Unpacking the Philosophy of Psycho-Pass

This article is from my podcast called, “This is not what I meant”. It’s a show where I talk about different works of art and their subtext.

This is not what I meant- Psycho-Pass episode

This little, freaking mind-blowing um show, like I'm not sure you’ve heard of it or anything, I mean it’s just super awesome but whatever, it’s not like the best first season of an anime you’ll ever see but oh dear it is.

Yeah, I’m talking about this little show called, Psycho-Pass. Surprisingly, not based on Manga, considering how good the writing is.

Now instead of stitching praises one after the other in awe of this amazing AF show, we’re gonna take this structurally.

Cover art for Podcast Episode

Psycho Pass is a cyberpunk anime. Now if you don’t know what that means, just take reference from Altered Carbon, Black Mirror or Hunger Games. Basically, anywhere technology has been used as the norm for society’s functioning and is prominent in its governance. All very supervised, monitored, Orwellian.

Psycho pass’ tech point for the plot is mental health. More importantly, good mental health. The ministry of welfare has put a system in place called the Sybil system which is a bio-mechanical computer network that scans every person under the system. This scan is called the cymatic scan which judges one very specific element called the crime coefficient. Crime coefficient is a person’s affinity towards the possibility of committing a crime. It is indicated by a person’s hue which can get “cloudy” by stress or trauma, thereby increasing their psycho pass. If your number is above 100, authorities intervene and suggest you take therapy. Even they play fast and loose with the word therapy, they just apprehend the person and then put them into rehabilitation till their psycho pass recovers.

Medium blue is Ginoza’s hue and 86.3 is his crime coefficient.

They do so, to prevent these people with high crime coefficients, or they call them latent criminals to not affect other people and raise their crime coefficients. Basically what they want is to not have stress factors in society. As much as people today seek the beauty of the physical kind, in Psycho-Pass, you see in terms of wanting mental beauty. Someone who’s not stressed or someone who has a clear psycho pass.

One other way the Sybil system tries to remove the stress from the lives of its people is by determining their life for them, what they’re supposed to do, and how best they can contribute to society and live their life optimally. This the system does by judging their psycho pass, their aptitude and gives them directive as to what job would suit them best.

Now my take on this is that on some days I feel like “Yes, please tell me what to do with my life. You know just take my confusion away, tell me what I’m best at and I’ll do that.” Because it is so easy. To follow an instruction. You don’t have to think too much and as a society, if we’re all doing what we’re supposed to do, it’ll be functional.

But what about choice?

Often our capabilities are not aligned with what we want to do. But we still want the option to do it. Sybil doesn’t give you that option. The option to explore yourself. And in that sense, this show is different from other dystopian shows because not only there is peace on the face of it, but everyone actually believes there is peace, till your psycho pass stay clear.

But even with the Sybil system in place, there is crime and there is a human police force to tackle it. And that is what the show is about. Enters Inspector Akane Tsunemori, who the Sybil system judged to be perfect for any of the industry that she wants to go to, but she picks MWPSB, the ministry of welfare’s public safety bureau. The first episode opens with her first day on the job, finding out that she’s responsible for these latent criminals called Enforcers, who basically are treated like the suicide squad.

Kogami telling Akane how she can shoot him using the dominator as enforcers are latent criminals as well.

I’m not gonna go into the story of the show as much, because it is a lot to unpack.

There are multiple concepts in each episode. But I’ll give you a general outline. So, each episode follows a criminal and takes us through their motivations. Akane, who by the way, has a clear AF psycho pass, questions her faith in the Sybil system as she witnesses first hand how easily a person can become stressed by trauma. Like in the first episode, a guy sexually assaults and kidnaps a woman, while his own psycho pass is in the 300s, her own psycho pass is well above 100 as well. Obviously, it’s because she has experienced trauma.

Now Akane and Kogami (an Enforcer) carry this weapon called the dominator which is controlled by Sybil. The dominator scans their psycho pass and gets activated into becoming a lethal weapon. The guy gets obliterated. It’s gory, it’s bloody, it’s gruesome, and it’s awesome.

Mind you, the dominator only gets activated when it judges that the crime coefficient of the person is above 100. And there are levels to that. When they see the woman, the dominator turns into a paralyser so that they can apprehend the woman and put her into rehabilitation. The system now sees her as a latent criminal and as inspector and enforcers, they’re supposed to listen to Sybil and fire it. But Akane doesn’t. She knows that this person has gone through trauma, she is the victim here. And everybody knows that once you go for rehabilitation, it’s unlikely that your psycho pass would recover. Which is catch 22.

Instances like this one crop up across the whole show. Akane acts as a bridge for us to understand the world of psycho pass. She is someone who is sort of for the system but isn’t afraid to question it.

And then there is Shinya Kogami who is an enforcer under Akane. Kogami is a pretty well-written character. He’s your typical detective, thinks from different angles, but the theme of psycho pass colours him as someone who is plagued by emotion and anger even when it’s justified. Hence the reason why he has a high crime coefficient.

I can’t talk about Psycho-Pass and not talk about Makishima, who is the main villain of the story. When you talk about amazing villains, those characters come to your mind who challenge the system and not a specific person. They want to bring some change into this world and use violence for that. Then there is the Joker, who loves chaos. Creating chaos, inciting chaos. I mean one of my favourite lines from the dark knight is when Heath Ledger says to Christian Bale, “What happens When an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?” The irresistible force paradox of course.

Makishima Shogo

That was a bit of a tangent, but it was an amazing film.

So, Makishima from Psycho-Pass doesn’t fall in either of these categories, at least not directly. He embodies the concept of nihilism. Nihilism suggests that people have no real meaning or purpose in life; thus, potentially serving as the very basis of destructive human behaviour. Makishima’s character exhibits a complete and utter disregard for human life. If I compare him to Joker, Joker’s MO was to incite chaos in people, see how selfish they act under duress. But Makishima kind of more similar to Jim Moriarity. He’s bored, he’s above the government, and that helps people to commit crimes. Gives them the right ammo. But in Makishima’s case, it’s not that he is super rich or have a lot of people backing him up, it’s that he is above the judgement of the Sybil System. His psycho pass stays clear no matter what.

Which raises a lot of philosophical questions in the show?

How do you judge a person’s latency towards crime when they haven’t done anything? And is it actually serving society to remove such individuals?

The very notion of utilitarianism, a concept taken up in Psycho-Pass, stands for actions based on the amount of good they cause in society overall. If a person is viewed as a potential threat to society, it is in the interest of every individual that they are taken care of according to their state.

Taking a look at things from a contrary perspective, however, one could argue that because an individual is deemed bad before doing anything harmful, a general fear of inevitable fate gets ingrained into society. So, is it really for the collective good or is it actually doing more harm than good?

1984 by George Orwell has heavily influenced the show

Another concept that is predominant in the show is of course George Orwell’s 1984. The surveillance. I personally don’t think, any technologically advanced story is without the concept, “Big Brother is Watching you.” Like today it's cookies tracking your internet searches so that you get targeted ads across all your social media accounts. Facebook selling your birthday information to companies for accessing their target audience, giving you age-appropriate ads. You are being watched when you deeply think of it. So, is it really that far of a stretch, the Orwellian world, where even your mind can be monitored?

In Psycho-Pass, it’s the Sybil system. So, it’s not as same as the totalitarian government in 1984, but as the show progresses, as I said initially, that Sybil judges what would you be good at, and that goes for politicians as well. In one of the episodes, a character raises the question, is it really a democracy if we’re voting for people who the system chose for the job?

I talked about determinism in my last episode on Kakegurui, where the concept was used as a motivation for the characters to drown themselves in gambling. Switching up the sides on that, when we say that human behaviour is predictable and that all moral choices are linked to previous events and causes, the Sybil system should work out perfectly. And that is what it looks like when the show starts out. But then Makishima comes along, someone who the system doesn’t view as a potential threat to the society, but who actually is. Definitely, its own validity is judged by the viewers and with us Akane Tsunemori, who’s the protagonist.

These invisible threads are what binds a community together.

And finally, going to the root of the judgement itself, the system is essentially dividing people into Good and Evil. Nietzsche expressed his belief that the very notions of good and evil were arbitrary and mere tools developed by the ones in power to control the weak. Makishima’s own theory that the system limits the true potential of people is a great connection to Nietzsche’s concept as it also is bound by morality.

The Squad for season one of Psycho-Pass

Psycho Pass is a great show.

You question a lot of these concepts yourself and it is amazing to see how they’ve taken these up into the plotlines. Each episode, each scene adds to the story. There are virtually no stupid scenes. It is a serious show. A lot of trigger warnings; there is brutal violence, they do not hide anything. There is blood, murder, gore. But then all this brutality is offset by how wonderfully they’ve written the dialogues. As an anime, there is amazing character building, how Akane understands the shortcomings of the system, Kogami’s own devils and his story and of course a serious intellectual and eerily chaotic villain Makishima who serves as the debating point against what the system stands for.

The technology is pretty cool too, they got these home assistants which creates holograms. The entire look of the house can be Victorian one second, modern the other. Your outfits are these holograms as well. It’s fun to watch.

My personal suggestion when you go to watch Psycho Pass is that, interact with the show. Read up on any plot point that sticks up for you. Question everything, engage with what the writers of the show want you to understand. It’ll definitely add to your experience.

And if that sounds like too much work, come back to this very episode and I’ll be here to discuss Psycho-Pass with you.

Podcasting about random things I've watched. Subtext diving is fun.