast, Psycho-Pass has too many expositions that ruin all of the above. They remove the mystery, there is no build-up in atmosphere and there is no real sense of supension. It keeps introducing ideas but there is no exploration of ideas and it keeps borrowing ideas, but there is no real implementation of ideas. While the basic setting isn't original it's still interesting enough for me to watch it since it has potential. Unfortunately this potential is clearly never realized. As a whole, it's a visually pleasing anime but it's also what I'd call a no-brainer. It never allows people to think and it never challenges people. Darker Than Black is brilliant at doing this for most of the part.
At one point, a bit less than halfway through the series when exploring Yin's backstory, the series ask us; are contractors really not human? It doesn't state so explicitly, but the question is hanging in the air, clearly suggested. This becomes apparent in the scene when we see Bertha explaining why she chooses to eat cigarettes as her contract. This is because of the sense of guilt she still experiences after letting her one child die because it suffocated from a cigarette it accidentally put in its mouth when she wasn't looking. Yet, as she explains, she doesn't have to eat cigarettes. She could choose to eat anything so it is not a forced choice we see other contractors experience who might need to dislocate their fingers or drinkthe blood of children.
Then the series keeps repeating its primary message to us - contractors are not human. But in this scene, we, as viewers, are forced to ask ourselves if this statement is true since Bertha chose to do something we would perhaps consider morally considerate - she experiences guilt and this forces her to behave in a way that is not necessary and perhaps not particularly rational either, which runs contrary to the descriptions we've been given about how contractors operate.
This statement is further questioned as see Hei struggling with his identity and how it's revealed that he was never a genuine contractor to begin with but is a human with contractor-like powers. But is he? What is a contractor? Is Hei, a human and who is clearly capable of murdering people based on that they are simply disgusting as we are shown in the opening scene, better or worse than a contractor? Is he not capable of rationally reason just like they? As a whole we see Hei acting rather emotionless and apathetic, because indeed, he is a contractor. He has the identity of one. But if being a contractor is merely an identity, does it not mean that any person is a contractor or has the potential to become one?
Psycho-Pass never asks these questions. They are never delivered and when they are the answers are simplistic and uninspiring - people are bad and they do bad things and that is why they are bad. Circular and boring logic. It tries so hard that it forgets what makes a good story, especially in this kind of genre. We don't need a morally pure female lead who is the perfect example of good society. Instead what we do need is that ambiguous lead that we see in Hei - is Hei good or bad? We never know. Throughout most of the series he is depicted as a contractor and he acts like one, and this is reinforced because he is working on the "wrong side" of the law. He's a member of the Syndicate, a criminal organization, and many of his jobs include committing various acts of crime such as killing people. Then when we are told the stories of other contractors, we see that they are no worse than actual humans. It raises interesting questions in what constitutes humanity and what makes people good or bad.
It's so frustrating to begin watch a series with great potential but to see it thrown down the drain as quickly. It reminds me of Night Head Genesis that started out rather well but as the plot progressed it also went to hell. At least I actually felt compelled to finish watching Night Head Genesis even down to the last two filler episodes. I cannot say the same with Psycho-Pass that I dropped after the third episode. I couldn't stand it anymore. There was clearly no obvious improvement. It tried so hard to be a story like Darker Than Black, Ghost in the Shell or any other -punk/-noir and it tries so hard to copy the elements that make these stories good that it ends up being that - a copy, and not a particularly good one.
I seek a maturity within the anime community and production that just doesn't seem to be there for most of the part. How many tech-noir anime do you find? Not many. Especially not with a storytelling and character art style that is interesting, thought-provoking and pleasing to look at. Darker Than Black doesn't do anything new by any means. The question it raises were raised by numerous stories before it. In fact, one could argue that the question of what constitutes a human being or what makes a human beings good or bad in terms of morality could be derived from classic Greek philosophy. Yet it is one of those universal questions, those with no real genuine answers. This is why it is a good and interesting question because there are so many ways you can explore it or try to answer it. Arguably it is also one of the most integral questions raised within the cyberpunk and similar genres.
What makes a good story then is how capable the story is of incorporating this question into its setting and the themes it chooses to present. Even if Darker Than Black doesn't have androids and AI per se, the show does have its equivalents with the existence of contractors and dolls pretty much playing the same thematic roles. In Psycho-Pass the closest we got to people fulfilling these roles were the hounds and inspectors but then they didn't do so at all. Therein lies the problem. It tries to set up the hounds as the antagonists but very early on we realize that they don't act very antagonist-like. There is no real character resemblence between the hounds and the people the hounds are chasing down even though they are described to operate teh same.
Again compare to the first episode of Darker Than Black. In the first episode we see policemen chasing a contractor across the roof tops and he kills other people. We then have the antagonistic status confirmed as the police force notes how this particular person is a contractor and he is dangerous, working as a secret agent against the Japanese government. We don't need to understand whether the Japanese government is good or bad; all we know and need to know is that according to this universe, anything that opposes the government is considered bad. This alone establishes the contractors as bad. The point of the story then is to show the other side that is not colored by the government and how the government itself is shown to be corrupt towards the end. It's controlled by the criminal organization the Syndicate that has infiltrated the police force in order to achieve its primary goal.
Yet, even within the Syndicate, we see that there are many various forces that push and pull against each other depending on what people desire and what they need to survive. Evening Primrose is such an example or Hei's group as affiliated with the Syndicate being another, as we often see Hei fighting other Syndicate members as they attempt to perform the same jobs he is. It's indeed very much a dog-eat-dog world where even those of the same organization must fight each other in order to survive.
Where does Psycho-Pass fall? It forgets the moral ambiguity. We have our female lead with Akane who is supposed to represent the model citizen. Compare to Re-l Meyer in Ergo Proxy who too is considered a model citizen to the point where she is a part of the law enforcement, but yet we often see her acting against society based on her own desires in order to find out the truth, and her actions are often morally ambiguous. She hurts people in her process to find truth, the most notable example being Iggy.
The problem with Psycho-Pass is that Akane is so morally pure she removes all sense of ambiguity because through her we already see that society is corrupt and non-functional. A good cyberpunk story must establish that society is not just functional and operating, but that its tenets might in fact be necessary. In Darker Than Black, contractors tend to express anti-social tendencies that make them dangerous to society and people around them as they show little to no concern about the apparent well-being of others (or, at least, this is what we are told). That many of them thus become criminals is a logical solution, and that they are hunted down and killed is thus also a logical solution. They are trying to survive in a world that doesn't want them there, and this forces them to behave in a way that makes the world even less inclined to keep them around.
In Psycho-Pass we see how its basic tenets become useless and unnecessary in the first episode, and this is reinforced in the second episode. The story is thus undermining itself and that is a sign of bad writing. If everyone were just as Akane and reasoned like her, then society would be a good society. Akane does not present us with moral ambiguity that might initially reinforce that the way society is operating is perhaps thus far, as we are presented to us, the best way to run society. Even Night Head Genesis pulls this off better than Psycho-Pass does, and Night Head Genesis was also an anime that greatly disappointed me.
In sumnmary, Psycho-Pass is perhaps one of the most disappointing series I've begun watching in a long time after Nighthead Genesis. That it gets 4.5 overall is in fact a very generous score as such. I would ideally rate it 3 out of 10. I don't consider it passable. If it was I would have finished watching it. Instead, all I can think of is how inferior it is to actual great works in the genre it tries so hard to borrow from that it forgets that it's actually none of these stories but a stand-alone story, and as a stand-alone story it does simply not work.