Psycho-Pass proves thought provoking anime

Futuristic detective thriller asks viewer if safety is worth the price of freedom

THE CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION DEPARTMENT OF THE MINISTRY OF WELFARE PUBLIC SAFETY BUREAU EMPLOYS those with high Psycho-Pass levels as enforcers, working under the supervision of inspectors. The story centers around the mixed group above, CID’s Unit One.

Recently, I stumbled upon the excellent 2012 anime series Psycho-Pass. This series takes place in the year 2113, in an enormous Mega-City One style urban sprawl which presumably grew out of the Tokyo metropolitan area. The citizens of this city live an idyllic life virtually free from stress and worry. All of their needs are managed by a distributed supercomputer known as the Sibyl System. Where they’ll work, how their food is grown, and even public safety is all overseen by this network. Crime has been all but eradicated thanks to a revolutionary technology known as the “cymatic scan.” Sensors performing cymatic scans can observe the inner workings of the brain from a distance. While it’s not sophisticated enough to read thoughts, it can determine personality traits, emotions, and stress levels. The data from these cymatic scans are used to form a running evaluation of one’s mental health, the eponymous “Psycho-Pass.” Psycho-Passes are color-coded; those with light colors are at the peak of mental health, while those with dark and clouded Psycho-passes will be recommended to seek emergency therapy, or, if they are deemed to pose a threat to themselves and others, are labeled “latent criminals” and taken to an isolation facility to protect society at large.

One of the only government functions not performed by the Sybil System seems to be law enforcement. Those whose cymatic scans reveal dangerous mental imbalances or intent to do harm (and who refuse therapy) are flagged to be brought in by the Ministry of Welfare’s Public Safety Bureau. The officers of this agency are given special dispensation to use force in the form of a handgun known as the “Dominator.” (I assume this was chosen by the Japanese writers as a cool-sounding foreign word; in English “Dominator” carries connotations few law-enforcement agencies would like to be associated with). The Dominator will instantaneously preform a cymatic scan on anyone it’s pointed at, determining their “Crime Coefficient” (the portion of their Psycho-Pass which determines how likely they are to, well, commit a crime). If the Crime Coefficient is above 100, the Sybil System judges them as a target for law enforcement, and activates the Dominator’s paralyzer fire mode. If the Crime Coefficient is in excess of 300, however, law enforcement is given permission to execute the dangerous individual on the spot. This is signified by the activation of the Dominator’s secondary firing mode: an energy pulse which will annihilate anyone hit by it (or blow a hole in concrete three feet across if you miss).

Because of the inherent psychological stress of such a responsibility, the inspectors of the MWPSB rarely apprehend or execute criminals. The job of an inspector is to supervise a small squad of “enforcers,” latent criminals who are given a small measure of freedom in exchange for their services as hunting dogs. The logic behind this is twofold: first, latent criminals will not be as affected psychologically by taking another human’s life (or they are too far gone to care), and second, since their personalities and thought patterns are so similar to those they are apprehending, the enforcers will be able to predict the criminals’ actions. To catch a criminal you have to think like a criminal.

The series centers on Akane Tsunemori, a young woman who is joining the ranks of the inspectors. From her eyes, we see the strange relationship the inspectors have with their enforcers, who function as a mix of mentor, colleague, and prisoner. Her experiences with the Criminal
Investigation Department make for interesting viewing; it seems that when all routine violence and vandalism are eliminated as a matter of course, the only crimes left for the police to investigate are the twisted and the bizarre.

The result of all this new technology reads like Minority Report taken to its logical conclusion. People have gone so long without seeing violence that they can barely recognize it for what it is, even when it happens right in front of them. Locked doors haven’t been used in a generation, and are an oddity in the decrepit buildings they are still found in. With nothing to fear from their fellow man, people are much more trusting in strangers. Sybil has cast a light into the darkness and driven out all the shadows. No one need fear the night again.

I know the visceral reaction when reading the above might be to classify it as a dystopia. The constant surveillance is straight out of 1984, and the segregation of society based upon Psycho-Passes is heavily reminiscent of the genetic discrimination central to Gattaca. I suppose our instinct to look for a “catch” whenever we’re presented with a so-called utopian society has been ingrained in the public consciousness ever since the works of H. G. Wells. In Wells’ novel, The Time
Machine
, the protagonist (through the titular Time Machine) travels into the far future to find an idyllic paradise populated by the gentle Eloi, but soon discovers that these creatures are in actuality being harvested and eaten by a subterranean race called the Morlocks. In contrast to Wells’ work, it’s hard to find a downside to Psycho-Pass’ life of luxury. The most you could say might be that, in the elimination of human suffering, the world of Psycho-Pass has lost some other intangible thing, which was perhaps essential to the human experience. It may be that this important lost quality was the suffering itself, giving variety to people’s lives, and instilling strength in those unfortunate enough to experience it.

If I was given the choice of whether to establish a system like that portrayed in Psycho-Pass, I’m still not sure whether I would or not. I know a lot of the concerns over surveillance organizations such as the CIA, and especially the recent NSA backlash, have been fueled by fears that we are placing too much power in the hands of an organization or entity which cannot be fully held accountable for its actions while simultaneously doing what it is chartered to do. We, as a society, have decided that personal privacy is not something we are entirely willing to give up, even for our personal safety. That being said, the society in Psycho-Pass seems to have solved virtually every social issue human civilization has struggled with since the dawn of time. I’m sure we can agree that a mentality of “the ends justify the means” will often lead one astray, but only the most morally uncompromising would disagree with “the ends justify proportional means.” What kind of means would be justified in the creation of such a utopia? What evils could and should be committed in the name of the ultimate good? I have no idea, but I sincerely hope the responsibility never falls upon me to answer that question.

Psycho-Pass is very well done, and overall an enjoyable experience. The writing is clever and the plots are original and refreshing. The characters are complicated, yet each is likeable in their own way. The creators’ intent from the start was to create a spiritual successor of Mamoru Oshii works. Fans of Mamoru’s
Ghost in the Shell movie and subsequent television series will notice many similarities, both in setting and characters, as well as sharing a similar theme: holding onto your humanity in the face of profound societal changes brought on by new technology.

In a (likely intentional) contrast to the perfect society it portrays, Psycho-Pass can be quite violent at times. Some viewers may find this distasteful, but if the theme and setting sounds interesting, I would definitely recommend you check it out. It’s available on Netflix at the moment, and with a second season beginning in October (and a movie early next year), now is definitely the time to get started.