Psycho-Pass: A Dystopia Ruled by Nice, Clean Thoughts

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Most visions of the future don’t advance the dialog much beyond 1984. Surveillance is accepted now; invited, actually. So, what’s next? Psycho-Pass presents an unsettling answer: a society patrolled by literal thought police who can measure the percentage of anti-social tendencies in any person’s brain.

The elevator pitch is Minority Report meets a Clockwork Orange by way of Ghost in the Shell, with a dash of Judge Dredd. There’s plenty of slam bang flashy gunplay, but the show’s real hook is its exploration of provocative questions unique to an era continually quantifying the human condition.

In the series, Japanese citizens are stratified by how their “Crime-Coefficients” tally in the Sibyl System. Those with 0%–those who couldn’t even begin to comprehend going against the system–roam free, but are basically unthinking sheep. Those with high percentages are arrested on the spot, or even executed on sight. Those in the middle margins, though? They become cops. Or they’re forced to. In a brilliant sci-fi spin on the archetypal good cop/bad cop set-up, Sibyl reasons that effective law enforcement requires a precise balance of straight arrows and loose cannons. The former have some capacity for violence. They can point a gun at a criminal, but they’ll go home after work. The latter have more violent tendencies, being the type to obsess over a case or throw the rulebook away. They aren’t allowed to live outside the station, lest their harmful influence contaminate society.

Of course, who decides what influence is harmful? Can you track it to a single conversation? Or to the reaction a piece of art provokes? Psycho-Pass shows how the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, regularly making queries with troubling implications. What precise line separates a hard worker from a workaholic, for example, if such behavior really is anti-social? When does a deadbeat dad’s negligence become harmful to the general citizenry?

Our heroine is Akane Tsunemori, a good cop whose incorruptibility is almost a genetic fluke. She can think for herself, but no matter how much awfulness she deals with, her near-perfect Crime-Coefficient is never tainted. Her partner is a “bad cop,” Shinya Kogami, whose background is revealed throughout the first season of the show. Naturally, the two have some sexual tension, and the influence they have upon each other can be even charted by degrees.

The first season sees them chase a serial killer whose mental state confounds the system. He kills routinely, but his Crime-Coefficient always registers at 0% because he’s so at peace with his own nature–a condition threatening Sibyl’s credibility. The second series takes jabs at big pharma, as a new criminal spread drugs that allow private citizens to dampen their percentages. His campaign goes on to incorporate aspects of Eastern medicine, as well, suggesting that people’s moral and physical well-beings are more closely linked than modern science might suggest.

The Psycho-Pass movie–effectively the third season–hits this spring. In it, Sibyl is franchised to a fictional Southeast Asian nation in the grip of civil war. Firebrand Kogami falls in with guerrillas who’ll be referred to as terrorists or revolutionaries depending on how the history books are written. And Akane is sent to find him. The ensuing plot raises pointed questions about whether Crime-Coefficients should be graded on different scales from country to country, or between combat and peace time.

Often, when an anime purports an intellectual bent, it translates to a lot of philosopho-babble, crawling up its own butt, with little relevancy to the real world. What’s continually refreshing about Psycho-Pass is that it manages to straddle a line quite adroitly. Akane will meet with a Lector-esque consultant, and he’ll freely quote philosphes with hard-to-pronounce names. However, she’ll go on to apply those ideas, and the applications are always practical to the plot. The audience sees her grapple with Sibyl’s parameters in ways we can actually relate to–even during international military ops like those in the movie. Could an awful co-worker be categorized as a “harmful influence” on the same scale as a murderer? Can you measure the impression an ex leaves, years after they’re out of your lives?

There are plenty of BFGs and exploding heads. Don’t worry. Still, it’s Psycho-Pass‘ capacity to stir discussion in almost every scene that makes it one of the most provocative anime series today.

Any other Psycho-Pass fans in our readership? Which of its virtues would you use to hook friends on the series? Are you looking forward to the movie? Sound off in the talkback!

Image Credits: FUNimation

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