The price of peace and the illusion of freedom
On the anime series 'Psycho-Pass'
This essay contains major spoilers across the ‘Psycho-Pass’ universe.
It’s 2113. The court system has been rendered obsolete, at least in Japan. Judgment is now quite literally in the hands of people called Enforcers and Inspectors, in the form of a special weapon called a Dominator. This weapon shaped like a gun is pointed at a target then it will conduct a cymatic scan to determine an individual’s Crime Coefficient, a numeric value indicating one’s potential to commit a crime. The higher the Crime Coefficient, the more likely the probability of criminality. Depending on how low or high the Crime Coefficient is, the Dominator’s trigger will either be locked (<100), automatically set to Non-Lethal Paralyzer mode (100-299), or set to Lethal Eliminator mode (>300). That last setting, in particular, results in a very gruesome, violent, and messy death by way of the human body exploding. Once set, an Enforcer will simply pull the trigger. And that is justice served.
There is a lot of rigour to the details of this world. The crime coefficient feeds into the overarching assessment of a person’s mind called Psycho-Pass. The Psycho-Pass the Dominator detects also includes a person’s Hue, which indicates someone’s stress level and contributes to one’s Crime Coefficient. This overall assessment of every person is generated by an omnipotent and omnipresent authority called the Sibyl System. I won’t say much about the nature of the Sibyl System here but it’s the brains behind the Psycho-Pass system and governs the Ministry of Welfare Public Safety Bureau (which carries out its mandates) as well as pretty much all of Japanese society.
All these exist in the extremely interesting dystopian world of Psycho-Pass, one of Japan’s popular anime series often found on All-Time-Best lists. This world expanded and became more complex as the original anime series released in 2012 spawned a whole universe of media, including three seasons of the series, several canonical films, some books, and of course mangas.
If memory serves, I first watched the anime series sometime after the second season was released in 2014. I was a deer in the headlights that first time watching the show, utterly enthralled by the plot and the sheer mindfuckery of a psychological thriller, but not yet quite able to glean what more this story had to offer beneath the surface.
I watched it again at the end of 2020 during the holidays and through to the New Year, deep into one of the lockdowns brought on by the covid-19 pandemic. This time, much older and significantly more aware of how the world functioned, the story hit differently.
The anime series opens with a scene that very clearly lays out the system of this dystopian world. Inspectors along with Enforcers are deployed to a nighttime crime scene. Inspectors are a rank above Enforcers and they are allowed to roam freely or go wherever they wish. The latter, on the other hand, are restricted in their movements because they are classified as so-called 'latent criminals’ or people with Crime Coefficients between 100 and 299, which means they have the potential to go over the threshold of 300 and ultimately commit a crime. What’s more, Enforcers must follow only the instructions of their Inspectors at all times. They are not allowed to make their own decisions. The hierarchies are immediately made clear, which in themselves make for interesting character dynamics.
In that first crime scene, members of the Public Safety Bureau attempt to rescue a woman held hostage. Her captor clearly is over the Crime Coefficient threshold but we are also shown how one’s Psycho-Pass, Hue, and Crime Coefficient can change depending on circumstances. The woman is in distress, so her Hue inevitably clouds and her Crime Coefficient shoots up over the limit. The operation then shifts from a rescue mission to eliminating both captor and captive.
The situation comes to a head when Inspector Akane Tsunemori shoots Enforcer Shinya Kogami to stop him from eliminating the hostage victim. Tsunemori, a newbie Inspector on her first assignment that night, spoke to the victim, calming her down enough to decrease her Crime Coefficient so the Dominator stunned rather than killed her.
Kogami, a jaded, battle-scarred veteran now so used to simply following orders (from the Sibyl, the Dominator, or an Inspector), did not realise (or forgot) he had a choice until Tsunemori, a rookie with a still idealistic and fresh perspective, put forth an alternative.
At that moment, we are shown the moral dilemma that sets this dystopian story in motion: armed though they are with a weapon designed to serve unequivocal justice as levied by an all-knowing authority, Sibyl’s law enforcers, it turns out, still have a choice whether to pull the trigger.
“In the end, the Dominator doesn’t kill people. I do,” Kogami says in another episode.
On the surface, it can appear as though being able to scientifically and numerically confirm a person’s penchant for crime is a good thing. It’s not difficult to agree with that logic: who doesn’t want a peaceful and safe place to live in? What’s more, it’s preventative. A crime need not be committed for someone to be punished or apprehended, effectively stopping it before it can happen. Sibyl then has become a widely trusted and respected authority in this dystopian Japan.
The benefit of a Sibyl-led society is reinforced by scenes in which we are shown the brightly lit city of Tokyo, people smiling and chatting or simply going about their lives without trouble – a clear depiction of the triumph of order and peace. However, the story generally unfolds in the night – as Inspectors and Enforcers fight to maintain the peace for everyone else to enjoy – against a backdrop of neon lights illuminating Tokyo.
Going through the first season’s episodes one by one, the burning question kept turning in my head. Do I want to live in this kind of world? Can I?
The extent to which the Sibyl System governs this dystopian Japan quickly becomes evident in the second episode, in which Tsunemori and her friends meet for lunch and discuss their careers. It is revealed that Sibyl is utilised not only for law enforcement and keeping the peace but also for job selection. Everyone must take an exam to determine their aptitude for certain jobs or industries. You will only be able to work jobs deemed suitable for you. If you happen to show an aptitude for multiple roles and industries, like Tsunemori, only then will you have the option to choose. In that lunch scene, Tsunemori’s friends gently tease her for having such a choice while they didn’t. In other words, Sibyl assigns a career path for each person in Japan.
In this regard, the Sibyl System seemed appealing to me. In times of confusion and feeling like you’ve lost your way, it can be nice to be told what you are good at and what you should do. On some level, if briefly, it must be nice to know what you are meant to do with your life.
Careers aren’t the only thing Sibyl can choose for you. In one scene from Psycho-Pass: The Movie, Tsunemori’s friend chats to her about the Sibyl System’s Romantic Compatibility. It found a partner most suitable and compatible for her, according to her personality and preferences, effectively taking the burden of making a decision out of her hands. Once again, this seemed appealing on some level. Imagine no longer going through trial and error when it came to romantic relationships?
But then there’s the problem of fitting in. Sure, Sibyl might be useful for many who fit squarely into a box or a category. But what if you didn’t? What if you’re someone who blurred the lines, who overlapped or moved between one thing and another?
The first two seasons of Psycho-Pass explore that question, showing us the pitfalls and loopholes of the Sibyl System in the form of two antagonists: Shogo Makishima (from season one) and Kirito Kamui (from season two). Both demonstrate the blind spots of Sibyl and the grim reality of how the system can be gamed.
Makishima, perhaps the show’s most iconic antagonist, is criminally asymptomatic, meaning he cannot be judged by Sibyl. People who are criminally asymptomatic are able to keep their Psycho-Pass either unchanged or well below the acceptable threshold no matter their thoughts, intentions or actions. The Dominator is rendered useless when pointed at someone criminally asymptomatic, even if caught in the act of committing a crime. Makishima, who believed in pure independent thought and aimed for a society liberated from the Sibyl system, is an example of someone that does not tick the required boxes in order for Sibyl to pass judgment.
On the other hand, Kamui is a kind of hybrid human made up of various body parts transplanted from 184 of his companions in a tragic plane crash, with him as the only survivor. This also leads to him acquiring some of the personalities of his old schoolmates. In effect, this made him undetectable as well to Sibyl, which doesn’t consider him as an individual. Kamui’s existence puts forth a haunting moral quandary pondered over by Tsunemori: if the Sibyl System judges everyone, who judges the Sibyl System?
Kamui’s character, like Makishima, is a blind spot of Sibyl. While his is a very unique circumstance (though you can probably argue the opposite given that medical knowledge and technology are apparently so advanced in this future as to succeed in keeping Kamui alive the way it did), it tells us the Sibyl System cannot judge a collective.
The second season doesn’t get as much love from the fandom as the first but to me, it does a good job of forcing us to confront the morality and credibility of such a system and society.
The layers are peeled back further carefully, one after the other, as each season progressed and through to the films. But I especially loved the first film, Psycho-Pass: The Movie, for it answered a question I’d long been wondering since the first season: what did the rest of the world look like in the time of Sibyl-led Japan?
Apparently, it wasn’t too good. There is at least one mention of the world being in chaos as the story centres on Southeast Asia.
We see what Kogami gets up to after he escapes from the Bureau at the end of the first season. The story moves forward three years and Kogami has left Japan and found his way to the Southeast Asian Union or SEAUn, in a country that looks very similar to Cambodia, where he gets himself embroiled in a civil war as a mercenary.
The Sibyl System has been exported as an expansion experiment – dubbed the Sibyl Export Program – to stabilise the country and promote order. It doesn’t quite do the job as civil war rages on. It is also utilised in a way that exacerbates inequality. Clear-Hued citizens are socially and economically favoured while those with clouded Hues and latent criminals are treated as second-class citizens and even sectioned off. A collar can be seen around their necks at all times, which constantly monitors their Psycho-Pass. “If their Hue clouds, their Crime Coefficient is immediately measured. Depending on their Coefficient, the device can inject either a sedative or a lethal poison.”
Of course, much like real life today, there also exists echo chambers and fake news in dystopian Japan. Citizens at home are fed news about the success of the Sibyl Export Program. Since they experience what they perceive and truly believe as the benefits of Sibyl, it’s easy to think the system might be best for the rest of the world.
“We can live in peace because of your Bureau of Public Safety, right?” Akane’s friend wonders as news of the Sibyl Export Program is shown on a public TV screen. “If Sibyl can find us the path to happiness better than we ever could, maybe someday, Sybil will be able to save everyone on Earth.”
Even in this dystopian future, propaganda and half-truths prevail.
In the movie, we finally see the wider implications of Sibyl along with the challenges of expanding it beyond Japan. It is revealed that the Sibyl System can be gamed and manipulated to suit vested interests from the powers that be. Japan has allowed Cambodia-like Shamballa Float’s military to maintain control and administer justice while using the Sibyl System.
Here we see what the Sibyl System deployed to a developing nation might look like. It becomes apparent that the Sibyl System is what people make it to be, and the system alone is not enough to control people or establish peace. If people are corrupt, they will manipulate the system to serve those nefarious intentions, so it follows that the system will also be corrupt. You can argue that this possibility is something mostly alien now to Japanese people who’ve known nothing but Sibyl.
“You animals lost sight of true justice when you entrusted your fate to an oracle machine,” a fighter from SEAUn who infiltrated Tokyo tells Tsunemori. “Our wars won't make any sense to you now.”
It’s 2021. Way too many couples you know met through a dating app after an algorithm presented them with options presumably remotely compatible with them based on declared preferences. The act of swiping left or right is an act of passing judgment. At the same time, much of everyone’s life is now on social media for public consumption, whether real or carefully curated. Giving away personal data is the norm, with the promise of accessibility, convenience, and tailored curation to grease our decision-making. Yet we are bombarded anyway, an endless scroll of things (This item was frequently bought with…) or people (People you may know…) deemed a good match for us thanks to data readily offered or surreptitiously obtained. Almost every choice we make these days is aided or dictated by an algorithm. You try to do your own research for one thing or another and you end up in a search engine that will give you results according to collective preference, loud online chatter or successful optimisation (typically by those that can afford to hire people to do just that).
You can argue that it’s all an illusion, that none of our choices and preferences is entirely our own, albeit we are products of the influences of our surroundings pre-Internet anyway. But it is certainly on a whole different level now with tech companies powered by their own agendas putting these algorithms in place with little to no regulation. In exchange for our personal data and preferences, we get the latest updates and discounts straight to our inboxes as well as a more personalised experience for more control, faster and paperless transactions, among many other benefits. In exchange for our time, attention, and emotions, we get exacerbated mental health problems, short attention spans, anxiety, populist leaders, mob mentality, and an incessant desire to make a performance of our lives and ourselves.
Many parts of the world also utilise technology to micromanage their people, exercise strict control over many aspects of life, limit freedoms, squash dissent, and deploy surveillance methods. And it’s not technology per se, it’s the ideology itself and the various methods of execution. Just like Psycho-Pass’ dystopian Japan, many welcome this. A lot of people truly believe that such a tight grip is necessary, useful and a good thing if it means a peaceful, orderly and prosperous society – or at the very least the perception of it. They are willing to pay the price of various freedoms in exchange. (It’s worth noting that Psycho-Pass draws from extensive literary material tackling dystopian worlds such as George Orwell’s 1984, among others. All of them are worth reading.)
To be clear, that’s not necessarily or categorically a bad or good thing. But one Psycho-Pass character has an interesting take on it that articulates much of how I personally see freedom, which is something like living or moving within an expanse of land that has fences around it. Depending on your privilege, the fences are visible to you or not at all. Some can touch and would struggle against the fences within a much smaller space, some can spot them from a distance but are otherwise comfortable, while others have such a wide berth that they think there are no fences because they cannot see them. Does real freedom even exist? Or are we all just operating within varying degrees of limitations?
“Freedom in chains,” the character speaking to Sibyl says towards the end of the last episode of Psycho-Pass: First Inspector. “Maybe that’s what real life is all about.”
When you watch Psycho-Pass, it’s easy not to consider similarities with the present world because of how absurd it all seems. It’s hard to picture a Dominator ever coming into existence. While obviously not exactly the same, many things still eerily align. In another parallel, we’ve already started real conversations around lab-grown food to contend with the increasingly untenable ways we eat and must feed the world’s fast-paced, high-functioning population. Psycho-Pass’ dystopian Japan has long since turned to genetically modified food crops called hyper-oats as its main food supply, eliminating the need for food imports.
It’s worth keeping in mind that arriving at such a point where something like Sibyl has full control of society doesn’t happen overnight. Throughout history transformations in power and in ways of life happen gradually, with multiple small and big events converging or occurring one after the other at just the right time, without us really noticing. So if any such dystopian future were to exist in reality, I don’t imagine it’ll come suddenly. The little things we think will never mean anything might actually be the breadcrumbs leading the way to such a future. After all, Psycho-Pass’ Japan once also had the justice system in court we’re familiar with before it was ultimately scrapped for Sibyl.
There is a seemingly trivial moment in the second episode of the first season. Inspector Tsunemori leaves her home, which has been decked in her choice of Victorian hotel fixings courtesy of a hologram activated by her jellyfish holo assistant. It’s neat technology. Her home is brightly lit, relaxing and pleasing to the eye. As she leaves and the door shuts behind her, the holo switches off and her home is engulfed in darkness. The scene made me feel uneasy for a reason I couldn’t quite pin down at first. But as I burrowed deeper into the story, in hindsight, I started to think of it as representative of a thought. Perhaps it can even be a metaphor.
What darkness lies underneath the light?
Meanwhile, the climate crisis…
If you haven’t read my welcome post, I mentioned that I’d like to conduct an experiment: for every essay, I will include a piece about the climate crisis so we’re in the loop even when we’re lost in our own rabbit holes. So here we go.
In August, while I was writing this newsletter, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC released its Sixth Assessment report. There have been a lot of news and dissections of the grim future the world is looking at, as informed by the science of the report. But my favourite and the most eye-opening one has been Emily Atkin’s analysis on her newsletter HEATED (which you should absolutely subscribe to), where she pointed out the severely limited mention of fossil fuels in the first part of the report (more will come next year). It’s an interesting look at how such a report, produced by dozes of scientists from around the world, can be – in Emily’s words – “pretty conservative, particularly when it comes to talking about who to blame”. It’s a very informative read ahead of the COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland next week. Hope you pay attention to that, too.
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See you down another rabbit hole!