Psycho-Pass 01 – The illusion of choice

A society where technology control our every move, making decisions for us and determining the fate of the world – in such a society he lines between what is real and what is fantasy become blurred, melding into one another until indistinguishable. The idea that technology can not only control society, but also determine who is guilty and their future actions is a scary thought, and questions the role of humans and human decisions on the very basic of levels. Such a dystopian worldview could have been snatched straight from the pages of a Phillip K. Dick work like ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ (Blade Runner), ‘We Can Remember it for You Wholesale’ (Total Recall), or perhaps even ‘Minority Report’. And that is because largely it is, the plot synopsis and general aesthetic and thematic choices present in Psycho-Pass are straight out of any Phillip K. Dick novel.

Psycho-Pass largely focuses on the fragile nature of what is ‘real’ and the construction of personal identity. The world that it takes place in is in the form of a vast megalopolis reminiscent of Neo Tokyo in Akira, or even the city from Ghost in the Shell, a place where those on top push away on those below. It is a dystopian view of society, a place where there is no real justice, and what little of it that remains is strictly controlled by technology that decide your fate and control your every move. The Psycho-Pass itself is a fascinating piece of technology that instantly measures and quantifies an individuals state of mind, thus giving them a number and predicting their future movements or danger level. In essence it is a way of maintaining strict control, and much like in Minority Report determining those who may one day become criminals.

The line between reality and fantasy is blurred in Psycho-Pass, with those who consider themselves perfectly normal suddenly viewed by enforcement division CID as a threat to society in general. The idea that a simple scan from any automated drone can change your future, change your fate, and potentially lead to your death without any prior warning produces a fascinating and chilling view of a society where the rule of law is already decided. In many respects this is reminiscent of the Judge Dredd universe created by John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra and Pat Mills. The judge, jury and executioner can all be found in the single role of the Judge, a person with the highest authority to deal out justice as they see fit. The Enforcers in Psycho-Pass much like Judge Dredd ad hear to a strict set of rules, but it is ultimately up to their own will and the judgement of Sybil to decide the fate of those that they hunt.

The idea that a persons worth can be quantified and categorised calls into question basic notions of human rights and whether this should be possible. In the universe of Psycho-Pass we effectively have no human rights, with the central computer system of Sybil essentially dictating the moves of humanity and through complex algorithms and programmes determining the worth and danger level of every individual. The constant state surveillance, alongside the idea that it is even possible to determine the criminality of an individual seems awfully familiar to the ideas and attitudes present in Minority Report. Questions begin to be asked however when we see that there are numerous individuals who are supposed to be ‘latent criminals’ (in the shows terminology) working alongside CID as Enforcers, those who are used as hunting dogs to track down and eliminate their prey. Their talents for destruction are carefully enhanced and used for what is considered the greater good of society, whereas others who may have lived an ordinary life until that moment are labelled as criminals and ejected from society and also from life.

The whole presence of psycho-pass and the systems of Sybil call into question the ability of such a system to truly predict those who may or may not be criminals. In this first episode, the suspected criminal is clearly losing it, going as far as to flee, abduct a woman and even rape her, but as we watch it becomes clear that far from being a latent criminal it is the system itself that is pushing him into a corner and turning him into a crazed psychopath. His fear of the system and the Enforcers creates a self-fulfilling prophecy; by running away and disagreeing with the judgement, while also deciding that since he has been confirmed as a latent criminal there is no reason why he cant just rape someone, this character becomes the criminal that he may not have been. His actions and reactions justify the force that the CID and Enforcers use, not because he is necessarily any more criminally minded than any of those who are chasing him, but because the actions and thought process that his current situation creates fulfils the criteria that Sybil has for his termination.

Like the Judge system in Judge Dredd, or the Minority Report system the Psycho-Pass system allows no room for questioning the reasons behind these judgements or whether they are even the correct course of action. Those who enforce the law do so partly out of necessity as they are labelled as Latent Criminals and in order to maintain their current lifestyle (and generally their life) they must continue to do the dirty work of CID. Although ironically in doing so they become more of a murder, and more of a criminal than the majority of people whom they chase. This then brings us to the Dominator system – the idea of handing the fate of a human being over to an automated and automatic system placed within a gun suggests that there is no longer any thought process involved in the judgement or execution of criminals. As Tomomi Masaoka explains to Akane Tsunemori all she has to do is hold the gun and it will decide the best course of action for her, with Akane simply pulling the trigger.

The system is clearly fallible as shown when the abducted woman’s threat level goes from normal, to lethal, but then back again due to the stress of the situation. However, the Enforcers are almost unthinking automatons who react to the threat level that Sybil and the Dominator give them. There is no questioning the situation or the status quo, instead they become hired killers who don’t think, don’t question, and simply act, killing those who they, along with the entire system have driven to insanity. These Enforcers appear to be unthinking assassins who don’t question society or even whether all of this is real, they act in an unfeeling and devastatingly efficient way. The actions of Shinya Kougami are reminiscent of Deckard from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – an unfeeling and uncaring bounty hunter who imply does the job in front of him without questioning the ethics of his actions. Much like Deckard it could be argued that Shinya and the other Enforcers accept and carry out these jobs to give their lives meaning, and to further their existence. They are looked down upon and are viewed by CID as useful, but disposable tools whose only existence is to carry out the dirty work of bringing Latent Criminals to justice.

While these psychological quandaries are fascinating and give Psycho-Pass a lot of potential it also has a fairly generic and indistinguishable feel to it. Like all cyber-punk series there is a megalopolis, along with an exploration of the surreal fantasies and political conspiracies that such a dystopian society can produce. However, while watching Psycho-Pass, for all its wonderful aesthetic and potentially fascinating plot, I cant help but wonder why I am not reading a Phillip K. Dick book, or watching one of the many adaptations of his works. In anime terms there are many other series that are very similar to Psycho-Pass, such as Akira, MD Gheist (for the hyper violence), Ghost in the Shell, Armitage III, Silent Mobius, and more recently Mardock Scramble. The list of other potential anime series, films of OVA’s that could be watched instead of Psycho-Pass is incredibly broad with a variety of different settings and ideas to explore.

There is nothing that particularly distinguishes Psycho-Pass from these other works, and while it may look beautiful, there is something about the elements of a Phillip K. Dic work that would surpass it (slightly unfair perhaps but Psycho-Pass is flirting with similar ideas). Furthermore, series like Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex or even Bubblegum Crisis 2040 pull off the dystopian future where technology controls our every move with more flair and style. Ghost in the Shell in particular does it in such a way as to make the immense amount of dialogue seem almost natural, although there are a few moments where the exposition is too heavy. The dialogue, and arguably needless exposition in this first episode of Psycho-Pass partly spoils the effect and ruins the heavy atmosphere, as Akane and the Enforcers chase down their suspect. Which brings me neatly onto what may be the main element to decide my overall enjoyment of the series – the writing. I am not a big fan of Urobuchi Gen’s work – he has a horrible habit of creating fascinating settings and then ruining them with one-dimensional characters along with wooden and often overdone dialogue.

The most recent example of Fate/Zero is a good example of this where the series and setting was ruined by bad characterisations and far too much exposition. He also has a horrible habit of adding needlessly complex philosophy and attempted musings on the human condition, only he does this through extended and overly complex exposition and internal monologues that only serve to deaden the series and generally destroy any sense of tension of drama that had been present. This isn’t reserved for Fate/Zero and can be found in all his works including Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica. This same needlessly long exposition is present in Psycho-Pass with a detailed explanation of the psycho-pass and Dominator systems. Such an explanation is arguably necessary, however, it is done in a stationary and incredibly static or forced manner – good series allow the exposition to take place during elements of action, instead we have about five minutes where little more than talking happens. This may not be a big problem for some, but the presence of such dialogue and general stationary way of telling the story, which somewhat spoiled my enjoyment of it.

You get the feeling when watching Psycho-Pass that the director Shiotani Naoyoshi and writer Urobuchi Gen, in their quest to create an edgy anime without any ‘moe’ elements have slightly missed the point. It is like they have read or know of Phillip K. Dick works, but in the effort to create this edgy series have brushed over the elements of his stories and the societies that they portray in a rush to add the hyper violence, and other explicitly ‘non-moe’ elements that can be found in 80s and 90s anime. There is nothing to really distinguish this series from any of the others that I have mentioned and that is major problem, since when given a choice I would much rather watch Ghost in the Shell than this at the moment. My main reservation is the writing, and while the setting and themes present in Psycho-Pass are potentially brilliant, from past experience Urobuchi has a horrible habit of ruining it with too much dialogue and general speaking instead of allowing the animation and characters to tell the story. On the other hand, I absolutely adore Cyber-Punk anime, and while I have reservations about the writing and whether anything will really be made of the potentially fascinating setting, I at least love the themes that are present, although at the moment it is remarkably derivative series at least based on my first impressions.

About illogicalzen
An Illogical anime fan in a very Zen-like way.

3 Responses to Psycho-Pass 01 – The illusion of choice

  1. windyturnip says:

    You say the world of Psycho-Pass is a world with no true justice. I would say that it is a world with absolute justice.

    Nobody escapes the eyes of the law enforcement and every crime is quantifiable. It’s no longer about proving something beyond a reasonable doubt because there is no doubt.

    I think Urobuchi is trying to create a world where the imbalance between security and freedom is crystal clear. It would be foolish to deny that our world has a similar (though far less extreme) problem. The question is, where should we draw the line? When does liberty have to give way to security and vica versa?

    On a side note, you were talking a bit about the shortcomings of Urobuchi’s earlier works. How would you sum up your opinion on Madoka Magica? It does have some lengthy exposition, but I thought the way it was presented more than made up for that.

    • illogicalzen says:

      Urobuchi may have created the characters and the story, but he certainly has not created the world – instead it would be more accurate to say that he has borrowed, sometimes wholesale from other works (Anything by Phillip K. Dick, Judge Dredd, Ghost in the Shell, and so on). This in itself is not bad of course since the dystopian world that these works portray, along with the ideas that the bring up are all fascinating and merit more exploration, and so the ideas that we see in Psycho-Pass are equally interesting if they are dealt with properly. On the subject of justice, I do believe that the world in Psycho-Pass has no real justice, quantifying what constitutes a criminal is not the same as justice and it is a system that is almost infinitely fallible. We see how the rape victim went from being a target who should be exterminated in the eyes of sybil to one who should just be by simply talking with Akane. Who is to say that she was a criminal after all, and instead of focussing on the circumstances and why these people act the way they do, the Enforcers merely follow what their dominator says.

      There is quite clearly doubt, partly because there is no doubt, with these characters appearing to blindly follow the orders of Sybil and believe in what is effectively an arbitrary number that is supposed to determine who you are and what you do. While there are clear issues in such dystopian civilisations around the issues of security and freedom, we need to look at the power that security has over everything else. Phillip K. Dick explores this in numerous works, although Minority Report is the most explicit – in there, like with the rape victim we see that only one version of the truth is used because it is the most convenient, or easiest to believe in.

      The Pyscho-Pass system is clearly wrong, or perhaps more accurately it is inherently flawed, but has become convenient and easy to use, but it has arguably created inequality and made things worse – who is to say that the first victim would have even been a criminal if he hadn’t been driven into a corner by Sybil and the Enforcers. These are the issues that such stories tend to explore, although they do it in different ways – Ghost in the Shell did it rather well for example. They merit exploration partly because, whole not as extreme, such attitudes and ideas exist in current day society – we just have to look at the arguably ridiculous war on terror and the overly-tight security that it has spawned, or the numerous attempts by the big media industries to control the internet for example, although there are far more.

      My problems with Psycho-Pass largely come from its nature, because Urobuchi has essentially copied wholesale from past works there was nothing that really jumped out and grabbed me except for the ideas that were present. The first episode of Psycho-Pass was pretty derivative, and because of that I felt that I could be watching any other cyber-punk/dystopian series or film and getting the same, or arguably better experiences. I am not giving up on it however because I adore cyber-punk, and dystopian settings often produce some interesting series, if only Urobuchi resists the urge to add mountains of exposition and wooden dialogue.

      With regards to Madoka Magica, while I did enjoy it, I found that the series has an over-reliance on shock factor – when I had worked out what was happening and got used to the atmosphere a lot of that stopped working. Also, when you take away that shock value, you end up with a pretty simplistic story and one-dimensional characters – also, while the exposition was nowhere near as bad as Fate/Zero, it still suffered in places, although that didn’t really detract from my initial enjoyment of the series. I have recently tried to watch it again and by knowing what was going to happen it became boring by episode two, so clearly I think it is a series that doesn’t really work without the impact that those initial shocks had. It was certainly enjoyable, but I would hardly consider it a masterpiece.

  2. Pingback: Psycho-Pass Episode 1 | Anime Commentary on the March

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