Review: Psycho-Pass: The Movie (2015)

It wasn’t really my intention to limit my anime reviews to Production I.G’s films, but I wound up watching Psycho-Pass: The Movie (2015) and here we are. Psycho-Pass PosterThe film follows Psycho-Pass (2012) and Psycho-Pass 2 (2014), both television anime series. Like Production I.G’s own, earlier Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and the subsequent Solid State Society film, and not unlike what they’d later repeat with Ghost in the Shell ARISE project, this anime film follows an existing series and doesn’t truly stand alone – something to keep in mind before deciding to watch it. 

This review won’t spoil details of the series, but suffice to say the plot of the film directly evolves from a story thread left hanging at the end of the first season. As others have noted, the second season has very little impact, apart from a couple of new characters introduced then, who nevertheless play only a very small role. While I’m not sure that a perfect recollection of the minutiae of the show is required, the film doesn’t do a great job of explaining the high-concept premise behind the world of Psycho-Pass. That is: in a future Japan one hundred years hence, the country has been transformed into an isolated yet crime-free utopia. All aspects of its citizens’ lives are managed by an AI system that measures the titular ‘psycho-pass’ or ‘crime coefficient’ of individuals. With strong echoes of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, individuals who the system judges to be ‘latent criminals’ are incarcerated, institutionalised, or even killed before they can commit crimes. The police have been essentially replaced with Inspectors who execute the will of the AI, aided by Enforcers, latent criminals conscripted into a cross between a SWAT team and hunting dogs.

The film follows one such Inspector, Tsunemori, hunting down a rogue, runaway Enforcer abroad, in a fictional South-East Asian country torn apart by civil war, but on the brink of implementing the same AI control as Japan. Wisely, the film mostly moves away from the plot device overused in the first two seasons of the anime, wherein certain people are, for various reasons, unable to be measured and judged by the system, so it brings something fresh. While the change in setting could have been beneficial to fresh audiences who have not seen the original series, as it means less knowledge of existing characters and relationships is required, I feel like there are still too many ideas that are central to the world and to the actual plot of the film that are not explained, alienating someone who wasn’t caught up on at least the first season. On the other hand, this change in setting also sidelines some characters, so even as a slightly reticent fan of the show I was disappointed that Tsunemori’s colleagues are barely present.

psycho-pass tsunemori
Inspector Akane Tsunemori (Kana Hanazawa)

Visually, the film follows the style established in the anime series. It is, perhaps, a little cleaner, a little more detailed, but it’s a far cry from the gorgeous – albeit aging – animation on display in the first two Ghost in the Shell films or some other feature length anime projects. Curiously, though, when watching the film with its original Japanese audio, there is a jarring amount of English language dialogue. The population of the fictional South-East Asian nation, as well as a team of cyborg mercenaries featured prominently, all speak English. It’s unclear if this is meant to be a lingua franca or that the official language of the nation is English. Unfortunately, the dialogue is delivered by Japanese actors, most of whom are clearly uncomfortable in English. While it’s probably a little rich to suggest this after decades of terrible foreign accents in Hollywood movies, it might have been preferable to simply have all the dialogue in Japanese, rather than force the Japanese voice actors to struggle in a second language, particularly when the language doesn’t even make a lot of narrative sense.

At 113 minutes, the film runs unexpectedly long – perhaps too long. The expense of producing anime often keeps even feature length productions somewhat leaner. Between the length and the meandering plot, it sometimes seems like an excuse to let various parties philosophise at each other – something that Ghost in the Shell could be accused of, so maybe I just prefer that world’s philosophical and ethical questions. The original Psycho-Pass series was essentially commissioned as a potential replacement for Ghost in the Shell, one that again combined sci-fi action with philosophical musings. I found it somewhat difficult to work out what the intended message of the series was – that is, was it for or against what I saw as a clearly dystopian world where individuality and free will is suppressed – but that actually might have been intentional, if it hoped to provoke discussion and interpretation. Many of the same questions are raised by the film, but there is an interesting political angle brought in by the international setting. In the present, Japan is grappling with its past and future relationships with the rest of Asia. In a number of developing Asian and African countries, it provides aid and infrastructure expertise that seem to be echoed in the way the AI control system is exported in the film. The unspoken question is: what does Japan get in return? In the film, the answer is of course an expansion of the dystopian horror, but in the real world, it’s much more complicated. It’s one thing to watch as an outsider, but I’m fascinated by how it might be perceived in Japan.

It’s always interesting seeing how Japan depicts other countries – even fictional, future-dystopian ones like the film’s South-East Asian Union (SEAUn)

It’s hard to tell if it’s intentional, but it’s also interesting the way the series and the film both make you question the acceptability of its fascist utopia – on the one hand, it seems that the audience is primed to side with the Inspector against the system, on the other, it tricks you into rooting for the system when it’s used to take down villains or rescues the protagonists. In particular, as the original series never left Japan’s closed borders, the film presents for the first time a version of the future where the only choice is constant AI control and judgment, or the Hobbesian state of nature apparently found in the rest of the world. It’s unclear whether the film is asking whether one or the other is better, or if it works on the assumption that of course the world without freedom is the obvious choice.

Ultimately, this is a worthwhile couple of hours for fans of the series, but should probably be avoided by anyone who hasn’t yet seen the television show as it relies too heavily on knowledge of the story, setting, and characters. It is essentially a feature length episode, not a standalone film that happens to be set in the same world. It has many of the same qualities – and flaws – as its preceding series. For better or worse, it also fails to provide any closure to to the on-going story of Psycho-Pass, explicitly leaving room for more – perhaps a sequel, or another series? It doesn’t look like anything has been announced yet, as of early 2017, but I certainly wouldn’t mind another instalment.

Psycho-Pass: The Movie /  劇場版 サイコパス

Director: Naoyoshi Shiotani & Katsuyuki Motohiro

Japanese Release Date: 9th January, 2015

Version Watched: 113 min (Funimation BRD)

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