Psycho-Pass, which encompasses 41 regular episodes, a movie, 2 mini-series, and a visual novel, is an anime detective noir thriller set in a future Japan where almost all decisions are delegated to the artificial intelligence known the Sybil system. Teams of detectives, composed of clear-minded “Inspectors” as well as volatile “Enforcers”, investigate crimes and are armed with dominators - futuristic weapons with capabilities ranging from stun to vaporize.
All Cops Are Bad
I wrote previously about how good cyberpunk faithfully incorporates themes of both cyber and punk. I’ve also written about my disdain for sci-fi police stories like Judge Dredd and games inspired by it like Project Eden. At the end of the day there just isn’t anything very punk about being a cop, or the President (cop in chief), right?
Yes but actually no. What makes Psycho-Pass, and another well known sci-fi police saga Ghost in the Shell, stand out is that these cops don’t blindly follow orders, and they don’t always accept their society’s definition of justice. They question and reflect on their actions and their role in society, and more excitingly place themselves at odds with “the system” when following orders would conflict with their core personal values.
That conflict takes center stage in Psycho-Pass, where Enforcers are labelled “latent criminals” and marked separate from mainstream society. They are at once very much a part of “the system”, as members of its law enforcement, while also being explicitly excluded from society because of Sybil’s judgment. It’s the stories of these Enforcers - the de facto “bad cops” - and the looming threat that “clear hued” Inspectors could become bad cops under the right circumstances, that allowed me to give Pyscho-Pass a pass, and what makes Psycho-Pass a lot more than just another future detective noir.
The Cyberfication of Public Safety
It’s hard to describe what makes the portrayal of artificial intelligence in Psycho-Pass interesting without massively spoiling its first season. Suffice to say that I think Psycho-Pass in 2012 was right to assume that the problems with AI in our present are likely to persist in the future and are also likely to be “solved” in much the same way that tech companies obfuscate the role of AI today. Likewise, Psycho-Pass grappled in 2012 with an issue that has been at the forefront of discussion around the role of AI in society today, namely AI ethics and especially how our own biases are programmed into supposedly unbiased systems.
The ‘Dominator’ weapons wielded by the police in the series have some interesting Star Trek qualities. Their power ranges from stun to atomize, depending on a target’s “crime coeffcient”. The trigger is similarly locked when pointed at a person with a low crime coefficient. An interesting question raised in the series is why have a trigger - why have human intervention - at all? It mirrors the development of self-driving cars, which still require a human in the driver’s seat. In Psycho-Pass the justice system has its own human drivers with their foot hovering over the brake.
Lastly, an interesting feature of the setting is the amount of personal data collected by the Sybil system, and the way that police make use of it during their investigations. Japnese citizens in Psycho-Pass are monitored in ways the NSA could only dream of.
There is a lot to love about Psycho-Pass. The setting and Inspector/Enforcer dynamic stand out in particular, and the central characters are well written individuals who develop in interesting ways throughout the series. The fact that there is simply so much of the show across its many episodes and movies testifies to the depth of its setting, because there are a great many stories that can be told using its original premise as a jumping off point.