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/Zero, Inception) 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.