In some ways, Psycho Pass is pretty easy to classify. The series, which premiered in 2012 and is currently streaming on Hulu, is a classic dystopian sci-fi story: it takes place in a future Japan where the unseen computer Sibyl System constantly measures the mental health and general motivation of every citizen, quantified in a number-color combination called a Psycho Pass. If the citizen’s Psycho Pass breaches a certain threshold, they are labeled a “latent criminal” and are fair game for the show’s protagonists, the officers of the Public Safety Bureau.
For the most part, this is a straightforward premise, referencing touchstones like Minority Report to Ghost In The Shell. But the third season of Psycho Pass is a weird creature.
It’s airing right now, in 2019, five years after the last season. (In fairness, there’s been a smattering of movies and OVAs in the meantime.) It’s only eight episodes — and, rather than the standard 22 minutes for an episode of anime, they’re all 45 minutes long. The protagonists are two new Inspectors in the series’ Public Safety Bureau, rather than the strong, optimistic original protagonist Akane Tsunemori. Throw in the fact that the season is written by Tow Ubukata, the writer behind the show’s mediocre second season, rather than Gen Urobuchi, the writer who penned the series’ spectacular first season (as well as Madoka Magica), and I was skeptical.
But then Psycho Pass 3 explained the subprime mortgage crisis.
Let me explain: Early in the season, the two new protagonists, Arata Shindo and Kei Mikhail, investigate a murder and discover that the victim had been planning to blow the whistle on his bosses, who had been conducting a subprime mortgage scheme. To the other characters (and the audience), this basically comes out of nowhere, allowing Psycho Pass to engage in one of my favorite anime tropes: an indulgent, long explanation of backstory. Using a handy hologram, Arata explains the nature of subprime lending and the way it led to the housing bubble, all in three minutes.
This is, frankly, nuts! Lots of intelligent people have a difficult time explaining — and understanding — what actually happened during the ’00s, and who is to blame for the current precarious state of the world economy. Anyway, here’s an anime series from 2012 explaining it using brightly-colored, chibi versions of a bunch of cops, in seven easy steps:
- Someone buys a house, taking out a loan in order to be able to do so.
- The price of the house goes up, allowing the person who bought the house to sell it for a profit.
- That profit pays off the original loan, and allows the speculator to buy more houses.
- Other people with poorer credit — as well as people with less wealth and minorities — are also given loans, albeit at a higher interest rate. Subprime!
- Banks package of these loans together and then sell them as investment opportunities.
- Credit rating agencies classify the bundles as good investments, even though they frequently include large numbers of tenuous mortgages.
- The scheme continues as the bubble grows. The whole thing only makes sense as long as property values continue to rise, allowing individuals to continue flipping houses.
- The bubble bursts! The whole thing collapses.
To me, a narcissistic American, this seems like it comes out of nowhere. But of course, part of what was so pernicious about the financial crisis was the way the major banks were invested not just in their American bases, but around the world, meaning the casualties also included Japanese banks. And Japan had its own version of the 2008 crisis during the ’80s and ’90s — the period that spawned many of the reference points for the dystopian sci-fi genre. It seems much more likely that Arata, and Psycho Pass, are referring to this crisis, rather than the 2008 one. But the explanation works just as well.
And besides, the fallout from excessive subprime mortgages is just one of like, fifteen different political issues tackled by Psycho Pass 3. In this world, Japan has begun to allow increased immigration, forcing people seeking asylum to be tested by Psycho Pass. The PSB delve deeper into a gubernatorial election between two parties broadly defined by their approach to immigration. Both of them, cynically, have different ideas about how to exploit cheap migrant labor. And the officers discover that people in positions of power within society are largely able to maintain their positions through extensive, expensive mental healthcare, allowing them to keep their Psycho Passes clear.
Also, all of this is three episodes into the season.
That’s to say: I don’t know what I expected from Psycho Pass 3, but almost halfway in, the season is a delightful, overstuffed hodgepodge of political issues, all approached in ways that feel organic to the existing Psycho Pass world. You should watch it! Not sure I could have predicted that, but then again, I’m not a brain in a jar. Or a subprime lender.