You know what I haven’t done in a while? Throw out a random Psycho Pass post just because! I think it’s high time I remedy that.

Let me give you just a bit of context. I just started watching Ergo Proxy (we’re mid-May as I write this) and it sort of reminded me of Psycho Pass but much more of Blade Runner and a bit of Human Lost. I started comparing all these in my head and just ended up thinking about dystopian universes in general and all the hallmarks of the genre. And that’s when I realized that the Psycho Pass universe is kind of unique in a lot of ways and I do think it’s those peculiarities that have made my interest in the series so long-lasting.

To be clear here, I’m talking about season 1 of Psycho Pass and that’s all I will be discussing in this post. I did not watch season 2 and season 3 undoes some of the elements I will be discussing to what I believe is the show’s detriment. In other words, this post is taking place in a parallel reality where only season 1 of Psycho Pass exists.

Although dystopias come in many flavours, I think the most obvious and defining trait of these fictions is a serious overreach of government control and an erosion of individual freedoms. In this way, Psycho Pass pretty much fits the description to a T. The government is so invasive that they police your general stress levels. That’s as overbearing as it gets.

However, in most of the universes, I know this is a net negative. Often dystopian fiction will show a false utopia that hides massive class disparities and is at the expense of often horrifically oppressed groups. There is an element of confinement, people cannot leave either because the entire world is like that or life outside the system is unbearable due to natural or man-made disasters.

It is generally understood that the ills of a dystopian society widely outweigh the gains and often, the people in charge perpetuate the system for their own personal gain. Even those that do not directly suffer from the social state, either will suffer eventually or couldn’t bear it if they knew the truth. Soylent green is people!

are you sure we’re talking about the same Psycho Pass?

But in the first season, that’s not what we know of Japan in the Psycho Pass universe. Yes, the government monitors pretty much everything but somehow it feels more like big companies tracking your cookies to see your internet browsing habits. Like it’s not the best but it’s also a minor inconvenience for most people. In fact, that Psycho Pass is for the most part, not a false utopia. The system pretty much works as advertised, it’s only the mechanics that are hidden.

The story and audience follow the high stress and high danger lives of law enforcement officials during a deadly spree of terrorism. It is the worst possible time for these people who already have a high-stress job. High stress being the most dangerous qualifier for a job in Psycho Pass. The great majority of the population will never experience such circumstances, and we do get to meet a few of them. Akane’s friends, past teachers, innocent bystanders. For the most part, they are all happy, fulfilled and productive members of society.

Because the big trump card in Psycho Pass, the actual huge twist, at least in my view, is not what exactly Sybil is but the fact that Sybil and the greater system it is a part of, has the singular goal of creating the best possible society. And the criteria for the best possible society is one in which everyone can live a safe and productive life, is given a chance to use their skills to the fullest and is afforded every opportunity including free healthcare and education while maintaining some degree of autonomy. Citizens can choose a different career than the one suggested by their placement tests, it’s just that most people don’t want to. Those tests are pretty accurate!

Also, there is a world outside of Japan, one that is not under the control of the system. Now I’m not sure how immigration/emigration works. It might be very difficult. There was some muddled storyline about it in season 3 but as we have agreed that it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t count. Still, in theory, at least, people can leave the system and live elsewhere if they want. But the alternative isn’t that attractive.

Finally, in Psycho Pass, there is a tacit agreement that the cons of the system, people getting falsely flagged as latent, the decline of artistic contributions and the ultimate lack of individual privacy are worth it for the benefits. People in Psycho Pass are guaranteed a safe (as long as there are no extremely rare terrorist attacks) life in which they will have access to all the healthcare, education, entertainment they want and where they can count on a guaranteed career in a field in which they will be skilled and most likely will have an interest in. That’s pretty amazing. I might be ok with the government watching me shower if exchange and I live a pretty good life.

And it’s not just the deluded sheeple here. The show specifically makes the moral choice through Akane (in season 1). Throughout the series, she serves as an unwavering moral compass and the show goes out of its way to specifically tell us that she is an uncompromised and unsullied agent. She is motivated by the greater good over self-interest in all things, she is caring, kind and does not discriminate.

This is why it’s important that it’s Akane that takes the final decision. Even after learning exactly what Sybil is and how much damage the system has caused. Even after realizing all the pain that she and her friends have endured because of the imperfections therein. Moral and kind Akane believes that the society created by this system is worth preserving as it is.

And that’s what makes the Psycho Pass dystopia so unique for me. At the end of the day, it works. It’s a society most people really would want to live in. That was the message of the show. The sacrifices of the past may have been unacceptable but destroying all that was built on them is not the solution.

I have rarely seen a dystopia where the hero ultimately ends up fighting to preserve it. And is not compromised in any way. There’s an irony to it that I just really like. It makes it more bitting and I love it!

18 thoughts

  1. That’s a very apt thought, and I don’t think I really considered it in watching through Psycho-Pass. We see a lot of the darker and anti-functional side of the dystopia, just by virtue of the series being focused on the terrorism and crime occurring, but the parts of normal life we see are actually pretty good, which as you pointed out, is really rare in dystopian fiction. It’s a lot more nuanced than you’d typically see, and that’s really powerful. Thanks for pointing that out.

    1. I agree, it adds to the realism. The system was put in lace and functioned for so long bcause it actually is beneficial for a lot of people.

  2. So, there is a book called Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom that plays around with some of the same ideas that Psycho Pass does. I often find myself wondering if either of them are really dystopias.

    The societal elements in the show definitely play a role, but at least in the first season, aren’t the central focus. But I can see your point, that the world of Psycho Pass is one where people have traded some freedom for security. And the only people who really seem to benefit are the people who live safely within the lines or the people who are completely aberrant. There isn’t any room for anyone in between.

    Anyways, you’ve given me some stuff to think about. Thanks. 🙂

    1. It’s a Canadian book! Sorry… you know how it is. All Canadians must point out other Canadians at all times…

      1. Lol. It’s funny. I grew up in NH. I do that too, only with people from NH. Like Adam Sandler or Seth Meyers.

  3. Keen to hear what you think about ‘Ergo Proxy’ when you finish 🙂

    Really enjoyed ‘Pyscho Pass’ too and I was hooked on the society too – it’s equal parts interesting, tempting and chilling to see how well it functions for most people. A modern classic, I reckon 😀

  4. I will state my view right away that Psycho-Pass is one of the best things to come out of Japanese anime in the last decade, and that Season 1 was brilliantly conceived and executed. The fact that the opening theme for the second half of season 1 was “Out of Control” by Nothing’s Carved In Stone, one of my favourite indie J-rock bands, just added to the goodness. I think season 2 was unfairly maligned; yes, it is inferior to season 1, but I thought it was overall a good product that made a worthy attempt to continue the narrative and thematic threads of season 1. The PP Movie was excellent; I struggled with season 3 because none of the “Sinners in the System” movies which preceded them were available in Australia (at least, I wasn’t able to find them!) and so there was a bit of catching up to do with who was were and why before I could start paying attention to the story itself. That said, PP is a wonderful franchise – as I said, one of the best things to come out of Japanese anime in the last decade.

    As for season 1 – what makes it so stellar for me (among other things) is that it is essentially a dialogue between two competing philosophies of social organisation: the control model and the laissez faire model. This debate is represented by the characters of Kogami and Makishima; this is why the first episode opens with a scene that, chronologically speaking, actually takes place toward the end of series 1. This “flash forward” sets the thematic framework for the series as a whole. And this is where Akane fits into the picture and why she is, for me, so important: because she represents a different approach altogether. Rather than being locked into a philosophical framework that describes the world as it should be, she is able to see – and accept – the world as it is, while at the same time being sufficiently self-aware to be neither unrealistically romantic about her society nor so jaded and cynical that her personality begins to corrode. In this sense, Akane is also an “asymmetrical personality” inasmuch as she stands outside the metric established by the Sybil system, though not necessarily as an oppositional force. This is how she is able to deal with the Sybil System directly, as well as retain her humanity amid the pressures and stressors of her work.

    What also makes season 1 – and the whole franchise – so important is that the rest of the character ensemble are not mere background figures. They are fully fleshed individuals whose own struggles and stories represent the human reality within any form of social construction: that no matter what our motives may be, there will always be a level of “chafing” between the social and the individual drive toward self-realisation. The two will never be entirely incompatible, but neither will they be a complete fit. The unknowable and unpredictable element of human motivation, weakness, and strength will always be present, and will always skew events and outcomes in ways that simply cannot be foreseen, no matter how complete our data or how comprehensive our insertion into the lives of others. In a sense, this is illustrated by the various “criminally asymptomatic” personalities Akane and her team have to deal with; but it is also deeply present in the very human relationships between, for example, Ginoza and Masaoka, or between Kunizuka and Karanomori.

    Then there’s the social construction of Psycho-Pass as well. The idea of a bio-mechanical system that can absorb asymmetrical personalities in order to learn more about society as a whole is engaging and at times confronting concept – but it is not entirely removed from the psychological concept of studying abnormal behaviour in order to learn more about the human mind generally. Interestingly, it appears that the Sybil System was only able to be implemented because Japan entered into an Edo-period-like isolation after a time of international instability and warfare. Other countries exist, and Japan appears to have contact with them through diplomatic and political channels; but Japanese society itself is closed off (a plot point that emerges as a bigger issue in later movies and series in the franchise).

    Interestingly, some form of democratic political system appears to continue in place, even though politicians, like the rest of the public, remain subject to Sibyl’s scrutiny. Likewise, it is possible to voluntarily commit oneself for either detention or psychiatric care (Saiga) just as it is possible for people initially identified as latent criminals to eventually have a life outside being either prisoners or Enforcers (Ginoza and Kunizuka). I think it is also interesting to note that, unlike most dystopias, the immediate response to the “threat” posed by latent criminals or those whose Crime Coefficient rises to criminal levels is not elimination or disappearance (despite the lethal power of the Dominators) but the possibility of psychiatric care and rehabilitation. That was an interesting twist on what the actual “dystopic” nature of this society might be.

    All up, Psycho-Pass is, to my mind, one of the most complex and completely satisfying exercises in world-building that anime has ever produced. It is not perfect (what is?) and many of its influences are clear (and lovingly paid tribute to). But very few have done it as well as Psycho-Pass; none have done it better.

    PS – Ergo Proxy is great! I thought it went on for too long and got a bit wrapped up in its own philosophical musings….but I still loved it. Also, another series with a great opening theme, “Kiri” by Monoral.

    1. I found Ergo Proxy a bit messy but man that OP song was amazing! I still listen to it regularly.

      That’s was an amazing comment. It’s pretty much a post onto itself. Thank you so much for taking the time to share that

      1. Thank you and you’re welcome. After recent disruptions it’s nice to have some time to make a contribution. Also, if you like “Kiri” by Monoral, you might also like their other notable songs, “Goodbye” and “Costa Rica”. They were an interesting, if short-lived, product of indie J-rock in the noughties.

  5. Good points! I never thought about it that way. Psycho Pass’ dystopia is 1) not all that bad, and 2) the heroine does fight to preserve it in the end.

    Never considered how subversive those two elements are. Maybe time for a rewatch 😗

  6. I thought that Psycho Pass bothed the ending, to be honest. I wish I could remember the details, but Akane’s final decision is basically predicated on Makishima not valuing your avarage Joe’s life, so he can just take down the system without worrying about the ensuing chaos. I don’t think Akane’s decision has anything to do with the system being worth preserving; more that you can’t just get rid of what’s in place without offering something in return, and that’s beyond her. She remains openly antagonistic. The ending is a stand-off between her and the system, where she knows they know how she thinks and that they think they can stop her before it’s too late. They mutually acknowledge each other as opponents. And there’s definitely a power balance in favour of the system.

    I didn’t like the twist, and I didn’t like Makishima springing into action. I thought both of these decisions undermined the theme. I don’t think much of, I don’t know, the last third? For me, the show fell apart at the twist.

    1. We often agree but not always and this is one of those cases. I simply didn’t see the same thing you did. That’s o.k. though. I still like the idea of a functional and even desirable dystopia.

      1. I’m not sure I’d agree with myself, if I rewatched the show. My memory of what actually happened is really spotty. That was my impression, though. I do remember my impression. It’s always nice to hear about a totally different take that didn’t occur to me while watching. Usually, I’d run that up against my memory of the show to see if I can see it, but Psychopass is nearly 10 years in the past now, so pretty much the only option would be a re-watch, and I just didn’t like it enough for that.

        So the upshot of it is, that I know I had a different impression from yours, but I’m unsure if I actually disagree, as I don’t remember the show well enough to look at it indepently from my impression (for that I’d need a rewatch as my memory’s not good enough). Basically, what I’m curious about is whether I could make your take work for myself. Or: maybe, if I’d seen it like that, I’d have liked the show better?

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