Psycho-Pass: dystopian contradictions

Just so this attempt at blogging wouldn’t look so pathetic here’s something to get things running: a review of Psycho-Pass.

Three central characters from left to right: Shinya, Akane and Shogo

If I had to single out a name for the title of best script writing in contemporary anime it would probably be Gen Urobuchi. He is responsible for Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Fate/Zero among others. The guy is famous for his dark storylines and evil plot twists and apropos those Psycho-Pass doesn’t disappoint.


The story is set in the near future when it is possible to measure the state of mind of an individual in quantitative terms. The data, containing measures of stress-levels and other biological functions, forms the “psycho-pass” of the individual. By reading these psycho-passes with high-tech guns called dominators the police is equipped with the ability to measure the probability of the person, whose psycho-pass is being read, to commit a crime. The tendency to criminal behaviour is called the crime coefficient. If the crime coefficient is high enough to reach a certain point the person is deemed a latent criminal and either killed or captured by the authority.

Ofcourse all this doesn’t work quite that well, which is clear from the very first episode, but the world of Psycho-Pass represents the technocratic-dystopian vision the government’s total control over the society and its inhabitants: surveillance does not only come in the form of cameras and bureaucracy but reaches the very biology of the human being. It is a kind of an ultra-biopolitics (believe it or not but there’s even an explicit mention of Foucault in the show).

Yeah, there's even more hilarious but awesome academic name-dropping...

Yeah, there’s even more hilarious but awesome academic name-dropping…

The show follows two protagonists. The first one is Akane Tsunemori, a newly assigned inspector in the police force who is not only a model citizen (her psycho-pass is always green and safe) but actually excelled in exams for employment. In the beginning of the series she is quite helpless and naive (not to mention moe..) but in due course she learns to stand up for herself and take the position of a leader. The second protagonist is Shinya Kogami. He is one of the “enforcers” of the police force, a special team of latent criminals assigned to help inspectors in tackling crime. However, the drama between these two characters and their interactions with other members of the police force aren’t all that interesting. What was of interest to me was the dystopian setting and all the questions related to it that were explored in the anime.

The key problem is that of the Sibyl System, which monitors all the data registered from psycho-passes and evaluates the criminal potential of the individual being monitored. All this is begging the question: how does the Sibyl System decide whether the individual is a latent criminal or not? Measuring biological traits such as the stress-level is one thing, deriving from these measures the criminal potential of the individual is another. All this is apparent in the first episode where a woman is kidnapped and later rescued by the police. As it turns out, the kidnapping “clouded” her psycho-pass, thus making her a latent criminal. She was only saved by Akane’s insistence that her condition was only temporary, caused by the stress-inducing situation she went through. Later on her psycho-pass had returned to normal by therapeutic measures. Doesn’t this already expose the Sibyl System as a crude standard of evaluation, incapable of taking into account contextual matters?

The arbitrarity of the measurement/evaluation overlaps with another more fundamental problem, that of the arbitrary will sustaining the criminal code of the Sibyl System. The Sibyl System doesn’t take orders from the outside. It alone decides which acts are deemed illegal and which acts aren’t. Thus the Sibyl system not only evaluates the latent criminality of individuals and legitimizes according measures, it also sets the standard which the evaluation is based on. In this sense the criminal code is arbitrary and isn’t based on any absolute set of rules external to the system (as the representatives of the Sibyl System themselves claim at some point if I remember correctly). The Sibyl System is sovereign: the people are not its source of legitimacy but its object of surveillance and control. It is later revealed that the Sibyl System is actually not some kind of an ultra-complicated machine but a collective mind composed of hundreds of human brains linked together. The source of the arbitrary logic of the system becomes clear: it is based on the despotism of one single mind, even if it’s a collective one.

The Sibyl System: brains in containers

The Sibyl System: brains in containers

All this fits nicely into the mainstream dystopian visions of totalitarian nations and as such there is nothing new under the sun. As the plot unfolds even Akane, the model citizen, comes to realize the dystopian nature of the social order she’s fighting to protect as a police inspector. However, there is one intriguing character in this mess and that is Shogo Magishima who is the main villain of the show. He is opposed to the Sibyl System and unafraid to use terror to achieve his goals. Although he is cruel and wicked his status as a villain is ambiguous: on one hand he is a classic psychopathic killer, on the other hand he is opposed to the Sibyl System, which would make him the ally of our protagonists. The question is that of methods: how should the system be overthrown? Here Shogo is opposed to the protagonists who reject the terrorist methods of Shogo while still opposing the Sibyl System.

Another curious feat of Shogo is that the Sibyl System is incapable of detecting his criminal intent. Even during the scene where Shogo slits the throat of Akane’s friend her dominator only shows low crime coefficient numbers. Why is the Sibyl System incapable of reading Shogo’s psycho-pass properly? The show never really gives an answer to this question (Although Shogo himself insists that it is because he himself doesn’t regard his killing and criminal behaviour as wrong but totally normal. This touches the issue of context: an act of killing may have different meanings depending on the situation. Killing someone out of vengeful spite is different from killing someone out of self-defense even if both acts are technically or “objectively” the same.)

Two kinds of explanations impose themselves here. The first regards Shogo as a random external anomaly and the inability of the Sibyl System to read his psycho-pass is just because the system isn’t “perfect” or “complete” enough. Its information is inadequate, thus it fails to interpret Shogo’s exceptional mind. This is the reaction of the Sibyl System itself, which does not want to exterminate Shogo but on the contrary to absorb him. Shogo is asked to join the Sibyl System as one more brain in a vat. The Sibyl System believes it would perfect itself by absorbing the minds of such exceptional individuals. Shogo refuses the offer.

The other explanation, which I’d like to support, is that which regards Shogo as a contradiction inherent to the Sibyl System itself. Here I borrow from Zizek who asserts that any symbolic order is necessarily incoherent. Shogo stands for the excessive inconsistent element of the Sibyl System itself. Therefore it is not just that real people living in the real world are too complicated for the Sibyl System. Rather I am tempted to say that the Sibyl System itself gave place to Shogo, an element in the system, which brings inconsistency to it. Just like the ever expanding complexity of the legal code, which produces its own contradictions, the Sibyl System is bound to do the same. Thus the appearance of someone like Shogo, whose psycho-pass remains a mystery for the (fundamentally arbitrary) Sibyl System, was necessary.

Season 1 ends ambiguously (anticipating season 2!): Shinya kills Shogo and goes missing while Akane, confronted with the dilemma of how to resist the Sibyl System, a dilemma she doesn’t know how to solve, continues her career in the police force as an inspector. Meanwhile, the Sibyl System, whose real nature as a collective of brains is hidden from the public, is planning to expose itself to the people. Shogo is dead but the material for season 2 is there!


One thought on “Psycho-Pass: dystopian contradictions

  1. Pingback: Anime & Manga Possible Futures – The SF Hub | Signal +

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