Editorials · On Themes

Epic Conventions and Psycho-Pass

Though arguably a laziest way to use in medias res, the first two minutes of the first episodes still remain the most important.
Though arguably the laziest way to apply in medias res to any story, the first two minutes of the first episodes still remain the most important in its entirety and are highlighted as such by the director.

Christopher Nolan and Urobuchi Gen are two writers whose work in film has inevitably spilled into each other. While the two’s influence on each other is rather doubtful, the pair of writers do share a number of important traits in common. Their scripts for several of their works utilize similar themes, characters, and even plot devices (which I do admit, is where the parallels start to get scary). But most importantly, the two love to reconstruct and present original, modern takes on mythology. Whether they borrow concepts from ancient mythology (Fate/ZeroInception) or be takes on our most modern of myths, the archetypal superhero (Madoka, The Dark Knight Trilogy), the two have a quirky hobby with using mythology as a base for their stories.

The first couple minutes of Psycho-Pass alert us that Gen’s story is no mere cyberpunk or detective story and reaffirm to the viewer Urobuchi’s vision of the show. Acting much more like a guiding beacon rather than a blatant attempt at foreshadowing, the first couple minutes notifies that this story is structured in a virtually similar way to stories such as Star Wars and the Aeneid. If the Madoka franchise sets itself up as a Greek tragedy, Psycho-Pass chooses a different, yet similar route. The script deliberately goes out of its way to both to deliver a statement of the theme and to begin the show in medias res, both signal to the viewer that this is no mere story: Psycho-Pass is a modern epic.

Creating an epic through the eyes of a fairly pure, cyberpunk science fiction anime is an odd, but rather fascinating process. At the barest level, the two seem intrinsically opposed at first: if epic poetry or film focuses on supernatural elements and unavoidable, inescapable fate (read: UNMEI), the science fiction genre is more than often an envisioning of mankind’s potential and their own agency. However, instead of giving up one side, Urobuchi Gen takes these elements from the former and bends Psycho-Pass’s universe in order to fit into it, disguising fate and the supernatural under the cloak of science fiction. If agricultural cultures have seasonal myths and hunting cultures have animal myths, than industrial cultures have technological myths. Although the look is different, both the structure and function remain the same: the story is shaped in the epic cycle, functioning as both homage and criticism towards current values and citing these through a use of duality on an appropriately grand scale.

In an epic, fate, the supernatural, and the unreal shoot to the highest utmost concern for those involved. The scale is, for lack of a better term, so epic and so grand that it invokes the interest of fate itself. It scales the world at large and travels so far that it even reaches realms that are inherently supernatural, such as the underworld (here represented through the Tower Tokyo/lame brain hub shit) and the story revolves around Sibyl acting as a form of divine intervention. The Sibyl System, the first word being a blatant hint at this, is a direct tip-off at the role of supernatural assistance and ultimate fate in Psycho-Pass. It decides the destiny of the hero and her allies and then intervenes when events no longer align in its interest. This being said, the hero is oftentimes compliant to these predetermined roles: although this is often doubted and questioned by the hero, it is eventually seen as a mission which they are destined to fulfill.

Akane, our epic hero in this case, shares a virtually similar role. She is favored by and becomes an agent of the Sibyl System, which in all cases and purposes is representative of fate itself, and portrays both traits and morals that are highly valued by our society. Quickly it becomes obvious that she is different from the rest of the characters by her moral values, and her willingness to be impartial and her normality by our societal standards distinguish her from the average person in the story’s version of Japan. Other characters such as Kougami and Ginoza exist solely to highlight our heroine’s traits with their bestial fixation revenge or order. It is always through the lens of a hero that the viewer comes to observe and understand the bizarre worlds portrayed in epic myth, which both exemplifies and criticizes aspects of the culture during the time of production, in this case the insanity plea and criminal justice. It is precisely because she is absolutely normal by our standards through a token of empathy that she stands out and is thus used as the ‘traditional’ epic hero.

Finally, the epic journey is cyclic. It begins where it ends, at the head of where it all began, and spirals outward in order to leave space for new journeys to be made. This is the greatest, most fascinating convention of epic myth and film in that the story presented is but a chapter in the history of story’s universe. These moments are honored, remembered, but never stuck on, as time eventually allows future hero’s to succeed them. From there, history repeats, but spirals out in scope all while taking the similar shape, leaving the future chapters to be interpreted by the viewer or by future authors. For Psycho-Pass to acknowledge this with a cyclic ending similar to the beginning is for the writers to confer and complete their vision of Psycho-Pass as an epic.

Addendum and Additional Comments

Although Psycho-Pass is certainly within the lines of an epic, I do not believe it to be a particularly good one. This isn’t so much a matter of Urobuchi Gen’s script, who is often singled out for better or for worse, as much as it is a matter of the directing. As far as I’m concerned, the directing leaves much to be desired. Cutting to book titles for 4 seconds with the subtlety of a dying rhinoceros  in order to draw a comparison is an interesting thought exercise, but this fails to give a meaningful interpretation of the two. Yin-Yang color palettes between two leads and a book drop aren’t the only tool in a director’s arsenal, and it’s a let down when these remain to be some of few utilized. Light and shadow, distortions of space and perspective, meaningful use of props (the last of which is the most underestimated and underappreciated aspect of film): you won’t find those here. This is the ultimate weakness to the series: a fixation on comparison in lieu of a meaningful interpretation.

A final note, epics are interesting because at the core of a massive conflict involving fates of a nation(s) or people lay much smaller groups of individuals who allow us to see why these settings are worth conflicting over. Conceptual characters such as Kogami are useful for highlighting themes, but outside of this their uses are numbered. Though Makishima is a natural exception, as all villains are conceptual at a core level, that doesn’t excuse the remaining cast, especially that outside of the main trio. Again, development fails here not because how it is scripted (this isn’t a free pass for Urobuchi, believe me) but how these scenes are executed and interpreted for the viewer. But this addendum is going on for far too long, and this is an article for another time.

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7 thoughts on “Epic Conventions and Psycho-Pass

  1. Sorry if I sound rude but candidly speaking, I feel you’re fussing too much with genre conventions, and merely making a point on identification—which doesn’t bring much insight into the work itself, but implicitly deigns a superficial glance on Psycho-Pass (which is a ironic representation of its quality, heh). In other words, okay, so it fits with these certain classifications. That’s a nice labeling system. Now this only brings about the canonical question of “So what?”. Any modern work is bound to have borrowed elements from the classics—whether intentional or not, whether insightful or not, and whether a homage or a ripoff not. Generalized further, any act derived from a trope is likely going to be derived from something far more ancient. Then to infer such an allusion one as a classic is just…misleading. Even in your identifications, I see no attempts made in Psycho-Pass to pay specifically homage to these so called “epic” classics beyond using conventional storytelling methods. One could just as easily make such identifications for other mediocre stories. If anything, it only makes the work more generic by repeating old content without bringing about anything insightful through said repetition.

    Ultimately, it as you state (and argue) in the addendum. P-P’s merely a botched shell masked under grandiose pretenses. It’s an intriguing way to see P-P through these “epic” lenses, but that’s all it is—a lens. (Apologies for bluntness! Do love your addendum’s analysis. ;_;)

    1. One thing: don’t apologize for being honest. Not only do I not mind any amount of bluntness from readers, I want to and love to hear what others have to say. So long as you’re honest, definitely feel free to say anything here. Don’t worry about being formal either, cause I’m one lax guy.

      Anyways, on the subject of labels, identification of a genre is not a valid means of criticism (which is a total shame, because so many think in such a way that it’s a bit ridiculous). However, I’ve always found that it isn’t the labeling or classification of a show into said genre which I find to be interesting, but how shockingly similar they remain beneath an constantly changing skin. For these reasons, identification is necessary for examining what lies both on and within the surface and for putting one’s self into the mindset of the creators. Effect and intent are by no means similar, but it’s from keeping both of these in mind that I often discover more about the shows I watch.

      “So what?” is a difficult question for me to answer because it varies wildly on a personal level, and neither I nor anyone else can’t give a single definitive answer which can satisfy the collective. But what I can give is my own personal answer. It isn’t so much the categories of fiction which fascinate me, but how these said categories evolve over time. Watching fiction change and redefine itself throughout the ages is, well, fucking fascinating. When I look at the first hero, Gilgamesh and see how a series such as Psycho-Pass can take the same shape thousands of years later, it puzzles me as to how our stories have changed so little while delivering completely different statements. Masterpiece or not, modern or postmodern, storytelling says plenty about mankind not through delivering single statements or borrowing conventions from the past, but by changing in small strokes to reflect changes in modern thought. In my case, watching modern interpretations of myth and penned fiction unfold and continue to be created is rewarding in itself, since it details the progress of it’s writers through indirect means, again and again.

      Archetypes don’t confine fiction at all. The absolute broadness yet well-defined structure allows stories limitless opportunities to variate.

      1. >“So what?” is a difficult question for me to answer…through indirect means, again and again.
        The “So what?” question is asking how such an identification brings about anything insightful towards Psycho-Pass. In the article you argue that it follows certain “epic” motifs and designs, but you just stop there with your analysis. It offers a cute way to see P-P but it doesn’t actually say anything about the work. I would restate the rest of my first paragraph, i.e., “Any modern work is bound to have borrowed elements from the classics…anything insightful through said repetition”. Put succinctly, analogous “classic”-type arguments could be made for any work, and doing so for P-P in particular gives the false pretense that it’s special in some way, and/or that there’s actually something deeper in its content. There isn’t; all works have such references.

        E.g., anyone can make a comparison with Gilgamesh and any character (moreover, any thing) in any piece of art. It still doesn’t mean anything unless you can get something out of such a comparison. Or perhaps more relevant, I could say, for example, “Naruto is an epic, and here’s why” (which is true following your broad identifications, and even from a technical perspective as suited from the epic fantasy genre). Moreover, I can go even further as to identify Naruto and Sasuke’s relationship with Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s—insofar as to how they both subtly (and blatantly) question friendship vs homoeroticism. Yet, that still doesn’t say anything inherently good (or bad) about either work. Interjecting an opinion (with evidence) here is what brings about something insightful; merely making an objective identification doesn’t mean anything (and this is presupposing you’re not grabbing the flimsiest of events/dynamics to back up the identification, which I also sorta feel you’re doing here, as stated from the above paragraph).

        On a belated note, I’m glad you’re willing to accept constructive(?) criticism, hehe. I feel I’m going to be running my mouth a lot here.

  2. “Cutting to book titles for 4 seconds with the subtlety of a dying rhinoceros in order to draw a comparison is an interesting thought exercise, but this fails to give a meaningful interpretation of the two”

    That was what I disliked with all my might throughout the series. You know, it felt so amateur. I mean, one thing when you write an essay, coz somehow Urobuchi wanted to show his ideas here, that we were told to be careful about was to never use too many ‘calls on authority’. Urobuchi did just that. Book reference after book reference like he couldn’t relay his ideas on his own. Lame…

    As for the rest of the post- very interesting. I hadn’t thought it quite like that. Perhaps because I couldn’t but laugh at how the show started with the overdramatic foe!yay BL narration…

    1. A bit of a late response, apologies!

      Although I’m usually not adverse to quoting authors and the like, here it especially hurts because of both the sheer number and how they disrupts the flow of the scenes. The dialogue between Shinya and Makishima comes off as disjointed because the quotes, presumably due to the way that it is written, overpowers the both the narrative flow and the characters themselves! It’s arguably worse in the camera work: those pauses given to book titles parse the mood and chain of events, and the director forgets that a major part of symbolism is appealing to the subconscious. The ideas are nice, but the integration needs plenty of work.

      And yeah, the total staredown between the two in the beginning came off as pretty darn silly.

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