Editorials · On Themes

Premonitions and Presentiment; the Illusion of Detective Work in Psycho-Pass

Instinct run by science; art by 九朗 at Pixiv.

Psycho-Pass lacks real detective work. And yes, this is a good thing.

“Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
“And he has Brain.”
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
There was a long silence.
“I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”

The Tao of Pooh

While the gift of foresight may sound like a godsend to the average person, especially to those employed in law enforcement, the ability itself tends to lead to some serious consequences in myth, literature, and film. Commonly tied to fate and ill omens, fortune-telling is often portrayed as a temporary, auspicious form of aid which often leads misfortune, death, or irrationality. Even worse, a developing dependence on these “fortunes” can often lead the protagonist or his allies to a state utter mindlessness and the unquestioning acceptance of these as authority figures. Instead of developing a personal code, those led by prophecies fall into the trap of self-imposed obedience, never questioning the plans which center around them.

Although the universe which Urobochi Gen created is rife with sprawling new-age metropolitan life, the world of Psycho-Pass is ultimately one defined by its main plot device and core component: the Sibyl System. The font of 22nd century technology, the Sibyl System is what ultimately decides the futures of the citizens. From their occupations to their status as criminals, the Sibyl System predicts it all. No longer is a human brain necessary or a personality required; the Sibyl System does all of the critical thinking for the populace. However, as hi-tech and technologically advanced as the Sibyl System is, the mechanism relies entirely on personality calculations and the gauging of a human being’s worth, things which our culture often perceives as uncountable, to predict the future. There is no “100% guarantee” to its predictions, and yet, the citizens gobble it up as if it were candy, allowing the system to decide their own careers and the future of predetermined criminals. It’s glorified fortune-telling.

The Sibyl System’s name is a rather direct hint towards the show’s core themes. Among the Greek and Roman world, Sibyls were special fortune tellers who, rarely moving from their home base, were known for the euphoric, rambling predictions, and were said to be envoys from the gods. Many fortune tellers in the ancient world are widely suspected of having received their prophecies by use of hallucinogens. In fact, the Oracle at Delphi is rather famous for having stood on a sulfur duct while reading out prophecies to visitors. Despite this, many famous leaders utilized the advice of the Sibyl’s, regardless of what was said due to the ancient people’s extremely superstitious nature. The relationship between the public in Psycho-Pass and the Sibyl System is rather similar: regardless of the suspicious advice or predictions fed to them from the Sibyl System, the public still chooses to follow the advice. Like the series of augurs and magicians before it, the Sibyl System only emits a false air of intelligence and fails to give legitimate reasons as to why such prophecies will occur.

Now, this poses an interesting juxtaposition between real detective work and calculated predictions. Naturally, detectives excel in the art of investigation (which is just… beyond obvious). However, detectives are only able to gather concrete evidence and formulate theories until after a crime has been committed since clearly, a crime cannot be investigated if it has yet to be committed. It’s not very difficult to see why the Crime Coefficient rating system is so appealing to the public. After all, if a crime can be predicted, it can be stopped. However, if the crime is stopped beforehand, there’s no real way to prove that the crime will in fact happen. Furthermore, before one actually commits a crime, he or she is by all means in innocent, meaning that the apprehension of such an individual is a clear violation of their rights. The conflict between moral obligations to the “innocent” and the unquestioning loyalty to a 22nd century prophet are the two themes which drive the anime.

They all suck at their jobs, bar a couple. Guess which ones!

All claims of knowledge rest upon four different, widely accepted “ways of knowing,” or in other words, how we “know” what we claim to “know.” Organized from most to least time-consuming, these “ways of knowing” are empiricism, logic, authority, and intuition. Detective work is largely based on the first two, empiricism and logic. Detectives gather information and observe phenomena with the use an investigative process (empiricism), and use logic to connect these events together in a rational, clean way in order to solve a mystery. Because physical evidence is gathered and reconstructed in a meaningful manner, detectives are able to link important events together, place criminals at the scene of the crime, and prove the innocence or guilt of the crime scene’s main suspects. However, the detectives in Psycho-Pass stray far from the norm and rely on the two other methods: the consulting of an authority figure and primal instinct and intuition. Unlike logic and empiricism, intuition and authority are far less reliable in an investigation. Unfortunately, these two methods suffer enormously if given a faulty source and can hardly be considered reasonable ways to investigate a crime.

Because of this, the characters in Psycho-Pass are actually pretty terrible detectives. 

First off, an authority figure such as the Sibyl System cannot be consulted in the line of detective work since it completely lacks physical involvement with the case. Ultimately, the Sibyl System is a prediction machine which uses Crime Coefficients to determine the possibility of a crime and not the crime itself. It is not an eye-witness; it is a seer.  There aren’t any investigative procedures to be done since crimes have yet to be committed. Although the Sibyl System is culmination of decades of technological advances, the machine is far too smart to understand anything, and makes preemptive calculations to gauge human nature and measure the worth of human beings. On top of this, its predictions dissuade independent thinking within the populace by promoting conformity and reliance on the machine.

Among the detectives in Unit 1, Ginoza stands out as the lone voice of the Sibyl System. Of all the characters seen so far, he’s clearly the most extreme: he’s an automaton, completely dependent on the Crime Coefficients to make solid judgments of other suspects. His hatred is entirely focused on those with high Crime Coefficients, making him rather ineffective when gathering evidence in the field. Since Ginoza’s loyalty has ultimately made him subservient, and since the Sibyl System lacks the ability to give eyewitness accounts, he is ineffective in the field.

However, completely instinctive and linear thinking is also heavily dissuaded, as the series also gives focus to one of the main things that the Sibyl System lacks: intuition.  The Enforcers specialize in utilizing their high levels of intuition and human instinct to riddle out crimes. In episode three, we see Kogami’s and Masaoka’s intuition as the main draws to their detective abilities. While Masaoka uses his instincts effectively and waits for an observable phenomena, Kogami takes this to an extreme and forces a result from the factory worker to speed up the detection process. Instead of using proper, orthodox methods, Kogami and the rest of the Enforcers use instinct to solve their crimes, true to their name as the “dogs” of Unit 1.

While intuition is fairly useful because it allows us to tap into “emotional wisdom” and provides the quickest solutions, it’s fairly counterproductive in the line of investigation. The goal of all forms of scientific observation is objectivity, and crime investigation is no exception. As we all know, intuition is highly subjective and dependent on the individual and whether we learn intuition is not something which has been debated since the days of Descartes (Cogita ergo sum) and John Locke (tabula rasa). While psychological tendencies are important to note in a case, having a physical murder weapon or trace of DNA will almost always be far more valuable to an investigation. Regardless of how good the instinct of the enforcers is, they still lack the ability (and willpower) to gather evidence and string together logical, rational conclusions. This all comes into play during the club scene in episode 4: instead of closing off the exits and taking the time evaluate the suspects at hand, the “dogs” decimate the crowd with their Dominators and attempt to sniff out the criminal.

We’ll leave it at this.

Finally, all forms of reasoning relies heavily on the mental state of the thinker himself. The ultimate goal of an observer is pure, unbridled objectivity, untouched by the subjective filters. When we observe the observer, we must question their motivations, their state of mind, and their biases. Remember: even the detective can be the felon, and the point of view from which the show is presented to us, matters.  Psycho-Pass’s police force is riddled with dogs like Kogami, desperate for excitement and the drawing of blood, and machine men such as Ginoza, unable to think for themselves.  Such men are too biased, too unfit, and too incompetent to serve as detectives, no matter their skill with a gun.

This is why a girl as woefully average as Akane is introduced as the beginning of change for our police force. Free from the Sibyl System and wise enough to reason on her own, she makes her own decisions, independent from gaps in logic, both internal and external. An individual with average traits and balanced abilities, she chose her own path as an Inspector and remains as the single link to our generation, only inhibited by her lack of experience. In an age where everything is decided by an extreme, she is a progressive, a thinker.

Stray Snippets

  • Just for the record, yes, I do believe the shocking lack of detective work on both sides is an intentional ploy by Urobochi Gen. It’s a rather interesting way to spin the series and I definitely don’t think he’s an idiot.
  • I happen to like the show a lot. Moral dilemmas are always interesting to me.
  • Words which start with “P” are beautiful.

4 thoughts on “Premonitions and Presentiment; the Illusion of Detective Work in Psycho-Pass

  1. “Just for the record, yes, I do believe the shocking lack of detective work on both sides is an intentional ploy by Urobochi Gen. It’s a rather interesting way to spin the series and I definitely don’t think he’s an idiot.”

    I’d contend that this has long become sort of a trademark of Urobuchi’s writing by now. Intentional or not, Urobuchi has the tendency to script his characters as devices toward making statements about the kinds of settings he builds. I can only account for Madoka, Fate/Zero, and to a lesser extent Phantom of Inferno (I haven’t finished this one yet), but the similarity shared between those three is that the characterization in all of them consists almost entirely of the disillusioning Urobuchi’s world-building inflicts on their respective cast, and it looks like it’ll happen here in Psycho-Pass as well.

    The way I see it, the lack of straightforward and competent detective work in Psycho-Pass, if Urobuchi’s past works are any indication, fits right in line with his writing style. It was never just about fighting witches in Madoka, executing Inferno’s objectives in Phantom, or obtaining the Holy Grail in Fate/Zero; it was about their motivations for doing so and how their respective worlds shaped their views (almost always for the worse). The weaknesses the detectives in Psycho-Pass exhibit can be seen as reflections of side effects of the Sybil System itself; the cast so far has been almost completely defined by how their perceptions compare and contrast with how the Sybil System works. Yeah, they don’t make for good detectives in the conventional sense. But Madoka had naive girls that were corrupted by the cyclical world of mahou shoujo, Fate/Zero had chivalrous knights that were slapped in the face by the Holy Grail War’s deceptive nature, and Phantom had blank slate characters that were turned into deadly assassins by the mafia underworld. So long as Urobuchi can use his characters to communicate the flaws of the Sybil System, I don’t think he’ll mind compromising the actual competency of his characters a little.

    And bleh, this comment got away from me a bit.

    1. Just as you said, a long standing criticism (and boon) of Urobochi Gen’s work is his tendency to favor the worlds that the characters inhibit over the actual characters themselves. While I also can’t speak for Phantom, so far I’ve felt that he’s done a rather solid job at using extreme, heavily idealistic characters to address flaws in a just as heavily jaded setting. The characters and the worlds that they exist in tend to be heavily tilted towards an extreme instead of a moral grey, contributing towards the ethical dilemmas that his shows often present. Neutral forces are far more sparse in his stories (there’s usually only one), but he often makes the rest of the characters often have to confront the consequences that their lopsided world views often bring. Unfortunately, Urobochi only tends to express this by making his characters suffer.

      Luckily however, Urobochi hardly shies away from the themes (usually ethical in nature) that come with the territory and uses the extreme characters to promote conflict along those lines. Hell, the most common motif in Urobochi’s writing is time and again, sacrifice. Both Fate/Zero and Madoka centered entirely around giving up one life for a million in return and the repercussions from making some of the impossible ethical decisions that the characters are forced into. And quite frankly, Urobochi often tends to succeed more often than not because he covers both sides, painting his worlds grey rather than black and white (although I do believe that he has a definitive stance on the ethical dilemmas he presents). A lot of this tends to be accompanied by prolific use of light and shadow in scenes where characters are forced into making such decisions.

  2. Sorry for the uber-late comment. I found your blog recently and find it thought-provoking.

    Whereas many play the devil’s advocate when supporting the Sibyl system, I personally would promote the existence of such a system. Just to make it clear, I don’t think the system is wrong, just that humans are not as different as the Sibyl system claims they are.

    If you don’t mind, I separate the Sibyl system into two parts that the article seems to indicate: the prophet and the investigator. The prophet gives one a prescriptive account of how one should go about life: Career is the biggest one. The investigator part of Sibyl manifests itself through the crime coefficient that gives authority to the enforcers to use their dominators. Is this a false dichotomy given the enforcers’ crime coefficients determine their life? I don’t think so because the crime coefficient does not only take into humans’ limitations, but also their current status (i.e. stress, intent to kill) For sake of making this comment not too long, I would like to focus on the prophet aspect of the Sibyl system.

    Being limited by Sibyl, the article claims, leads to a loss of personality because the person being limited will not be thinking critically. Becoming a mindless robot is pretty bad, I agree with that. But I don’t think becoming mindless follows from being limited. Being mindless for me would also be imagining myself as an aristocratic snob, when I clearly am plebian scum! As opposed to traveling on a glorified journey to explore oneself, the Sibyl system tells me outright that I couldn’t survive in the snobbery of the aristocratic world. I’m actually being mindful and developing my own personality knowing my limits and capabilities. As such I think the only true investigator is Ginoza. He knows he lacks the intuition of the enforcers. Thus, he thinks critically in a limited sense: he uses the crime coefficient and concrete evidence before bagging the criminal. On the other hand, Kogami is an excellent failure: he doesn’t come to terms with himself that he changed irrevocably with Sasayama’s death. Instead of following Sibyl given role to him, he imagines himself still as an investigator. That’s being mindless, since an investigator strives for an objective perspective, something Kogami will not be able to do. Being limited is not as bad as the article puts it.

    Does that mean I would love to live in the world of Sibyl the prophet? I’m sure there are genes that correlates to my IQ and empathy levels, but instead of focusing on those, the prophet measures aptitude using tests and quantifying personalities, which are very much subject to the environment one lives in and the values one is subjected with, thus, not truly the limitations Sibyl claims they are.

    1. Very rarely do I see members in an aristocracy or leader figures as mindless, anime or otherwise, since they at least have their own goals and ambitions. They may oftentimes be stupid, outstandingly incompetent, or have incredibly malicious intents (which is obviously, bad), but that’s beside the point. It is always the subjects who follow these tyrants and enforce their laws out fear, blind loyalty, or tradition who give them their power. The dillema presented in Psycho-Pass is classic Thoreau, really. Society in general has lost their autonomy to a literal (and figurative) machine ruler.

      This is what is happening in Psycho-Pass and to a rather extreme degree: the detectives are no longer skeptical and have resorted to unquestioning loyalty. The lack of skepticism is fatal to those in the line of detective work. While following leadership is unquestionably a part of human nature and can lead to the disposal of ethical constraints (in social psychology, Stanely Milgram’s electro shock experiment and Zimbardo’s prison experiment are rather infamous for testing this), Psycho-Pass invites the viewers to be skeptical about a clearly faulty system and resist the urge to conform. Psycho-Pass willingly extends an invitation to the viewers and asks them to think for themselves, instead of using a machine proxy for thought and asks this through intentionally exposing the flaws in it’s characters and setting. It’s nonconformity at it’s finest.

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