Psycho-Pass, Geopolitics, and Dystopia

I can’t stand the dystopia depicted in a lot of fiction. It’s never really thought out. It’s ‘what if girls have to enter arranged marriage at sixteen’ (a lot of those, but The Selection is pretty egregious, as is Matched) or ‘they give you personality tests then assign you rigid roles’ (Divergent) or even ‘what if they have children kill each other in a spectator sport for food’. Or ‘what if the US enforces laughable segregation based on Puritan morality in a flimsy setup with no real concept of economics, labor, understanding of technology or race’.

These dystopias are a flimsy, nearly translucent excuse for laughable situations and terribly imagined ideas of what it’d be like to live in a society that normatizes arranged marriage (mostly cribbed from racist stereotypes) or punishes thought crime.

Psycho-Pass is a very different animal. This is grown-up work.

It’s what happens when Gen Urobuchi set out to do his own thing inspired by Ghost in the Shell (many incarnations of which he had a hand in), and it’s the sort of series that will really show you why people Have a Thing About Urobuchi. Here, unlike with GitS, he’s no longer fettered by some of the… unfortunate derailing (like Major Kusanagi’s costume, or the lack of costume), and unlike with the Fate franchise, he’s not shackled to existing material. Psycho-Pass is pure Urobuchi, flaws and virtues alike. Fortunately, it’s mostly virtues this time around.

Psycho-Pass takes place in the future that is far enough to boast advanced cyberpunk tech – neurally integrated HUDs, holograms, brain uploads – and near enough that the society depicted is perfectly recognizable. Justice is held up at gunpoint, quite literally. The Japan of Psycho-Pass is ruled by Sybil, an always-on system that ‘judges’ a person’s character. In civilian life, this extends to measuring their personalities and aptitudes, then offering them a choice of jobs and romantic partners. It is the god that rules over personal, romantic, and professional life. The rest of the time, Sybil also judges who is fit to keep in society and who is not. Once you are judged unfit, punishment is immediate. Sybil authorizes its representatives to execute you on the spot. You’ll be erased. Literally, nothing will be left behind; the Dominator – the weapon wielded by Sybil’s agents – blows you up.

The instant Sybil judges you no longer fit to be human, that’s it, the end. There is no trial and no appeal. The best you can hope for is to become ‘latent criminals’ and, in a self-perpetuating system, serve as Sybil’s enforcers.

But, at the same time, you can understand why Japan’s citizens are content enough. Difficult life decisions have been taken away. Everyone is provided for. Sure, Japan had to exile massive chunks of its population and its borders are closed now, but for the remaining citizens life is cushy. Certainly it’s a much nicer life, as we later learn, than what most of the world – war-torn, deprived, and brutal – has. Attempts have been made to replace Sibyl, of course, but… well, they mysteriously failed.

At the start of Psycho-Pass we are introduced to Tsunemori Akane, a young woman recently graduated and, having scored in the top percentile, gets her pick of job assignments. She decides to pursue a career in Public Safety (i.e. police) because she believes there she can do the most good.

What’s wonderful about Akane is that, from start to finish, she doesn’t lose her ideals. She has to become more cynical and pragmatic as applying them, but even when we last see her in the movie, she is still adhering to her prime principle: ‘The law doesn’t protect the people. The people protect the law.’ This sounds baffling at first, but it’s actually a threat. The Sybil System is incredibly powerful – and incredibly fragile. The law and by extension the one who makes it – that is, Sybil – may exist only so long as they have the consent of the governed in what is just and correct.

This is, by the way, why the Sybil System needs Akane and won’t be having her assassinated any time soon: they need her guidance to stay relatively in line, and so avoid the risk of a citizen’s uprising. Once Sybil rules become sufficiently unsatisfactory and dissent reaches critical mass , its true nature will be discovered and the whole thing dismantled. She is the human element, the empathetic component, on which Sybil must rely. In this way Akane is a greater catalyst than her subordinate-mentor Kogami ever was, who cares only for personal vendettas and in the end exits the system.

Everything is Political

The Psycho-Pass movie extends this to the world outside Japan, and delves into the geopolitics of what it is like when most of the world is such a hellhole that people would prefer to live under Sybil rule: Colonel Wong informs Akane, early on her arrival in Cambodia while they’re driving past a smoking war zone, that ‘Every country in the world is like this right now. Except Japan.’ Dystopian thought-crime or not, having food and education and a secure job looks pretty great next to getting bombed.

It’s incisively critical of Japan’s foreign policy while at the same time holding up a mirror for the superpower of today, in our reality. The police brutality has a clear analogue in America, for example, and then there’s the gatekeeping of life quality, the treatment of ‘latent criminals’ (in SEAUn, where Sybil is attempting to export itself and thus expand its area of control) as indentured servants or shock troops, the mistreatment and brutalization of refugees. There’s even the clear stratification of status: the elite of the SEAUn government tends to be of Chinese descent (Chairman Han, Colonel Wong) while the guerrillas are Cambodian. We do have to also note that Japanese media often portrays the Chinese as either a menace or comedic – it’s basically racist/xenophobic; anime often literally just draws Chinese characters with ‘squinty’ eyes (!) – so there is that to consider. I don’t think there is a Chinese character in the movie who isn’t, errrr, corrupt and evil. The flag flown by Chairman Han’s army is also, very obviously, based on China’s. Much here is loaded and aligns with the western fear of the ‘red menace’.

(Note: if anyone reading this decides to make this part fodder for ‘SEE, ASIAN-ON-ASIAN CRIME IS THE WORST, SEE SEE SEE THEY ARE SO RACIST TO EACH OTHER, GLOBAL WHITE SUPREMACIST IMPERIALISM IS DOING NOTHING WRONG’, this analysis isn’t for you and your input couldn’t be more irrelevant. Go the fuck away. By the way, making jokes about the movie being half in ‘Engrish’ is itself racist. You’re welcome!)

Then we meet the team of mercenaries that Colonel Wong hires to deal with Cambodian guerrillas. Their leader, Desmond Rutaganda, shares a surname with Georges Rutaganda; I expect this is no accident, much as Koko Hekmatyar of Jormungand sharing a surname with a mujahideen commander is probably no accident. The mercenary leader is also black and, while an antagonist, the movie portrays him as an intellectual who quotes philosophers (much as the show’s first villain, Makishima, did). It’s, well, kind of a huge step up from Barret in Final Fantasy 7. His comment – ‘I thought the Japanese had been turned into spineless wimps by the Sibyl System’ – incidentally echoes today’s western racism which characterizes Japanese people as robotic, spineless, and physically weak.

He quotes Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth: ‘When society begins to collapse, violence becomes increasingly privatized. That’s because the state has monopolized organized violence. When violence spreads, it leaves the realm of politics. Organized violence becomes an economic activity, with societal unrest at its heart.’ You don’t have to stretch far to see it as a salient critique of the real-world military industrial complex. (Urobuchi’s past work has been quite critical of the USA – see their appearances in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Japan has very good reasons to be deeply distrustful of the US – consider, I don’t know, history.) Kougami’s response (‘I’d rather not deal with a mercenary who’s obsessed with post-colonialism’) also signals his central failure in the world at large: while he leads the Cambodian resistance it’s more because his personal sense of justice is offended than because he recognizes systematic abuse – this is a man who doesn’t want anything to do with politics, in contrast to Akane’s active participation. Akane doesn’t choose the easy way out, as he has. She stays and she’s determined to make things better despite personal cost to herself expressed in increasing social isolation and conflation of work and personal life.

Their greatest distinction? Kougami assumes leadership of the guerrillas and tries to be savior. Akane tells Sybil to let SEAUn govern itself. She understands that individual acts don’t suffice – what is required is a change in the institution.

As I said, it’s a complex movie and complex franchise in total, utterly whip-smart. For more to think about, we only ever see two queer characters on screen, Yayoi and Shion, and both are ‘latent criminals’ (does Sybil allow for non-hetero sexuality?); Sybil is a network of brains harvested from Japanese individuals of different genders but primarily incarnates as an older Japanese woman (and in the movie, also as an older Chinese man); what about the commentary on Japan’s agricultural supply, and so on. This is its prime strength – that as a whole, Psycho-Pass carries in all its components (every set-piece, every character arc) the force of conviction and intentionality. It is political through and through, it doesn’t waste time on appeals to sentiment or nostalgia, and it communicates its philosophies sharply but does not spoon-feed. It is the culmination and perfection of much of what Urobuchi has always worried at in past works, but this time he’s not bound by someone else’s text and the demand for fanservice.

It’s a real triumph, the kind of SF I aspire to, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.