As I look back on Psycho-Pass, my impressions of the series highlight two fundamental truths I see in Gen Urabuchi as a writer:
- While his talent and intellect enables him to ask quite interesting questions, it doesn’t seem to enable – or drive – him to try and offer any comprehensible answers.
- In terms of structure and characters, you can always count on Gen to be eminently predictable and to execute in a completely conventional way. Yet you can also count on him to execute the conventional very well.
As a result of the above, I’m always very conflicted about Gen and about his series. I would much rather watch a series by a writer who floats interesting ideas than one that doesn’t. I would much rather see shows that execute formula with enough skill to make it entertaining than ones that are too inept to do so. But for me Gen is the Emperor with no clothes. Gen shows always end up being a tease, empty calories, whatever metaphor you like – the experience, like the characters, ends up being somewhat hollow. It’s fitting, really, that Psycho-Pass ends with a shot-by-shot repeat of the opening episode – because Gen always ends up repeating himself, in a cycle that never ends.
I think there were exactly two characters in Psycho-Pass who ended up being really interesting, and both of them wound up dead. The first, Masaoka, was a standout not so much because he brought anything new to the table but because he, among all the representations of stock characters, had the most interesting story and the most compelling personality (and Arimoto Kinryuu’s great performance didn’t hurt). Masaoka, like all the characters in Psycho-Pass, had a role to play and played it to the hilt – he was the gruff but loveable veteran with the dark past, and he was flagged to die pretty much from the beginning. But as the living bridge between the pre and post-Sybil Tokyo, his role (within the series at least) was a singular one. He was also really the only character than spanned Kougami, Akane and Ginoza – the one whose arc intersected with all of them, and really the only one that all three had meaningful conversations with.
The other interesting character was of course Makishima, who was the closest thing to something really original in the cast. We’ve seen his type before of course but I think Makishima was an interesting case, and it’s a testament to Gen’s skill that Makishima made me feel so conflicted so often. Primarily I think it boils down to the fact that he was Gen’s mouthpiece inside the story, and thus was unsurprisingly given by far the most interesting things to say. Gen used Makishima to give voice to all the questions he was trying to raise in Psycho-Pass, but – and the irony is strong here – he abjectly failed in trying to find any answer to them. In the final analysis Makishima was all about calling attention to the problem and himself, but singularly ineffective at offering any real solutions. That’s about as meta as it gets if you really look at it closely.
Like all of Gen’s endings (though in F/Z there were certainly extenuating circumstances, given that it was a prequel to someone else’s story) Urobuchi-san tries to have it both ways and ends up embracing no answer at all. He’s set up Kougami, Akane and Makishima as the only three characters in P-P who really matter (unless you count Sibyl itself) each with a markedly different viewpoint on the events of the story. Gen is clearly sympathetic to Makishima’s complaints about the Japan of the Sibyl era, a thinly-veiled swipe at Japanese culture on the whole. Yet he ends the story with a bullet to the head, a seeming condemnation of the methods he chooses to pursue his goal. Kougami is a melding of the intellectual and the savage, a brutally violent man who quotes Pascal and convinces himself his vigilanteism is for a good cause. And then there’s Akane, who always tries to have it both ways, who wants to take the best of everyone and everything and always manages to walk about with a pristine psycho pass.
So who does Gen choose, in the final analysis? The irony here is this, as I see it: Makishima is the character Gen most identifies with, Kougami is the one he wishes he was, and Akane is the one he most closely resembles. Like Akane, Gen is fundamentally unable to break away from the establishment in the end. Like Akane, he’s always unable to make a choice (and a refusal to make a choice is a choice in itself). And as with Akane, we’re always left with endings that don’t feel satisfying. I appreciate that Gen is willing to share his internal conflict over the nature of the Japanese social contract and his agonizing over what justice truly is – but I wish he’d actually take a position and stand by it for a change. I may disagree with Makishima’s unforgivable methods in pursuit of what I see as ultimately a worthwhile cause, and I may disapprove of Kougami’s willingness to take the law into his own hands and declare himself the final arbiter of justice. But those, at least, are choices. What Akane does isn’t a choice – it’s just kicking the problem to the curb and waiting for someone else to come along and try to solve it. And that, for me, is a perfect model for what Gen does as a writer.
“The law doesn’t protect people; people protect the law.” When Akane utters a pompous line of pseudo-intellectual dialogue like that, I can’t help but wonder if Gen really buys it – and I think that’s a very important question. I can’t help but think that the reason Gen so frequently has his characters quote the words of great philosophers and writers is that he’s insecure of his ability to come up with meaningful words of his own. He’s wonderful at finding interesting ways of using the words of others, that can’t be denied – he’s like a great cover band, in that sense. He can recycle someone else’s material and package it in entertaining and interesting ways, but seems to lack that spark of creativity that would allow him to make a truly original statement. We’ve seen it in Madoka Magica, we saw it in Fate/Zero (which is undeniably better than the story it was originally based on, in my view) and we saw it again in Psycho-Pass.
What I can’t deny is that Psycho-Pass is a great series from a blogging standpoint. And the fact that it is makes me wonder if I’m being too hard on Gen here, because if it weren’t for his intellectual curiosity and technical skill that wouldn’t be the case – and indeed, it’s a fact that his shows are more interesting to write about than the vast majority of anime I cover (and never mind the ones I don’t). It’s a curious thing that the best moments for me in Gen series always seem to come when he does nothing but show two or three people sitting and talking to each other. The “conference of kings” moment from the first season of F/Z, the summits of Makishima and Senguji or Kougami and Saiga – or indeed some of the talks between father and son with Ginoza and Masaoka. These kinds of scenes seem to find Gen at his most secure as a writer, perhaps because he can use the various characters to toss his own conflicted ideas at each other and – and use their disagreement as a way of avoiding having to take a position himself. Viewed as a sort of extended psychoanalysis, Gen’s series take on a very interesting tone.
I also can’t deny that in writing up a summary of Psycho-Pass, I’ve spent most of the post talking about the writer – and that too is a testament to the fact that for all his faults Gen is one of the more interesting and significant ones in the anime business. The truth is that in terms of the rest of the production, there’s nothing nearly so interesting as Gen’s intellectual musings. Production I.G. has rarely displayed the kind of inconsistency they did in this series, it’s true – even apart from the legendary episode 18 fiasco (which prompted that most Japanese of reactions by the director, a public apology) the animation has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride. But in general P-P has been a good-looking, eye-catching take on the future noir genre. The cast is full of big names and uniformly fine (with Arimoto and Sakurai Takahiro’s performances being the ones that really stand out). Stylistically there’s really nothing new here – visually and narratively this is a well-constructed mashup of the likes of Blade Runner, Dark City and especially Minority Report. If it weren’t for Gen’s frustrating but interesting philosophical ruminations I think Psycho-Pass would have been eminently forgettable.
I’m not sure where I’d rank Psycho-Pass in terms of Gen’s recent catalogue. The first season of Fate/Zero was probably the best overall, though the second lost much of its mojo; Madoka Magica was the most ambitious but the most deeply flawed. In the end all of these shows tend to sort of blend together because of their generally 2-D characters, really more archetypes than individuals, and predictable plot progressions. There were a few moments when P-P seemed to come close to finding real profundity, only to fall short, yet it was very rarely less than entertaining and almost never truly uninteresting. I’ve been waiting through all these series for Gen to do something that truly surprises me, and I’m still waiting – but that I am still waiting might be the most important thing. He keeps me coming back, hoping that he really will surprise me the next time, and when he does that maybe that will be the moment when a Gen series finally makes the jump to true greatness.