By Andrew Osmond.
The Tokyo International Film Festival has held an early screening of the newest PSYCHO-PASS anime; well, two-thirds of it at least. PSYCHO-PASS: Sinners of the System represents the return of the dystopic franchise following the 2015 film. The new anime is a trio of films, telling new stories in the PSYCHO-PASS world and revisiting characters other than the lead duo of Tsunemori and Kogami.
In fact, the advertising suggests that Kogami – who’s gone missing again in PSYCHO-PASS’s “present” following the events of the 2015 film – will be the focus of the third of the Sinners films. However, this instalment wasn’t shown at the Film Festival, perhaps because it’s still in production or maybe to prevent leaked spoilers. The comments below relate to the two stories that were shown at the festival, “Crime and Punishment” and “First Guardian,” which run an hour each. (The third story will be called “On the Other Side of Love and Hate.”)
One comment it’s worth making at the start, given the franchise’s gruesome reputation, is that these stories are more about investigations and interesting mysteries than grand guignol gore. The original TV series felt like the SF anime equivalent of the gruesome live-action Hannibal series. PSYCHO-PASS 2, notoriously, was even grislier. As the Sinners films aren’t made for TV, their content could have gone further still; instead they dial the gore back considerably, though there are gruesome moments. Horror fans, of course, are quick to complain about reduction of gore in a franchise, which is usually done to get a lower certificate, but PSYCHO-PASS was always much more than a splatter vehicle.
The first Sinners episode, “Crime and Punishment,” starts with the appearance of a woman in Tokyo with the kind of Crime Coefficient that would normally get her killed instantly in PSYCHO-PASS’s brave new world. However, she gives herself up to police, and turns out to be a former counselor from a secretive installation, Sanctuary: this is located in the wintry landscape of Aomori in the north of Japan. Very quickly, the woman is claimed by Sanctuary, and it’s clear Unit One’s help is no longer required… but Tsunemori is able to get some of her personnel to escort the prisoner north. They include the Enforcer Ginoza, and the Inspector Mika Shimotsuki… who, if you remember PSYCHO-PASS 2, was a dangerously unstable hothead, less an ally than an adversary.
Nonetheless, that’s who Tsunemori dispatches to Aomori, to find out why on earth one of their staff went berserk. Sanctuary is ostensibly a benign institution, dedicated to the rehab of latent prisoners, and even allowing them to live and work together (Sanctuary is located over a mineral-rich mine). Mika and Ginoza find their investigation blocked, until a clue left by the runaway woman leads them to a second fugitive still hiding from Sanctuary. From then on, the story becomes a chase-action thriller, where Mika is reminded that her job isn’t just about upholding the law – there’s also the small matter of protecting the innocent.
This is largely a mystery-procedural-chase film, framed against the film blanc frozen landscape of Aomori, with the action largely kept back to the finale. It includes a impressive set-piece fist-fight down cliffs and through shattering ice; mecha are involved but also discarded for the personal bone-crunching Bondian touch. The story makes a sardonic point about communal values, but viewers may be more interested in seeing how Mika is presented in a more positive light. It’s less that we see a better side of her, and more that we see how her fundamentally manic nature can be deployed for good or bad just as easily (which has certain implications in PSYCHO-PASS’s world).
Viewers may cry foul at another woman character’s comeuppance, which turns on a trick so old and obvious that it’s surely forbidden in most police dramas. But it makes a fair amount of sense given the character’s established mindset and assumptions. Remember, PSYCHO-PASS is a different country, whose inhabitants don’t think like “us.”
The second film, “First Guardian,” is the stronger of the two. It’s a prequel story, set before the original series, and giving us the chance to see much-missed characters back in action, like Masaoka, Ginoza’s detective dad. The central character, though, is a young version of Teppei Sugo, previously seen in PSYCHO-PASS 2. “First Guardian” is set before his Hue clouded and he became an Enforcer, back when he was operating drone planes for the Japanese army. In contrast to the snow of the former episode, much of “Guardian” takes place against the balmy beaches and waves of Okinawa.
Again it’s a mystery story, involving a battlefield tragedy and a subsequent series of terror attacks in Japan. To his amazement, Sugo learns he is a suspect; another is an old comrade who supposedly died in conflict. That’s when Sugo runs into Masaoka, although the detective is given his own space in the film; he has time for strong family scenes with loved ones who no longer acknowledge him because of illness or hate.
Otherwise First Guardian in a conspiracy thriller with clear echoes of Patlabor 2, the first great touchstone title of Production I.G. While it has more action and bloody violence than that austere classic, it shares several of Patlabor 2’s elements. There are soldier characters betrayed by their leaders; a shadowy theoretical “villain” who we’re not sure is alive or dead; and condemnation of soldiers being insulated from the carnage they leave on battlegrounds where they don’t even set foot.
Guardian also has one specific shot of a terror attack that’s surely refers to Patlabor 2, though the attacks are seen only briefly and elliptically – another hallmark of the work of Mamoru Oshii, Patlabor 2’s director. In fact, both Sinners films were directed by our old friend Naoyoshi Shiotani, who’s been with the franchise from the start. This blog interviewed him a couple of years ago, highlighting how he handles the splatter of Psycho-Pass with aplomb, but also brought us the supercute mini-donkey in the romcom Tokyo Marble Chocolate.
On the evidence of these new absorbing, enjoyable films, Shiotani isn’t hidebound by PSYCHO-PASS’s guignol heritage; he believes all it really needs are solid, interesting stories.
Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films.