Reflections on "Psycho-Pass"

by lsusr1 min read22nd Jan 20214 comments

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Fiction (Topic)World Optimization
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Psycho-Pass takes place in a cyberpunk dystopia ruled by a totalitarian AI dictator. Cyberpunk stories are often about evading the law. What makes Psycho-Pass special is its protagonist is a police officer.

Tsunemori Akane's job is to suppress crime. This involves suppressing violent criminals, which is a good thing. The AI's surveillance state makes it possible to suppress crime before it happens, which is even better. Potential criminals often include punks, radicals, gays, artists, musicians, visionaries and detectives which is…

Wait a minute.

SPOILERS AHEAD.

If Psycho-Pass was written in America then Tsunemori's character arc would be a journey of disillusion. She would be commanded to do something unethical. Tsunemori would refuse. Her valiant act of disobedience would instigate a cascade of disorder leading to a revolution and the eventual overthrew the oppressive system.

Society would collapse. Millions of people would starve off-camera. Japan would plunge into civil war. Violence would permeate all corners of society.

Tsunemori had the exam scores to do anything. She chose to be a low-paid low-prestige Inspector of the Public Safety Bureau.

The law doesn't protect people. People protect the law. People have always detested evil and sought out a righteous way of living. Their feelings–the accumulation of those peoples feelings–are the law.

―Tsunemori Akane

Tsunemori Akane's nemesis equips potential criminals with the tools to indulge their desire to commit evil against others.

I want to see the splendor of people's souls.

―Makishima Shougo

Makishima doesn't care about evil or freedom per se. What he really wants to know is what do you care about more than anything else in the world? What would you sacrifice your friends, your society and your morality for?

Tsunemori values the rule of law above all else. Makishima values his individual humanity.

Psycho-Pass doesn't strawman crime by conflating rule of law with freedom, fairness or democracy. In Psycho-Pass, the authorities routinely violate their own laws. The system is corrupt to the core.

Where Psycho-Pass really shines is the scene where Tsunemori is forced choose between law and consequentialism. Makishima contrives things such that Tsunemori wouldn't even have to technically break the law. All she would have to do is break protocol. Tsunemori chooses instead to sacrifice the thing she loves most.

Tsunemori acts perfectly in character for herself. Makishima acts perfectly in character for himself. I empathize with Tsunemori. I associate with Makishima. I would put people in similar situations if[1] I was an evil psychopath too.

I notice I am confused. I too want to see the splendor of people's souls. My desire is a luxury born of privilege paid for by the likes of Tsunemori Akane.


  1. I am neither evil nor a psychopath. ↩︎

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I am neither evil nor a psychopath.

Shame really, we are still short of one for our Evil Psychopath monthly poker night! Let us know if you manage to acquire the evil of psychopathy you're missing before the end of the month! We've got smoothies!

That's one difference I regularly meet between western stories and anime. In the West, evil antagonists seem reduced to two qualities: they're bad, and we don't want/need to know about them. Evil here is like mysterious. Conversely, in anime, most villains have their motives explained as well as heroes. Sometimes, it's the same motive! Typically, loyalty to friends (the °1 motive for heroes and villains alike in shonen).

This makes villains much more interesting and relatable. Villains are not alien, of a different substance than us. They're like us, except they dare do what we don't, and in doing that they exemplify their values in a way that lets us explore counterfactuals and learn from that experience. They're so interesting that they can become more popular than heroes (Yagami Light).

A show that does it masterfully is Attack on Titan. It's excellent at circling a character's point of view in a few quick strokes and never making light of it. I can sympathise with really any character, however beef they have among themselves.

Psychopathically implementing our own values is a good way to put it. Now that you frame it this way, I can't think of a good anime whose villains don't have well-fleshed out motives. This is in stark contrast to Marvel, Star Wars, etc. where the villains' ideologies fell like caricatures.

In the case of Star Wars, that's only the movies. The old Expanded Universe content gives villains and anti-heroes much better grounding, to the point many times you think the Sith are in the right and the Jedi in the wrong, and at some other time you think they really are only two sides of the same single coin thrown into a much vaster context.

For an excellent example of this check the YouTube video: The Philosophy of Kreia: A Critical Examination of Star Wars. It's a 2-hours long rigorous analysis of the philosophical outlook of the aforementioned Kreia, a key character from the "Knight of the Old Republic" video-game series. She's ex-Sith, still on the dark side, and mentor to the protagonist.

I love Kreia. Your comment reminds me of the Darth Bane series, also from the Expanded Universe. It features a scene about sacrifice that has helped me through major life decisions.