ANIME & MANGA - Article
17:00 - 3rd August 2014, by David West


In the Greece of ancient legend, Sybil was a prophetess blessed by the gods with the gift of foresight. Her visions of the future would arrive during fits of ecstasy and would be recorded for prosperity by her attendants. In later stories from the 4th century BCE, there was more than one prophetess recorded throughout the ancient world, each one given the honorary title of Sybil. In the future of Psycho-Pass, the Sybil System is the omniscient, prescient computer that governs and oversees human behaviour. The technology that powers the system roots out criminals by scanning citizens and grading their Psycho-Pass, a gauge of their mental health. A clear Psycho-Pass suggests a well-adjusted, productive member of society, but a cloudy Psycho-Pass indicates trouble ahead in form of a rising Crime Coefficient, the measure of an individual’s criminal intentions.

All citizens are encouraged to monitor their Psycho-Passes, but even if they don’t, they can be evaluated when they use public transport, enter government buildings, or even just when they walk down the street and pass a scanner. But when someone’s Psycho-Pass warns of imminent criminality, it’s up to the Public Safety Bureau’s Criminal Investigation Division to step in – and Akane Tsunemori has just joined their ranks.

Visions of the days to come where technology has assumed control of mankind’s destiny – with unforeseen consequences – or when the powers of law enforcement are unfettered by concepts of due process, are science fiction staples. The world that Akane inhabits in Psycho-Pass has many forebears. George Orwell’s seminal novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is a classic dystopian look at a world where the state monitors its citizens every waking movement and where people can be prosecuted for ‘thoughtcrimes’, just for merely imagining actions against state control.

The Dominators wielded by the Inspectors and Enforcers recall the dark future inhabited by the iconic British comic character Judge Dredd. The Judges in Dredd’s home of Mega-City One are authorised to act with complete authority over the citizens they police and have the power to determine guilt and to exact punishment without any additional oversight. “I am the law,” is Dredd’s snazzy catchphrase. To facilitate the apprehension of suspects and the elimination of criminals, Dredd is armed with a Lawgiver, a multi-purpose weapon that has different modes including Armour Piercing, Incendiary and High Explosive, akin to how the Dominator can choose to stun or kill its target depending on the level of their Crime Coefficient. Furthermore, just as the Dominators only work in the hands of their authorised users and with Sybil’s approval, each Lawgiver will only function in the grasp of its Judge – and it will explode should anyone else try to use it, taking out the would-be perpetrator in the process.

Sci-fi author Philip K. Dick’s highly influential novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? explores the divide between androids and humans. To root out androids hiding amongst the human population, bounty hunter Rick Deckard uses a test employing a device called a Voight-Kampff machine to measure the subject’s capacity for empathy – androids might be able to mimic human behaviour, but they do not experience empathy. As the Voight-Kampff machine measures empathy, the Dominators measure criminal intentions and the Psycho-Pass reveals mental health. Similarly, Deckard’s authorisation to eliminate fugitive androids on sight has parallels with the Inspectors and Enforcers dispatching criminals judged too aberrant for rehabilitation.

Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? is perhaps best known as the source material for Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner and another story by Philip K. Dick’s, Minority Report, provides the basis for a film of the same name starring Tom Cruise. In the movie, the police employ precognitive psychics to identity criminals before they can carry out their offences. Like Psycho-Pass, the film touches on issues of free will, although from a different perspective. Minority Report posits free will against determinism – can fate be changed when the future can be predicted? Psycho-Pass’s polarity is between free will and state control, the autonomy of the individual versus government. What they have in common is the issue of individual responsibility against the appeal of surrendering responsibility to an outside force – whether that’s an immaterial force like fate, or more concrete like the government.

Free will is usually considered to have two components – are human beings free agents? And secondly, are human beings morally responsible for their actions? These questions are at the heart of Psycho-Pass, where the Sybil System has absolved individuals of much of their capacity for making decisions, and where Inspectors rely completely on Sybil to determine the correct reaction to criminal behaviour.

Production IG, the studio behind Psycho-Pass, has a long history of exploring the potential impacts of technological advancement in anime. Mobile Police Patlabor, originally released in 1988, saw the police creating a new division specifically to deal with crimes relating to Labors – massively powerful humanoid machines created for industrial use. A new class of criminal, using the Labors to commit felonies, has to be countered with new measures from the authorities.

Every technological breakthrough seems to be accompanied by the use of these new technologies by criminals in order to flout the law. The response from law enforcement therefore must include these technologies to combat the surge in crime – from the use of police vehicles to literally drive down wrong-doers, to employing hackers to combat the boom in cybercrime. The seminal cyberpunk classic Ghost In The Shell, in 1995, looked at the impact of technology on mankind as people embrace the possibility of replacing their human bodies with cybernetic and virtual ones. This reliance on ever-more pervasive technology brings with it vulnerabilities, as hackers seek to take control of the very lives of their victims, taking identity theft to a higher, even more frightening level. Psycho-Pass touches on the concept of virtual identity theft when Akane and her colleagues look into the death of a popular online forum host, while the Enforcer Tomomi Masaoka has a robotic arm in another echo of the cybernetic citizens of Mamoru Oshi and Shirow Masamune’s Ghost In The Shell franchise. It seems the best ideas about the future may be the most timeless.

Psycho-Pass comes to DVD and Blu-ray on 1 September from Manga Entertainment.

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