No Rest for the Wicked: Criminality and justice in Psycho-Pass

By: Luisa Aparisi-França September 11, 20200 Comments
A woman with a panicked expression holds a gun at the ready.

Spoilers for the first two seasons of Psycho-Pass.

Content Warning: Discussion of police brutality, carceral abuse

Psycho-Pass is a show about living under an authoritarian system that judges people based on how likely they might be to commit a crime. This system, Sibyl, was implemented after the fall of Japan’s economy in the 22nd century in the pursuit of a utopian society. The Sibyl System is what turns the wheels of justice, education, and even decides the professions of every Japanese citizen.

By channeling the diverse insights from a network of living brains, the Sibyl System also monitors the measure of every citizen’s potential criminality, called their “psycho-pass.” If a person’s psycho-pass shows a higher level of stress than lawfully allowed, normally in the hundreds, then that person will either be classified as a latent criminal and be confined for life or, in extreme cases, be cleared for execution by the police. 

The issue with the Sibyl System is that people are mostly judged for their potentially perceived criminality and not their actions, which means that an invisible caste system exists. Some people are born with higher than average psycho-passes and face discrimination. Others, such as Inspectors, the in-universe police, gradually run the risk of becoming latent criminals themselves, since in order to hunt criminals down, they need to think like them. Ironically, the only way out of permanent confinement for fallen Inspectors is to become an Enforcer—a subordinate class of law enforcement tasked with handling dangerous cases. But these issues don’t stop at the police station. A civilian’s chances of becoming a latent criminal increase dramatically if they’re confronted by police and evaluated as a potential threat, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Two cute looking police avatars stop a man asking to measure his Psycho-Pass in a mall..

It’s clear from the start that the Sibyl System is responsible for much of society’s misery, even if it does maintain order. Its inflexible attitude toward mental health and one-size-fits-all approach to criminalizing high levels of stress needlessly punishes a disproportionate number of innocent people while also leaving a few dangerous individuals free to fly under the radar.

Discipline and Punish

There are those under Sibyl’s watchful eye who can maintain perfect psycho-passes while committing murder. Known as asymptomatic criminals, they move invisibly in the shadows of society. Naturally, the very system that seeks to hunt them down to bring them to justice also wishes to incorporate their minds into the seats of power due to their “unique” thought processes. 

The initial reason given for this is that Sibyl doesn’t judge asymptomatic criminals for their actions but rather for the potential contributions that their brains will make to society. However, this directly contradicts Sibyl’s entire system of judging others before they act. The truth is that Sibyl wants to absorb anomalies such as asymptomatic criminals, because it can’t solve for its own systemic imperfections.

Close up of Shogo Makishima, a man with white hair and a bandage over his forehead. Subtitle: ... you're telling me to become a member of the Sibyl System?

Makishima Shogo, the main villain in the first season of Psycho-Pass, is an asymptomatic criminal who tries to take down Sibyl. Lyrical and well-read, Makishima is a master manipulator, managing to coerce others into committing acts of terrorism. He does this in an attempt to strip Sibyl of its control by trying to provoke a revolution. As someone who can’t be judged by Sibyl no matter what he does, Makishima is free to do as he pleases, but alone in his freedom. Because of this, he despises the Sibyl System and wants to destroy it so that people can once again experience free will. 

What’s unnerving, however, is how similar Makishima is to the very system that he wants to overthrow. Despite posing as an anarchist, Makishima relishes control too much to be someone who doesn’t believe in government. He likes to play the Old Testament God.

In fact, being well-read, Makishima is constantly quoting passages from actual landmark texts that he likes to twist for his own uses. In a conversation with Professor Saiga Jouji, Kogami, a rogue Enforcer hunting Makishima, is asked to imagine what Makishima would talk about at the dinner table if present. Makishima’s imagined form then mentions Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish—specifically the concept of the Panopticon, a prison where a few guards can watch every single prisoner in the building due to the angled design allowing for all to be in full view. 

While Makishima considers the Sibyl System to be like this elaborate prison—a few hundred minds behind a curtain controlling millions—what’s never mentioned is a key distinguishing feature of criminals and prisons. 

A man in a prison cell scribbles on the walls madly.

While both criminals and prisons can be inherently cruel, all prisons are cruel, while not all criminals are.  It’s easy to see why prisoners are judged as worse than Sibyl, hidden away as they are behind closed doors (be they tactile or other metaphorical forms of less tangible restriction): the question is one of agency. Sibyl has the power to choose the information that it shows to its citizens. This filtering of information shows that Sibyl knows right from wrong—it just chooses to not hold itself accountable.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault traces the almost sociopathic evolution of the justice system. Beginning with the gruesome public execution of Robert-François Damiens, the last man drawn and quartered in France for attempted regicide, Foucalt compares Damiens’ tortured death to Leon Faucher’s neat house rules for prisoners in Paris. The one thing that he found that they had in common was “the disappearance of torture as a public spectacle.”

This was the systemic change that took place in the late 18th century—a seismic shift in how justice was meted out around the world. Sibyl is no different, even if Psycho-Pass takes place in the 22nd century. Foucault himself put it best when he wrote:

“Punishment had gradually ceased to be a spectacle. And whatever theatrical elements it still retained were now downgraded, as if the functions of the penal ceremony were gradually ceasing to be understood, as if this rite that ‘concluded the crime’ was suspected of being in some undesirable way linked with it.” 

A brain in a glass case amidst a yellow sea of other brain cases. Subtitle: This is... the true form of the Sibyl System!

By not allowing the public to see the gruesome acts of governments, people can’t judge them. This is the exact tactic used by Sibyl—the control of information to make sure that the general population doesn’t suspect it of wrongdoing. Makishima may think that he is better than Sibyl, but he uses people to commit crimes in the same way. He never gets his hands dirty publicly. While Makishima manipulates his followers, Sibyl uses Enforcers to carry out its dirty work. In this way, both Makishima and the Sibyl System put themselves on pedestals, touting themselves as liberators simply because they’ve managed to side-step the guilt that they make others carry.

Foucault draws a fine line out of this guilt. Guilt is the whole reason that institutions such as prisons obscure information—it hides the need for accountability. Foucault reasons that people grew wary of public executions because:

“It was as if the punishment was thought to equal, if not to exceed, in savagery the crime itself, to accustom the spectators to a ferocity from which one wished to divert them, to show them the frequency of crime, to make the executioner resemble a criminal, judges murderers, to reverse roles at the last moment, to make the tortured criminal an object of pity or admiration.”

In drawing these conjectures, Foucault exposes the guilty conscience of legal systems. And in quoting Foucault to judge Sibyl, Makishima hypocritically doesn’t acknowledge the blood on his own hands. By making punishment private, Sibyl can maintain its benevolent appearance even as it has a hand in orchestrating violence. In this sense, they are right to try to recruit Makishima, because they are one and the same.

An unsettling close up of an old woman in glasses' face. Subtitle: The time has also come for you to take your proper place!

A Question of Ethics and Accountability

The villains in the series present an ethical dilemma for Psycho-Pass: although their methods are gruesome, they still have a point. If the Sibyl System makes choice obsolete, then people must bring back choice by first razing a rotten system to the ground. Makishima and Kamui Kirito, another villain, must therefore use another alternative that predates choice: reaction. 

Although reaction is linked more to instinct than thought, once someone learns that they need to react, they become vigilant. They murder and mutilate. There’s a pervasive idea throughout Psycho-Pass that nothing can be achieved without blood. While it’s important to not demand that protesters be civil when their governments are trying to kill them, as in the protests that flared up across the world in response to the police who murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN, Makishima and Kamui aren’t protesters exactly. They’re at the crux of vigilante and messiah, a dangerous, self-inflated combination. 

Makishima Shogo was a quick fix for the Sibyl System: either join or die—and die he did. However, Kamui Kirito posed much harder questions about society and accountability.

A young man with heterochromia looks down in a dark room with his nose upturned. Subtitle: Sibyl... can you see our color?

Kamui was a child who became the sole survivor of a plane crash while out on a school field trip. Since all were presumed dead, a greedy pharmaceutical company claimed his body, deciding to use it for a near-impossible surgery they had invented. They implanted parts of the one hundred and eighty-four passengers who had died in the plane crash into Kamui’s body, and took apart his brain, sewing it back up with the brains of seven different people. As he healed, Kamui, miraculously unscarred, began to be disregarded by the psycho-pass scanners in the street, because the Sibyl System was not equipped to judge anything that resembled itself, such as a person who was, in fact, multiple entities.

Multiple entities mean multiple psycho-passes; but how can you kill one guilty conscience if there’s an innocent one worth saving in their midst? This brings up a tantalizing slew of moral and ethical questions. Are members of a government complicit in a crime even if they didn’t vote in favor of the horrors they couldn’t prevent? Whatever the answer, they’re certainly still tainted by association.

A group of people surround a young man. They walk together down a dark corridor. Subtitle: It's not necessarily true that you'll get the answer you want.

People Protect the Law—Not Systems

At the heart of the madness is Inspector Tsunemori Akane. Both compassionate and analytical, Tsunemori is fiercely guided by her commitment to justice and, in doing so, holds equal responsibility for maintaining a corrupt system like Sibyl afloat, while tempering its destructive force with her level-headedness. She doesn’t always listen to Sibyl, and refuses to shoot crime victims whose stress makes their psycho-passes shoot up way past normal levels. Recognizing her loyalty to justice and her predictable and stable traits, Sibyl decides to reveal its true nature to Inspector Tsunemori. In her, they see an anchor, and much like the aides of present-day leaders, Tsunemori thereafter spends her time cleaning up after a narcissistic form of government too stubborn to acknowledge its own limitations.

Naturally, Tsunemori is constantly holding Sibyl’s feet to the fire. When Makishima kills someone in front of her and she can’t shoot him with a Dominator (the guns powered by Sibyl to mete out executions) because his psycho-pass reads as perfectly calm, she begins to question Sibyl’s judgment even further. And when the Sibyl System eagerly orders her to hunt down and kill Kamui, Akane resists until she manages to help Kamui make his own judgement of Sibyl. Kamui does this by hacking into a Dominator and evaluating the psycho-pass of a brain within the Sibyl System that belonged to the doctor responsible for his life-altering surgery. Kamui ends up shooting the brain, whose individual psycho-pass qualified as a terrible criminal.

A line of people, most of them ghosts, point a gun at the Sibyl System brains with a dominator. A young woman in a police inspector uniform stands by behind them.

Only after this is Tsunemori ready to execute Kamui for his own crimes, which are similar to Makishima’s in murderous self-aggrandizement. Seeing that Tsunemori is willing to hold anyone and everyone accountable, Sibyl agrees to kill off the brains in the system who were evil in their past life, vowing to develop its faculties to the point that it will eventually be able to judge itself under its own algorithm. 

But Sibyl only takes action when it’s under direct threat. The series of events is exactly what happens when governments backtrack after making mistakes. What does it say about the Psycho-Pass universe, and us as a society, when governments worry more about protecting killers than cleaning up their messes back at headquarters? Sibyl holds itself to a different set of rules than those it expects people to follow. There are always double standards applied to those who are in power versus those who are not, and we should be quick to note that difference.

Even Inspector Tsunemori, who prizes order above most other things, acknowledges that order and justice aren’t the same:

“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 people’s feelings are the law.”

A young woman, Akane Tsunemori, faces away from an older woman sitting behind a desk. Subtitle: It is people who determine society's future.

By pledging to do the hard work of accountability from within a corrupt structure, Inspector Tsunemori is making the best of a tough situation, as she would never be allowed to live if she decided to leave the police department with so many state secrets anyway. In a hellish world, she is certainly one of its better angels. But what would have happened, if the police had gone against Sibyl? They were Sibyl’s hands after all, reaching what Sibyl could not. Saying that they were simply carrying out orders isn’t good enough to give brutality a pass. 

The dismantling of the Sibyl System by the police themselves would have been less (publicly) bloody and potentially have saved many civilians who were used as pawns by Kamui and Makishima. After all, Inspectors know firsthand how quickly they can transition from respected detectives to lowly Enforcers if they’re on the force long enough. The entire show revolves around the internal conflicts of these policemen who don’t want to follow Sibyl but fear being killed if they show a lack of loyalty or become too aware of Sibyl’s immoral actions. 

The show leaves viewers with questions similar to those that we ask of our own society. What is freedom if only a few are privy to the unfiltered facts? How can we fully trust governments and those who act in their name if they’re as full of failings as we are, with the difference that they’re holding the gun?

Brain jars are filled with a dark fog. Subtitle: And then, we will discard any elements that incerase our Crime Coefficient.

The truly scary thing about Sibyl’s justice system is that its system of oppression is created in part through the cultivation of image. It’s not that the bright (and dangerously dark) minds harvested to power Sibyl are necessarily more fit to lead than others. It’s that Sibyl knows that in order to lead, its image must be grander than that of an average person, and yet still innocuous enough that people don’t question it, hence its invisibility. 

Naturally, admitting fault detracts from the strength of this manicured image, so Sibyl doesn’t hold itself accountable. This shows how utterly incompetent Sibyl is despite all of its implemented analysis and surveillance. Sibyl’s deluded belief that it is a perfect thing edging towards peak perfection shows that the point of any system isn’t to change but to metastasize. Apples don’t fall far from trees, and neither do the toxic byproducts of  brutal systems. Whatever is put in place will grow for decades—centuries even—and undoing the damage is the real work. 

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