Spoilers for Psycho-Pass and Psycho-Pass 2
I tried to keep my hopes up for Psycho-Pass 2. Sure, the show lost its original writers, director, and even animation studio between seasons, but there was still a chance that another creative team could find something interesting to do with the material it inherited. Sadly, the longer it goes on the more obvious it is that Psycho-Pass 2 has no idea to do with what it’s been given, and will most likely continue to make bad decision after bad decision all the way to the end.
It’s hard to argue that the original Psycho-Pass was subtle. It was built out of a collection of well-worn sci-fi staples like dystopian future societies, humans giving up management of their lives to technology that strips them of their agency, and human brains living in jars. Many episodes were full of brutal murders, exploding bodies, and other bits of shocking violence. On top of that, the writing barely tried to hide its surface influences. The premise owed obvious debts to the likes of Mamoru Oshii and Phillip K. Dick (and movies like Minority Report that Dick’s writing inspired), and the show’s characters would often reference and discuss authors, philosophers, and their works by name for extended periods.
Yet Psycho-Pass worked its pulpy and outwardly derivative elements into something much more compelling than it originally appeared it would be. The original Psycho-Pass was a success because of the way it used its high concept and genre elements as building blocks for an allegory that explored the relationship between individuals and societies, and how those individuals confront the cruelty of flawed, exploitative systems and negotiate their peace with living under them (or don’t). Beneath its pulp and cynically violent exterior was a series of surprisingly thoughtful moral dilemmas dramatized through fiction, played out by a cast of varied and interesting personalities and world views.
Psycho-Pass 2, on the other hand, shaping up to be a pale imitation of the original. In some ways, it was at a disadvantage from the beginning. The first season explored the major implications of the Sybil System, gave resolutions to the major character arcs, and told all the obvious stories that the show’s concept allowed for. That left little for the second season to do except choose between retracing the first season’s steps, or breaking everything and starting from scratch. So far season two has stuck to the first option: the plot once again revolves around Inspector Akane Tsunemori and her Public Safety Bureau colleagues hunting down another outwardly charming but malicious villain who can go undetected by the Sibyl System’s criminal potential scanners, whose terrorist rampage is slowly exposing dark secrets at the heart of the system that Akane and co. are charged with protecting.
Sticking to familiar ground could have been an underwhelming but innocuous choice, if Psycho-Pass 2 was able to show that it understood how to use the material it has to work with anywhere near as well as its predecessor did. Unfortunately, the more the show goes on the more it appears that the second shift crew in charge of the sequel isn’t up to the job. Beyond having much more pedestrian direction and the animation taking a noticeable dip in quality, season two is in the hands of writers (Tow Ubukata on plots with Jun Kumagai writing the scripts, taking over for season one’s Gen Urobuchi and Makoto Fukami) who have a poor grasp of what it is that made the first season work.
Psycho-Pass 2‘s problems came into clear focus in its fourth episode. The largest portion of the episode deals with a hostage situation in a mental health facility, where an elderly man is holding an MWSPB inspector and a group of patients waiting in line to fill their prescriptions as hostages. As the kidnapper rants about the emotion-nullifying effects of the drugs being fed to the populace, he forces his hostages to strip to their underwear and then beats them with a baton while telling them how he was saved from the system by Kamui (season two’s behind-the-scenes manipulator antagonist), and how his victims should let themselves feel terror again to rediscover their natural, uninhibited states. The area stress level rises to dangerous levels as the terrorized victims lose their composure, but the officer in charge of the police response, rookie Mika Shimotsuki, is paralyzed by inaction and orders her subordinates not to respond. Eventually all the hostages (including the kidnapped Inspector) are terrorized to the point having their psycho-passes reach levels that mark them for instant execution, just in time for a new MWSPB unit to arrive and take command. The prisoners escape and run terrified from the building, only to be gunned down in a mass of bloody explosions as they flee. Akane arrives just in time to witness the carnage, and discovers that Kamui has left his trademark message, “WC?” (“what color?”, referring to the Sybil System’s color-coded grading of people’s emotional states), written in blood at the crime scene.
Season one of Psycho-Pass had similarly carnage-filled episodes, including one of the villains using random acts of violence against innocents to drive up the cowed populace’s stress levels and force the Sybil System to overreact. The hostage scene from season two is also similar to the first episode of season one, when the fresh-faced Akane’s belief in enforcing the law was confronted by the Sybil System’s fundamental contradiction of judging terrorized victims’ broken states of mind more harshly than the cruel intentions of their victimizers. Like the hostage scene from season two, those scenes were unflinchingly, almost sadistically violent, and they didn’t shy away from painting the Sybil System’s methods as harsh and unfair. What those scenes in season one lacked in subtlety and grace they made up in exposing the flaws of the system that the show’s heroes were risking their lives to defend in a way that tested them, driving a wedge between their own sense of morality and the values the system required they believe. The scenes of terrorist violence and overbearing police response raised the stakes, pushed the characters closer to their snapping points, and reinforced just how flimsy the peace that the Sybil System offered was.
Psycho-Pass 2‘s hostage scene is clearly supposed to serve the same purpose as the similar scenes from season one. The villain and his lackeys terrorize civilians in order to force the Sibyl System to take action, and Sibyl’s unbending, utilitarian methods cause innocents to be harmed in the process. Unlike season one, however, these scenes don’t provide any insight into Sibyl’s rule or escalate the conflict between Sibyl and its protectors. Unlike Akane, who struggled against her belief in the system and the inhumanities she saw it inflicting, new Inspector Mika doesn’t make any decisions or come to any personal realizations; she simply stands around mewling helplessly and snapping at everyone who gives her suggestions. Not only that, but by the next episode it’s not even clear if the massacre of a colleague and a dozen civilians had any kind of affect on her. By the next episode she’s back to her previous role of spending most of her time complaining about Akane ignoring procedure. Despite witnessing an atrocity that was partially her own fault, committed by the system she trusts, Mika goes right back to playing her previous role of the system’s shrill, irrational defender with a massive bug up her butt.
Psycho-Pass 2 doesn’t have much to say about the Sibyl System, either in terms of the metaphor the first season built around it or as a system that the characters live under. As much as it pays lip service to being about the theme of society’s collective guilt under an oppressive system (Kamui’s “What Color?” messages, a taunt challenging society to examine what its true emotional state and level of guilt are), it’s far more interested in talking about and expanding upon minor world building details and inventing arbitrary new rules for the Sibyl System in order to justify each new story development. Instead of forcing the characters and the audience to dwell on the ethical issues that Sibyl presents like it predecessor did, season two largely ignores deeper meaning and metaphor in favor of building a puzzle box conspiracy thriller plot. But even when looked at as just a potboiler Psycho-Pass 2 is a failure, because all of its mystery and suspense are built around nonsensical fictional conceits that have no meaning or purpose beyond throwing another twist into the plot, as well as having its characters make choices that only make sense if their motivation was to make sure the story could be stretched out to twelve episodes.
Psycho-Pass 2 seems to be working under the assumption that the more labyrinthine its villain’s scheming gets and the more made up fictional details his plot includes, the stronger its story is. On that front, it’s gravely mistaken. For all the subterfuge season one’s antagonist Makishima used and for all the fronts from which he launched his attacks, the heart of his plan was very simple and had a clear thematic purpose. Taking advantage of his immunity to Sybil’s judgement, Makishima tempted others to act out, pushing them over the edge so he could observe how the responders reacted in order to learn the weaknesses in the system’s reaction to insurrection. The basic idea of Kamui’s plan is largely the same, except the details and execution of his plan are much more convoluted and silly than anything Makishima ever dreamed up, including brainwashing multiple people, taking control of multiple government agencies’ security systems, turning commercially released video games into weapon control systems without anyone playing that game noticing, replacing public officials with perfect duplicates, making his followers immune to Sibyl by giving them organ transplants, and perfectly executing a series of ridiculously complicated traps on the MWSPB.
As Makisima’s plan advanced and its details became clearer, the moral dilemmas he represented became less cut and dry even as they became more immediate for the people chasing him. As the details of Kamui’s plan are revealed, all that happens is that they get more complex and absurd. Where Makishima was a serpent in the garden, Kamui is a guy who somehow got ahold of the Psycho-Pass Strategy Guide and turned on all the cheat codes. At times it feels like season two’s writers developed Kamui from a game of My Dad Can Beat Up Your Dad:
“Makishima can’t be judged by the Dominators? Well, Dominators don’t even notice that Kamui exists!”
“Makishima is a master manipulator? Well, Kamui is the personal savior to a cult of worshippers!”
“Makishima can spend years on a hidden crime spree without being caught? Well, Kamui can do that too! And he’s a master hologram programmer! And he can use the Dominators! And he…”
All of the complexity of Kamui’s plans, however, can’t cover up how little any of it means beyond piling on twists and flourishes in an attempt to make his machinations seem deeper. In another example of a scene that calls back to a moment from the first series, season two’s sixth episode climaxes with a scene of Akane finally coming face to face with Kamui, but being unable to take action outside they system to stop him. Akane’s first confrontation with Makishima played out very similarly, but unlike her meeting with Kamui it was a climactic event, and her inability to act against him had immediate and devastating consequences. Her confrontation with Kamui, on the other hand, feels surprisingly low stakes and uneventful. Deciding not to stop him has no immediate consequences on her or anyone else, reveals nothing new about Kamui or his plan, and feels incredibly anticlimactic for what’s supposed to be such a big moment. Even if only judged by its own merits, Psycho-Pass 2 is an underwhelming and poorly thought out series. When compared to the story it’s supposed to be continuing, its flaws and mistakes become even more apparent.