Imagine a world where your thoughts and emotions were no longer your own under the watchful eye of a tyrannical system—a world in which the state of your mental health could be enough to label you a criminal for life. Such is the world illustrated in the anime crime-thriller TV series Psycho-Pass. In this futuristic setting crime prevention has become more heavy-handed and exact with the advancement of a technological system called Sybil, a super-computer that acts as judge and executioner for people who demonstrate the psychological potential for crime. To appease the machine’s algorithm, citizens anxiously groom their personalities, avoiding stress and negative experiences—essentially becoming slaves to the oppressive technology. Men and women in the Criminal Investigation Bureau (WPSCIB), tasked with protecting the safety of civilians, regard the system like an omnipotent god, obliging the Sibyl System’s judgment even when it means the incarceration or annihilation of civilians who have not yet committed a crime but display a high criminal potential. Instead of merely serving as a tool to maintain peace and promote national wellness the technology’s authority supersedes human institutions of law, undermines the human experience, and denies the potential for growth.
The prevalence and power of technology makes itself evident when we first become acquainted with the high-tech Japanese city. With a gritty noir style the opening scene of episode one paints a bleak picture of the nighttime cityscape with high contrast lighting and cuts to ominous back alleys. An areal view reveals a mass of moving cars followed by a shot of robot drones monitoring the streets for potential criminals. By contrast, the initial lack of human presence illustrates the dominance of technology. When crowds of people eventually do appear huddled around a crime scene, a downpour of rain obscures their facial expressions conveying a lack of individuality. Hiding behind holograms of large child-faced dolls, the security drones display their authority, successfully blocking the crowd away from the crime scene. The line of robots forming a barrier in front of the unorganized crowd of dazed humans denotes the efficiency and repressive nature of the robots while also signifying the powerlessness of the people who comply with the robots’ commands. The composition demonstrates that like caged cattle the people are fenced in, repressed as they are pushed to the edge of the frame by the holograms towering over them. The arrival of the protagonist and newly appointed Crime Investigator, Akane Tsunemori further elucidates this point as she rushes into the scene before bowing to the robot—an apology as well as a sign of submission. In the absence of a legal system, Sybil reigns supreme.
As the show progresses, it becomes clear that in order to maintain a safe and ideal society the officers of the law have become tools of technology, relinquishing their own judgment in favor of the Sybil System's black and white system of justice. If the computer judges someone to be a latent criminal, no matter how upstanding their lives, it orders the removal of that individual from society by either lethal or non-lethal means. The Sybil System exacts this power through Enforcers, latent criminals forced to apprehend other latent criminals, and Investigators like Tsunemori who keep the Enforcers in check. Arriving to the crime scene in a paddy wagon and kept on a tight leash like prisoners, the Enforcers are regarded as subhuman and “bankrupt of moral character” despite appearing normal—a consequence of the Sybil computer’s tyranny.
The computer demonstrates a lack of moral bias that although standardized, can hardly be called just. Having outlawed real guns and deeming human beings (even police officers) too unpredictable and irrational, the Sybil System leaves no room for human error. Instead Enforcers and Investigators wield weapons called Dominators, which have a direct connection to the Sibyl system and only fire when the Sybil system decides an individual is a threat. As its name suggests, the Dominator denotes technology’s dominion over human willpower, rationality, and choice. It becomes apparent that the Sybil system substitutes cold logic for human compassion when the Dominator decides a rape victim’s crime coefficient is a potential threat, ordering Tsunemori and her colleagues to kill the woman in the same way they killed her attacker. Tsunemori, the most empathetic character in the series, appears trapped in a tight frame, which restricts her movement as she watches her peers mindlessly obey Sibyl’s commands. While the police officers can choose whether or not to pull the trigger, not doing so is a violation of societal norms and the nature of their work, and therefore a criminal offense. Consequently, the inability to decide the fate of those they aim to protect and the stigma against utilizing their own moral judgment hinders the Crime Investigation Bureau from exacting justice. As the series progresses Tsunemori must reconcile her compassion and earnest desire to protect innocent lives with a system she knows is a necessary evil.