Psycho-Pass Review: An Exercise In ‘Enlightened Centrism’

By Naren Varadarajan

Psycho Pass is, by most accounts, an incredibly engaging dystopian thriller. It has slick production values, a uniquely conceived world, and a compelling villain to boot. What more could you possibly want? Well, quite a lot, as it turns out, because while yes, it is all of these things and more, it is also woefully lacking in terms of how it deals with its themes.

Before getting into that though what is Psycho Pass even about? To make a fairly short story even shorter, Psycho Pass is set in a world where Japan monitors each and every one of its citizens via something called the ‘Sybil System’. In essence, each person is assigned two things — a color that represents their mental state (their ‘Hue’), and a number that is directly proportional to their tendency to commit a crime (their ‘Criminal Coefficient’). The antagonist, Makishima Shogo, is someone whose Psycho Pass remains close to zero no matter what, and thus is someone who is able to murder and commit crime with impunity. The series’ lead meanwhile, Tsunemori Akane, is a member of the police force and seeks to bring Makishima to justice with the help of ex-cop Kougami Shinya.

The central conceit is really the age-old and rather tired question of ‘order’ and ‘chaos’ here — Makishima wants to dismantle the system and is a proponent for free will while Akane believes in the system and its ability to maintain order. How much order is really needed, to deal with crime? Must order be absolute and tyrannical, with constant surveillance via the Sybil System? Perhaps it might be better to have none at all, and let people do as they please (which is, supposedly, chaos). The series ends with Makishima attempting to blow up Japan’s food supply, hoping to indirectly destroy Sybil. Before he’s able to, Kougami apprehends him and murders him, fleeing afterward.

Akane discovers that Sybil is really a large organic neural network composed of brains belonging to the worst of the worst — operating under the mantra that it takes a criminal to catch a criminal. Faced with the notion that the system millions of people entrust their lives to is a flawed mess, she exclaims frustratedly that she doesn’t know of a better way to keep order, but will dismantle Sybil as soon as she finds one. This is, supposedly, the middle ground, and the solution to the question of order and chaos.

The answer is seemingly that systems of absolute order are flawed, but preferable to absolute chaos, and should be incrementally replaced with better, more benevolent systems. This is, and I cannot stress this enough, absolute bullshit, and the epitome of ‘enlightened centrism’ — the idea that the solution to a problem involving two extremes must always lie somewhere in the middle. Even when confronted with the fact that the numbers the system assigns are far from objective, Akane concedes that it still works. This makes no sense, given that in itself, the reduction of crime to a purely psychological phenomenon willfully ignores other, far more influential factors. After all, crime is far more linked to poverty than to some inherent tendency to be mentally unstable. If someone born into poverty lacked the resources to perform academically as well as their peers, and as a result remained in poverty, forced to commit ‘crimes’ for subsistence, are they really to blame? Why not blame the system that keeps them in poverty, and provides little to no aid, while communicating to them that they are worthless? Under no possible circumstances would the Sybil System ever provide answers to these, making purely outcome-based decisions while never making much change.

There is naturally also the question of constant surveillance, and hence a kind of constant violence. Invasive, unwelcome 24/7 monitoring doesn’t exactly make for the most serene environment. It is a sense cyclical — the Sybil System recreates the very problems it seeks to deal with.

Given these things, the reductive way in which crime is treated and the surveillance, why would Akane choose not to rebel against the system and tear it down? The answer lies in the series’ conception of chaos as a state in which injustice is widespread, and society would devolve into a tribal state. This is of course an appeal to ‘human nature’ and an attempt to make some kind of overarching statement about biological truths with little to no evidence to back it up. Even more egregious is that Makishima didn’t desire chaos in the first place, he only sought to tear down what he perceived as an unjust hierarchy. Yet, even just this is presented as akin to chaos, as an upheaval that ought not to happen.

This, ultimately, is where Psycho Pass falls short. It fails to look beyond the surface of the concepts it presents, and attempts to come to a compromise between order and chaos while presenting both as semi-sympathetic. All this does is leave its final message confused and muddled, making its critique of the Sybil System ring hollow.

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