Psycho-Pass: care to try a different way of thinking about the world?
April 14, 2013 5 Comments
The empirical fact that certain themes seem to emerge in pairs, as has often occurred in Western film (Armageddon/Deep Impact, Saving Private Ryan/The Thin Red Line – to name a couple I actually remember), seems to happen in anime too. The last two seasons, viewers have been able to envelop themselves in two different dystopian societies. Having not seen Shin Seki Yori though, I can only focus on the other for the moment.
This is a world in which the mental state and personal tendencies of humans can be quantified. In this world, where all sorts of inclinations are recorded and policed, the measured number used to judge a person’s soul is commonly called “Psycho-Pass.
Forgive me for cutting to the chase, but whilst there is a mountain of things I could write about for this show, but to me, the most important issue to discuss is what viewers might be able to take from the way it ended. To do that, I shall begin by outlining some of the major criticisms of Psycho-Pass, and my own reactions. The common theme I find running through the critiques is that Western viewers in particular are bringing certain expectations to both the characters and the show itself. I contend that the these expectations and the foundations that they are built on need to be recognised, understood and critiqued, and the themes of Psycho-Pass analysed with that in mind.
Spoilers, as always, under the cut…
The setup, the idea that the Japan of today might become the society depicted in Psycho-Pass 100 years from now is hard to believe. It’s unthinkable that people living in a democracy today would choose to set up a system that controls so many aspects of their lives, from restricting the kinds of art they can make or look at and clamping down on the range of music they can listen to, to restricting the careers they can have based on test scores.
Personally, I don’t find the society depicted in Psycho-Pass to be particularly far-fetched. The sense I got was that the art and music was restricted because it was disturbing…but its creation was not banned. In other words, that society has taken what we are doing today a few steps further. Too far, some might argue, but it’s not such a huge stretch to imagine.
The other important thing to consider is the situation in Japan today. Two decades of economic stagnation, with a whole generation of young people disillusioned about the future they might have. Many people are unable to find a stable job – the percentage of people in working in several part-time positions with no permanency is apparently increasing. Is it that difficult to believe that people living in such an uncertain environment would decide to try something that provides greater certainty to their lives?
How can anyone argue that there are benefits to the Sibyl System? Its depiction has been overwhelmingly negative: tests determine what kind of career an individual can seek; people are incarcerated for crimes they have not committed, and in ways that appear to preclude any hope of rehabilitation; achieving the ‘ideal’ of a stress-free life has numbed some people to stimulation to the extent that they become living corpses. Furthermore, despite Sibyl’s claims that it has provided for a safe and stable society, all we have seen is case after case where this has been proven false.
It’s not surprising that viewers would focus on the negative aspects of the Sibyl system, because that’s all that we have been shown. But we have to remember that this is a very skewed picture of the society. In following Akane in her work as a member of the Public Safety Bureau Criminal Investigation Department (CID), i.e. the law enforcement unit of the Tokyo of Psycho-Pass, is it really that surprising that we were constantly shown people whom the system had failed? Furthermore, one fact that has been glossed over by some viewers – though it has been pointed out time and time again by others – is the size of the CID, as revealed in episode 15: three teams of two inspectors and four enforcers each. Of course, there are questions as to how far this lack of personnel is due to the high requirements for entry into the Department. However, we have also been shown periods of time where Division 1 have continued their paperwork in their offices whilst waiting for a case to investigate. In a city the size of Tokyo, the extremely low level of crime that this suggests is unheard of! There may be a question of just how many people live in the Tokyo of Psycho-Pass…but even if there were just a few hundred thousand of them – highly unlikely! – the figures would still be very impressive, going by this list of what we see around the world today.
Furthermore, the levels of social dissatisfaction were not particularly high. Some people may have been dissatisfied with the status quo, but it was only brought to a head when even public safety seemed to be threatened. Akane’s friends may have whinged about how Akane had a lot more options than they did, but they also seemed to be grateful to have jobs through which they could make a living. One thing that the Sibyl system may have been doing is ensuring that there were people being trained to fulfill in the skills that society needed: when the alternative is the threat of social unrest due to an oversupply of certain skills and an undersupply of others, as is the fear for India over the next few decades, who are we to fault the people in PP who originally made the decision to try and avoid that as much as possible. There are also relatively higher restrictions on freedom than we are accustomed to today, and some intellectuals and journalists seemed to have no place in the society (keep in mind that there are still educators and reporters, so it’s clearly just a portion of them). But on the whole, there was no civil unrest until Makishima made it possible. In short, it seems like the major tradeoff that the people of Psycho-Pass’s Japan made was to give up some of their freedoms for an increase in order and security. How can we say that this is not as valid as the freedoms that Americans in particular seem to clamour for?
That Sibyl is, in effect, responsible for determining what kind of career an individual can seek is especially problematic in light of its true form, as it means that the oligarchy that holds power can simply decide to allow those that it judges unlikely to turn against they system. In short, to use the jargon of political science, Sibyl is the legislature (which writes laws), the executive (which is responsible for implementing them), and the judiciary (which determines whether an individuals’ actions are lawful or not) all in one. In practical terms, what it means in the world of Psycho-Pass is that the oligarchy in power is above the law.
There really is no debate with regards to the issue itself: Urobuchi was definitely criticising it in the show. People want to live under laws that they respect. Hence, as Akane said, the most demeaning thing for a ruler to do is to create and administer laws that are “unworthy of protection.” The real problem is: what should people do about it? How does a single person (or a group of people) go about changing or bringing down such a system?
I personally don’t think there is a single answer for this. Every situation is different, and even then, there are always several paths that one can take. To foreground one particular path is to advocate it. This brings us to the final, and, to most viewers (or so it appears), the most frustrating problem with Psycho-Pass.
The way the series ended was unsatisfying because it seemed like Urobuchi Gen did not have a clear message that he was trying to get across. The series ended pretty much the same way it started, with what appears to be little significant change. Was it a hopeful ending, in the sense that someone – be it Akane or otherwise – who recognises the dangers of the system will try to bring about change? Or was it a bleak ending like 1984’s, whereby no amount of struggle will bring significant change? It seemed like neither, which really feels like a cop-out.
Some claim that, where a tyrannical system is overthrown and replaced, it can only be achieved if people just take down the system first, and worry about the social upheaval later, as history has shown us. The vast majority of literature and popular media seems to take a similar stance, with creators such as Hideaki Anno (Evangelion), Taneguchi Goro (Code Geass) and Philip K. Dick (Minority Report etc). And of course, George Orwell’s classic novel, 1984, reads as a clear warning of the danger of allowing the state and its institutions too much power over the lives of its citizens. Destruction and rebirth, it seems, is the only way out.
I see two major problems with this line of argument. The first is that history takes far greater notice of the huge social upheavals than it does of gradual change. For example, the French, American and Bolshevik Revolutions feature strongly in the collective memory not just of their own peoples, but also in the history of the world. But do we talk of how, just two hundred years ago, people in England were incarcerated just for stealing bread and similar necessities? People argue that China is highly illiberal and that the one-part system needs to be abolished before we can see any significant improvement, but do we acknowledge the huge strides towards modernisation and liberalisation that they have taken over the past 40 years? And how about the great strides that civil rights have taken over the past century or so? Change does not have to occur by revolution, by completely overturning a system – it can occur in other, somewhat less violent, ways too.
One counter that has been raised is that the evolution within the system needs someone to stand up opposing the discrimination first. For the African-American civil rights movement, we had people like Martin Luther King Jr and Rosa Parks; for women’s suffrage, a long list of people such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Kate Sheppard. Change does not occur spontaneously, without action from someone within or without the community. That Akane does not seem to have made any move towards rectifying a law that is “unworthy of protection,” does not bode well for hopes of change. This critique typically ends by pointing out that she should have been depicted doing something aimed at revealing the truth behind the Sibyl System, e.g. by spreading information on the internet – anything rather than the passive, ‘let’s wait and see’ stance that she seemed to be resigned to.
Let’s take that scenario and run with it. Based on what we were shown in the course of the series, I’d argue that any attempt to spread information about the truth of the Sibyl System at this point will ultimately leave that society worse off than it is now. Having failed to bring Makishima in alive, Akane had no leverage at the point we parted with her. Given that their eyes are on her, any attempts to do anything that jeopardises their existence will undoubtedly lead to her death at their hands, leaving the rest of society no wiser to the truth. Any information that got out is likely to be dismissed, and the only person with knowledge of the truth would be no more. Akane would have to leave the system, to go rogue, in order to carry out that plan. Viewers can certainly criticise her for being small-sighted, in a sense, but I would say that she was being realistic.
But suppose that Akane did succeed in sowing the information, and that there was a sizeable spectrum of individuals who were discontent with the system. The people most likely to believe it are, I contend, people who are unhappy with the position that Sibyl has accorded to them. Blue collar workers, perhaps; latent criminals; the intellectuals, journalists etc that Saiga was talking about. But what are they likely to do upon finding out that they were being ruled over by 250 brains? The riots give us a clue: they may well be bent on knocking the privileged off their ‘underserved’ perches. And the privileged would react by defending themselves. The CID would be striped of their legitimacy as keepers of the law, and may well end up being targeted themselves, especially given that they don’t have many weapons to work with. In short, it would produce chaos. Rather than taking actions that would lead to such chaos – with, I might add, not particularly promising chances of restoring the rule of law in the near future – Akane may well have felt that the most viable way open to her was to try and achieve incremental change first through the example she sets of what the CID and the Public Safety Bureau should be trying to do.
This is just one conjecture of what might happen, a future that is different from the more positive predictions of revolutionary change. I am more pessimistic about the effectiveness of revolutionary change – what has happened to women in Egypt since the country ‘democratised’ is certainly not inspiring. Though Japan may be free of the ethnical tensions that have complicated countries in central Europe and Africa in particular, I am not confident that violence based on other factors is avoidable if the Sibyl System were abruptly taken down. But at the same time, I am more optimistic than those who argue that this Japan is like Orwell’s 1984, or is inevitably headed in that direction.
I could continue on drawing up scenarios and what ifs, and I’m sure everyone else who’s seen this series could do the same. But that’s exactly the point I want to make. There are many many scenarios, numerous different futures, that could arise from the juncture at which we left Akane. There is no ‘correct’ solution to the problem that she and her fellow people face. This is just a conjecture of mine, but perhaps, in choosing not to advocate one particular path, that is precisely what Urobuchi Gen was trying to suggest.
This is linked to one of the themes that I and another member of AnimeSuki tried to suggest about halfway through the series. Viewers constantly argued that Sibyl brought no benefits whatsoever, that everything it stood for and brought about was undesirable. However, I can imagine many people, especially in the Japan of today, who would see the order of the system, and the social security that most people get, as something highly desirable. Even if I am personally predisposed to reject the system myself.
So, the key question is: why is that? Why am I predisposed to see the Sibyl System in that way? What are the institutionalised ways of thinking that lead me to the conclusion that the freedom to choose to try whatever I want to do – whether or not it may be suited for my abilities – is more valuable that the certainty of a secure job? Some may think that this question signifies avoidance of the debate over what is “right”; I contend, however, that our positions in these debates are framed by the context of our lives – the norms and histories of the societies that we live in. These are the institutions that determine how we think about a particular question as well as the answer that we arrive at. One important debate is the one regarding the relative values of individuality and collectivity. Individuals who have grown up in a society that prioritises the former are, I would say, more likely to reject Sibyl than those who were raised in a group-orientated society.
Several more of these debates are arguably raised by Psycho-Pass, but I will leave it there in order to deal with a related issue: our expectations about storytelling. Over the past few years in particular, I’ve noticed that Japanese film has a slightly bigger penchant for something that we seldom see in Western storytelling. After watching a certain film with a friend, we discussed how we both felt that it was heading towards a very ‘Japanese’ ending. To put a description to the kind of ending I am talking about: it’s one that seems to be left hanging. In a romance, that would mean that the two people in question are one step away from a resolution, whether that be that they get together, or part forever. In a story about tumultuous relationships between family or friends, the filmmakers would leave us at a point where the path forward is uncertain. On the basis of films and shows I have personally watched, it’s a storytelling technique that I’ve come across more often in Japanese tales than in those that originate from the West (Inception being a famous example of the latter). And it’s not as if the filmmakers leave it hanging as a hook for potential sequels, which tends to be a staple of the horror genre; rather, they seem to be invested in something that Narita Ryohgo spelled out so well in Baccano!:
You must throw it away, the illusion that a story must have a beginning and an end. Stories have no beginning, nor do they have an end. All they have are people connecting with each other, working with each other, affecting each other, and how that expands throughout the world. Stories must never have an end.
Why? Narita-sensei’s answer to that question was that “it’s fun,” fun to imagine whatever happens next. ‘Fun’ probably isn’t the right word to attach in the case of Psycho-Pass. Rather, I think that Urobuchi Gen may be asking us to consider we might do if we were in Akane’s shoes, and what the consequences of our actions might be. Then, we also need to consider what other actions might be taken, and what their consequences would be. In other words, rather than providing us with his answer to the issues he poses, Urobuchi-sensei may be inviting us to consider the range of possible solutions ourselves. Are you willing to accept that challenge?