One-Dimensional characters and plot flaws in Psycho-Pass
November 23, 2012 Leave a comment
Psycho-Pass presents a fascinating world, a vision of a dystopian society within which your every thought can be tracked and quantified. It presents us with a highly stratified and controlled society where simple test scores can determine where you work and what your life will be like. The ideas that Psycho-Pass presents are therefore all potentially very fascinating, but at the same time, none of them are unique or new to this series. This in itself is not especially terrible though as every anime, film, music album and so on has in some way taken inspiration or ideas from another. That the issues in Psycho-Pass can be found in Ghost in the Shell or any Phillip K. Dick book is hardly surprising, especially given the wide-ranging influence of Philip K. Dick on the science fiction genre. There is however one distinct problem, Psycho-Pass hasn’t made any of these ideas its own, they have been borrowed almost wholesale in some cases and simple pushed into a space that will fit.
There have been entire sections that could have been taken directly from Ghost in the Shell, entire sets of ideas and issues that have been borrowed from Phillip K. Dick works, but none of them have been made to work for the series itself. There is no originality in the series, and when watching it, regardless of how interesting and thought provoking the ideas and issues are, it comes across as entirely derivative and unoriginal. Certain elements of the plot feel forced with each new crime bringing with it an entirely new set of ideas and issues, while often leaving behind the last. There is the feeling throughout that the people behind this series liked the ideas but almost didn’t quite know how to make them fit their vision of dystopian police state. Instead what we are presented with are elements of Ghost in the Shell, Akira, a bit of Blade Runner, some of The Minority Report and the gun from Judge Dredd. Psycho-Pass is a collection of pieces, or bits from other series or stories all pushed together in the vague hope that they will mesh.
In this respect Urobuchi and Naoyoshi have effectively ransacked the science-fiction works from the 1950s onwards, taking whole chunks from Phillip K. Dick and other writers and directors who were influenced by his writings. Borrowing ideas is often essential to fictional works, and every well-known and influential writer, director and creator have in some way been influenced by, or borrowed from others. However, it is the way they use these ideas that is important, with good writers and directors using them as a starting point and adapting them into their own style and story. As you watch Psycho-Pass however, it quickly becomes clear that, rather than use these ideas as a starting point, they have just been borrowed and thrown together often haphazardly. Certain sections for example could have been lifted directly from Ghost in the Shell, or perhaps The Minority Report or even Judge Dredd.
This almost schizophrenic approach to the story isn’t helped by Urobuchi’s apparent inability to create multi-dimensional characters. The main cast is all potentially very interesting and in some cases there is an ambiguity to their whole view on and relationship with the Psycho-Pass and Sibyl systems that could be explore in more detail. But they are also surprisingly one-dimensional, with characters such as Kougami essentially portrayed as one-trick ponies. He is a killer, he is a character that simply follows the orders of the Dominator and shoots people, regardless of whether it is fatal or not. He may have told Akane that he wants to be a proper detective instead of a hunting dog, but everything we have seen about his character suggests that he is there to hunt and to apprehend the criminals. But, as soon as this has been established, Kougami is suddenly capable of Sherlock Holmes style deductions, quite clearly stating that the victim is dead based on a scratch and a few other clues. This isn’t necessary a problem as Sherlock Holmes and other great literary detectives were capable of coming to similar conclusions from even less evidence, but it is the way in which this scene in particular is portrayed.
It is too sudden and too direct, there is no time for the viewer to really think about what we are seeing, and instead of allowing the audience to work things out for themselves, to be pushed, to be tested, we are given a full explanation. Once again another problem with Urobuchi’s writing, he cannot and will not let people think, and instead just throws in a load of needless exposition to fully explain the sudden amazing deductions of Kougami. This spoils the entire scene and destroys all chance of an atmosphere or mystery before it is given a chance to even begin. Now, if we were to look at Ghost in the Shell and even Rahxephon (it isn’t a dystopian series, but there are certain similar elements) we see anime that force the viewer to think about what is going on in each scene. The mysteries in Ghost in the Shell are often several episodes long, with a gradual build up along with more clues and dead ends. Like with a Sherlock Holmes story there is an element of suspense along with a wonderful atmosphere with the knowledge that someone knows what is going on but will not say anything. In the case of Psycho-Pass everything is generally thrown at the viewer, especially when it comes to this murder and the criminals who carried it out.
This is another faulty element of Urobuchi, while his characters are often incredibly simplistic and ‘flat’, it is his antagonists that suffer the most, with a tendency towards being unnecessarily violent and ‘nasty’. There is no real need for an antagonist in a series like Psycho-Pass, and if we were to look at past dystopian stories with similar settings it becomes clear that ambiguous characters are incredibly important. It is partly through such characters that we are shown the shadowy and often grey nature of the society within which they live. These characters have to act the way they do in order to survive and make a living, if that means working on the other side of the law then so be it. By creating interesting antagonists that are as ambiguous as the protagonists you help to create a cast that it is easy to care about. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Blade Runner) for example, the androids are initially introduced as the antagonists, but as the story progresses we begin to grow attached to them. Towards the end of the story it is Deckard who comes across as more of an antagonist, with the androids seeming far more human than he could ever be. This is of course the point of the story, with the androids created in the form of humans and fighting to survive in a world that rejects them.
By caring for these characters the audience (in the case of the film) or the reader (in the case of the book) begins to question the morality of the society, and the principles that it has been built upon. The Orwellian society that well produced and well told stories can portray helps to underline the inequalities and destructive nature of society in general. The role of the antagonist is therefore essential in making the read or audience question such a society, and while they don’t have to be likeable, they do have to be someone, or something that we can understand. To use another example, Ghost in the Shell is a universe that lacks true antagonists or ‘bad guys’, and even when we are introduced to characters or groups that are portrayed as destructive and terrible, it is inevitable that the situation becomes increasingly more complicated. During the majority of their cases Section 9 will almost invariably be going against another government body or group that are working towards their own goals. Very often the main antagonists are also products of governmental research and development programmes and these other government sections or groups simply want to get rid of them.
The world of Ghost in the Shell is a murky one filled with espionage, counter-espionage and governmental bodies and secret groups fighting each other for dominance and power. Through all this Section 9 has to play the political game, while also carrying out its own missions. The section is therefore filled with people who have their own dubious reputations and backgrounds, chief among them being the wonderful, mysterious and enigmatic Major Matoko Kusanagi. Throughout the films and the series we see the Major working on both sides of the law and willing to use all at her disposal in order to get her job done. Often what she is trying to accomplish differs greatly from what Section 9 has been ordered to do which inevitably puts her, Batou, Togusa and the other members of the section at odds with other, often more powerful governmental agencies. But, this is partly the point, who is a criminal and who decides they are criminals is questioned throughout Ghost in the Shell, with the characters frequently questioning their own place within society.
It is this grey, murky society that Ghost in the Shell portrays which is missing from Psycho-Pass, along with the brilliantly realized, multi-faceted characters. Furthermore, its reliance on cartoon villains who have no qualms about throttling a young woman and chopping her up denies any possibility of creating the kind of atmosphere that Ghost in the Shell is so good at. Furthermore, the gratuitous nature of the violence in Psycho-Pass, along with the clearly destructive attitudes of the antagonists and polarizing nature of the characters all serves to create a horribly disjointed series. There is arguably no need for such gratuity when it comes to violence, or the rape in the first episode, and by focusing on that Psycho-Pass spoils other points that it appears to be trying to make. As a series it seems to putting an inordinate amount of effort into being ‘edgy’, and instead seems to show us how little the writers and director really understand the ideas that they are using. A good dystopian series that focuses on politics and a dysfunctional society can be edgy simply by telling a good story with properly realised characters.
There is no need to put any effort into being edgy, instead it happens by merit of its very nature. By now we all know of Naoyoshi’s claims that the series wouldn’t involve any form of ‘moe’, and that it was banned from all meetings and discussions. This may have been an advertising pitch, with Naoyoshi trying to gain the interest of other audiences, but at the same time it almost seems to have become a goal of his. Yes, there are clearly moe elements, but at the same time, he feels fixated on creating an edgy series, and so we are provided with gratuitous and unneeded violence and rape. The more I watch of this series, the more derivative it has become, the ideas are there, and there s enough to keep me interested, but nothing has been made to fit. None of these ideas surrounding the arbitrary nature of crime and law, or even the ambiguous nature of the real and virtual worlds seem to have been adapted to fit the series. Instead, it continue to come across as an oddly derivative anime that borrows from other series and instead of trying to explore the same notions in its own way uses existing texts. It is this lack of originality and one-dimensional characters that ultimately spoils much of my enjoyment of this series and serves to demonstrate the need for good well-rounded characters. Furthermore, it continues to underline my general dislike for Urobuchi’s writing and his propensity towards unnecessary violence and destructive characters, with little or no finesse.