Humanity is Screwed: Dystopian Visions in Psycho-Pass and Shin Sekai Yori (Colloquium)

Since I somewhat recently finished Shin Sekai Yori (SSY), Josh and I were talking (bickering) about it — as we are wont to do whenever I finish a show that he’s been trying to get me to watch for ages. We cycled through a few topics, but somehow landed on comparing the show to Psycho-Pass (PP), seeing as they were both fairly popular anime in the dystopian/sci-fi genre and also aired around the same time. We’re also planning to watch the second season of Psycho Pass, so we thought it would also be a good preface to a future post.

We didn’t want to just list off the reasons why we liked and disliked each show, but a little bit about why we felt the way we did and how we were judging. In a nutshell, the two metrics we decided to compare the show on were “likability” and “respectability”. In other words, how each show ranked in terms of viewing enjoyment versus how much we respected what the show tried to do with its message, tone, etc. Similar to our No Game No Life post, we wanted to do a dialogue and hopefully get at the heart of why we felt each way about the two shows. Josh also wants to start doing these types of posts more regularly because he thinks his stuff will be less boring if I also talk about it.

what scrubs

scrubs

J: So let’s just get things started. I felt like between the two shows you get two very different visions of the future. Which “dystopia” did you think was more appealing?

R: Appealing in what way?

J:  Well, PP takes you to this familiar Neuromancer-esque territory — you know, all those questions about technology as a double-edged sword, the limits of our own abilities, etc. — but SSY has a vision of the future that I hadn’t seen before or really ever thought about. Maybe that’s because it’s so outlandish. But I guess my question is whether that made it more appealing to you over PP’s treatment of familiar territory.

R: I think I liked the idea of SSY better — as an avid reader and someone who’s dabbled in creative writing, I always appreciate a unique story. However, I didn’t necessarily buy into it the same way I could envision a PP future coming to be.

J: So are you saying that a big factor of dystopias is not how appealing it is, but how relevant it is to the present day? Like their true power being as a “distorted reflection of the present” sort of thing.

R: I mean, I think so. I think what makes dystopias so chilling is that it seems as if it could be a legitimate outcome for our future. Right?

J: And SSY didn’t really get at that for you.

R: Not as much. In fact, I wouldn’t even classify it as true science fiction — it was really more of a fantasy.

J: So if you consider SSY a dystopian fantasy does that mean it’s no longer a good comparison for PP? Like, if you could somehow suspend your disbelief then would it be as appealing? Or is that not really a fair question?

R: I think the problem with SSY is that I could barely even consider it a dystopia. If you had told me that the main characters were elves or another magical race I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. It was too removed from the present and everyday reality to really strike me as a true dystopia.

J: But I feel another part of dystopias are the way that they pervert a utopian existence. And in doing so it asks these deep fundamental questions about being human, living in society, etc. I mean, that’s sort of at the heart of the origin of the word, right? So I think you could make the case that SSY fits that definition to the T.

Who knew lazily paddling upriver could be SO EXCITING.

Who knew lazily paddling upriver could be SO EXCITING.

R: I think you can definitely call SSY a dystopia if you want, but I don’t think it has the same effect as PP simply because it is so far removed from anything I can realistically imagine happening to our future. Whereas PP is disturbing because it could very well be what happens in the next few centuries.

J: I’d probably say sooner than that, given how things are looking today.

R: Ha yea, I guess.

J: So, in essence, what makes PP more appealing for you is this imminent impending fear that this society could really exist in the future. It’s not enough to just sort of exist as a scary place that serves as a setting for some story — it needs to have this sort of transcendental quality where it also looms ominously over our real everyday lives.

R: I wouldn’t have necessarily put it like that, but yea.

J: So on the same line of thought, would you say that Wall-E was a better example of a dystopian future than SSY?

R: Sure. But Wall-E was a shitty movie.

J: wut.

R: It was so boring! It was just two robots and a bunch of fat people.

J: But all the humans and their flying hoverchairs were pretty scary weren’t they? I’d say that whole setup was even more terrifying than PP!

R: I mean yea. But I can definitely see how we might be heading there. Still was boring as fuck though.

J: So obviously you liked PP more than Wall-E. What about it was so appealing to you?

R: I mean I didn’t absolutely love PP or anything — I think in terms of basic viewing experience I liked at least the first three quarters of SSY somewhat more.

get rekt

get rekt

J: I’m a bit surprised. I mean, I tend to really like shows like SSY that are a little bit slow-paced and philosophical. You know — “big idea” shows. But you’ve never really seemed to be a big fan of those. And compared to SSY, PP was much more concrete and action-packed.

R: I mean the world building in SSY was much better and more innovative.  Saki was boring, but whatever. It definitely made me think more than PP did and it was a nice change of pace since I usually watch more action-packed shows.

J: Plus shoujos.

R: Hey, don’t hate on my shoujos. :p

J: No worries — I know you’re the only one allowed to hate on or defend your ambivalent relationship with shoujos. ;)

R: That’s right!

J: Haha. Anyways, getting back to SSY. That’s sort of why I was saying I like SSY better — because it made me think about all this DEEP AND MEANINGFUL shit. But earlier you said PP was actually more appealing to you.

R: I mean I wouldn’t put it that way. I think PP had more credibility for me — although both of the shows had shit endings (motherfucking hyperoats) — and in the end I don’t think SSY is something I would watch again, whereas I might watch PP again.

J: So does this come down to SSY having a shittier ending than PP?

R: I wouldn’t say that…

J: Two words: hyper oats.

every time

https://vimeo.com/101320655 (listen to the words with the music–trust us)

R: I think it’s one word actually.

J: Well fuck it.

R: The ending was more of an issue for me with SSY because it was a major letdown from the rest of the show. I was more forgiving about the hyperoats.

J: Yea I mean for all the shit the hyperoats gets, in the end PP generally did a good job of keeping with the overall style of the rest of the story. SSY did almost a full show-change in the last couple episodes.

R: I agree. It felt too disjointed for me to buy into it. It was jarring by the end and it seemed to happen out of nowhere. With the stupid psychobuster.

J: Right. Well, I would definitely argue the final confrontation ended with strong thematic consistency, but I have to admit it was bizarre to watch the show (d)evolve into a random dungeon crawl.

Because fighting in a wheat field is totally different.

Because fighting in a wheat field is totally different.

R: So I think I can start by saying that neither show was by any means perfect, but for some reason I had much more of an issue with SSY than with PP.

J: Okay, how so?

R: I think my fundamental problem was that the show was so far-reaching. SSY was super ambitious, which I can respect, but I think it did itself a disservice. I just wasn’t buying the plot and a lot of the things that happened with the world building. I’m not sure if you had any similar feelings.

J: I actually thought SSY did a lot of cool things with the world building. What’d you take issue with?

R: It wasn’t so much the history or any of the established world, but moreso that everything imploded by the end of the show. I thought this spoke to a weakness in the plot and the general storytelling.

J: I mean if there’s one thing to say about that is that SSY’s biggest strength and weakness is that it set the entire show up for the grand finale. It was a story that banked on that final moment (and aftermath) being the realization of everything that had happened up to that point. So not liking the ending pretty much guarantees that the show will leave a permanent bad taste in your mouth.

R: I wouldn’t say it was that extreme. I had issues with PP’s ending as well, but, like you said, while SSY had everything riding on that ending and had consistency issues in terms of tone because of that, PP did more throughout the show.

J: I think what you mean to say…well, let me ask you this instead. What’s the most memorable scene from each show for you and why?

R: The most memorable scene in SSY was obviously the ending with Squealer’s trial and Kikomaru’s inevitable death, but I think therein lies the problem. There were no other secondary climaxes throughout the show other than Shun’s death.

Who knew Shun was such a fan of Halloween?

Who knew Shun was such a fan of Halloween?

J: What about the Monster Rat chase and capture near the beginning of the show? Or Mamoru and Maria’s escape? Or Saki’s realization about what happens to the children that go missing?

R: Well I think the final scene climax was so heavily imbued with importance that everything else was forgettable for the most part.

J: Okay. What about PP?

R: There were two scenes that really stuck out to me. First, when Akane’s friend is killed in front of her and she just stands there and watches instead of intervening a la “The Most Dangerous Game”. And the second is when she stumbles upon the room of brains and decides to let them live.

Voted Sexiest Brain Alive 2077

Voted Sexiest Brain Alive 2077

J: Right. I think your answers sort of showcase the fundamental difference between the two shows. PP did a good job with pacing to have a lot of scenes with action and character development throughout. In particular, the show has a heavy emphasis on traumatic and transformative situations for Akane that lead directly to near term plot developments. In addition, PP has a lot of self-contained side stories to illustrate many of the side-characters. SSY really just banks everything hard on the conclusion. Everything feels in service of that one moment.

R: I guess I also felt that Saki was a weaker character than Akane in the sense that she didn’t have the same level of character growth. I’m not sure if that was a function of her society or poor rendition of her personality.

n00bs

n00bs

J: I think that’s definitely true, but I would instead argue that Saki’s character development is a lot more subtle, and in a way that’s meant to be more telling about the slowness of societal change in SSY. The final scene in the show where she shows mercy to Squealer is actually a really big moment where you can actually see these experiences have culminated in a small but significant act of kindness. It shows how Saki has become fundamentally different from her predecessor and some of the people around her, and gives some small amount of hope that she will be able to pass her experiences on to future generations. I think it’s a pretty deep scene.

R: I guess I can agree with that. Still, in terms of the audience relating to her as a character…

J: Yea…she was pretty muted.

R: Right? I found it to be pretty difficult.

J: Yea — it’s hard to enjoy a show if the characters are difficult to relate to. Especially the main character.

R: Still, I think it was more interesting to see how the society in SSY barely changed at all even though this should have been a pivotal moment.

J: Well, a core part of sci-fi is sort of questioning how good, powerful, or adaptive humans really are. So I tend to think the fact that nothing does change is a very powerful message conveying a dismal view of humanity, rather than just, well, nothing. I mean, it’s not like SSY is the first book or movie to do something like this. Attack on Titan also seems to display a similarly depressing outlook for humanity where we continue fighting amongst ourselves until the bitter end.

R: I mean sure. Either way, it was pretty bleak.

Welp - I guess we're all screwed.

Welp – I guess we’re all screwed.

J: But wasn’t PP also pretty bleak?

R: I don’t know what you’re talking about. Everything is fine as long as we have hyperoats. Yum.

J: Food of the gods. But seriously though: while both shows do give a bleak view of humanity, I’d say that PP tends to be a more well-trodden cynical view than SSY’s.

R: I can’t think of many dystopias that are optimistic about humanity.

J: Well, I think it’s very important to distinguish between two types of views of humanity. A lot of these dystopian shows don’t have a lot of faith in humanity’s ability to overcome our base nature or our obsession with technology or frankly even each other. It’s a lot of us losing ourselves to our own creations. So yea, I think there you’re probably right. But SSY asks a much deeper question about exactly what it means to be human. Not just in how we act, but fundamentally.

R: Want to elaborate on that? I don’t really feel like thinking about it too hard XD.

J: YOU WOUND ME.

R: Yea yea just get on with it. :p

J: Well, a lot of sci-fi stories deal with this idea of “losing our humanity”. And what exactly that means depends on the story. In many cases we instigate our own demise and so these dystopias really deal with humanity turning in on itself, usually through the things we create. PP is one of these stories.

R: Okay…

J: But with SSY there’s a completely different starting premise. Humans have become sort of these creatures that no longer have any relationship to humanity as we understand today, and the humans that we do understand have been turned into monster rat slaves. So it really is a story that gets to the fundamental question about what humanity even means when you have a story about humans who are gods and rats who are humans. What does it mean to even have something like that?

R: I’m not sure, actually. It could be that the writer of the original story (I’m not sure how far SSY strayed from the novel that it was based on) was trying to get all deep and suggest that perhaps there are really only two tracks that current humanity could end up on–one where we devolve into our more animalistic tendencies, or another where we evolve into these superhumans, but at the same time lose our capacity for things like empathy. Not sure. What did you think?

J: I think SSY was more subtle than that. I don’t think the two humans are necessarily the paths we have to walk down or even their extremes, but instead a more abstract, self-reflectionary thing about different aspects of humanity.

R: Okay, that’s fair. I think the biggest thing that bothered me about the way I reacted to the show was how even after I learned the truth about the monster rats, a large part of me still rooted for the more human-looking people in the show. I’m not sure how much of that has to do with simple physicality, but I think that’s a large contributing factor. It’s much easier for us to associate with the beings that look like us, even if there is another group that is much more like humans today in everything except appearances.

J: That’s a really good point. Appearances are incredibly important, at least in our society. And at the end of the day, we really were more like the monster rats. I think it also might tie in to how the show inverted the usual “rooting for the underdog” trope by making the main monster rat, Squealer, morally ambiguous in a way that still left the audience favoring the human-looking people instead of the characters who were supposed to represent ourselves.

Wallpaper_04

R: Yea, I guess there really is an inversion of that trope, especially since the usual formula has us rooting for the oppressed (usually humans) enslaved by either another group of humans or higher entity. I don’t think anyone would argue that the monster rats were oppressed and that in theory we should have been rooting for them, but the show doesn’t let us off that easy. We’re stuck in Saki’s perspective and because of that, we sort of automatically have to root for her. Even more so since Saki is ultimately well-intentioned. She isn’t an anti-hero or a sympathetic villain, she is an innocent who wants nothing but to keep her loved ones safe by maintaining the status quo.

J: Exactly. And it’s not like the life she’s trying to protect is all that great either. It’s just uncomfortable all-around.

R: So is that it for our discussion then? This has already stretched on for quite a while…

J: Well, I actually had one more topic I wanted to bring up, if it’s fine with you.

R: Fine. But don’t ramble on too long. :p

J: I won’t! I just wanted to bring up the art style and directing. Since, you know, anime has pictures and people involved and shit.

R: I mean, you’ve pointed this out to me several times, but I didn’t really notice anything until I had finished watching the show and you brought up the weird trippiness in some of the episodes of SSY and I was like “yeaaaaaaaaa”. I’m not sure if it’s because I don’t tend to pay too much attention to art style (except in something like Madoka Magica where you don’t really have a choice) or if you’re just more perceptive about that sort of thing.

J: I mean, I think being on the lookout is definitely part of it. Plus I’ve been thinking a lot about this angle in recent months. So yea — that’s definitely part of it. I mean, one of the things that differentiated SSY from PP was how much looser it was with the directing. I think most people forget that anime director/writer teams tend to a lot of power over how a show will turn out. And this difference really showed between the two shows.

R: I mean I can really only comment on the fact that the shows did have distinct art styles, but I think that’s the case with most anime unless you’re singling out a specific subtype like shoujo or shounen where the art tends to be pretty similar across the board.

J: I mean, you can at least admit that the change in art in SSY was the most egregious/noticeable in the episode where Saki confronts Shun before he dies and things get really artsy and trippy. In a series where the story changes so much going from little children exploring the countryside to a full-blown war, these changes make things seem a little bit uneven.

R: Art style aside, I can definitely agree with that last point, since the general pacing was something that really bothered me. SSY chugged along until the final arc and then all of a sudden everything imploded all at once.

J: Even prior to that there’s weird emphasis on random scenes like when they spent forever just searching for Maria and Mamoru. Or when they spent a lot of time showcasing school life. Many of these particular scenes didn’t matter much in the story and were really just for extended world building, which makes the pacing at the end all the more bewildering. Because you get to the end and think, “they had all this time but they wasted doing artsy crap ughhhh”. I mean, I absolutely love artsy crap, but that type of stuff can be jarring to other viewers.

More symbolic meaning plx.

More symbolic meaning plx.

R: Oh yea. SSY was definitely artsy. I think I only appreciated it because it’s been such a long time since I’d watched anything else artsy, but if I’d watched this on the tail of another artsy show I think it would have annoyed me a lot more. But SSY put emphasis in places where I didn’t think it was relevant or necessary. It’s like how many scenes do we need of Saki and Satoru maneuvering through the snow to find their friends?

J: But contrast that with PP which had very deliberate pacing and a consistent writing/art style for most of the episodes. Gen Urobuchi is known for this type of extremely focused writing and creative control and is sometimes pinged for making shows that seem so linear and so thematically driven. But you can see the clear difference that authorial control has on a show just by looking at some of his other projects like Gargantia where he took a much more passive role.

R: Makes sense. But at the end of the day we still haven’t answered the most relevant question. I think we both agreed that we liked PP better as a show, but which did you respect more for whatever reason?

J: I’d have to go with SSY. I felt that SSY really reached high — higher than most shows would dare to go — and even if it necessarily didn’t go all the way it really hit a lot of big questions and made me think about this type of stuff. This wasn’t as true for PP — I felt like it was comfortable staying in well-worn territory. I enjoyed the show a lot, but didn’t really have that extra “oomph” factor.

R: I think I still have to say that I respect PP more, hyperoats and all. At the end of the day, PP described a more viable and believable future world and I thought that their overall representation and resolution was more successful. SSY fell too short for me in that respect.

J: I mean that’s perfectly fair. I think this really comes down to our first point where we discussed what we think about dystopias. It’s clear that I tend to be more expansive in what I’m willing to consider for the genre and biased toward shows that try really hard and innovate even if they don’t succeed.

R: And I tend to put a lot of emphasis on execution I guess.

J: Yea. I mean, I’ll look upon shows positively even if I found them to be really horrendous to watch as long as they made me think a bit.

R: You gave points to that idiotic Prison School show. I’m not sure if I can respect anything you think after that.

J: But it was SO WELL DONE.

R: Uh huh. Just as well done as Monster Musume?

J: Okay, that one wasn’t so great, even if Miia was and always will be Best Girl. (Arachnea secretly has mai haato though).

R: Right. So tell me again why I should respect anything you think?

J: I guess it’s a topic to talk about in the future. ;)

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One response to “Humanity is Screwed: Dystopian Visions in Psycho-Pass and Shin Sekai Yori (Colloquium)

  1. I have to say I prefer Shinsekai Yori, largely for the same reasons as Josh. But I also think that the characterisation is subtler than lots of people give credit for. It’s not that the characters were flat, they just didn’t express themselves like anime characters. If you focus on their actions, though, they are absolutely human in the sense that they’re both cruel and kind.

    That’s not to say Psycho-Pass isn’t great too, though. I think you guys might be disappointed by S2… It was almost universally regarded as a major flop…

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