Computer Says No

Jonathan Clements asks: is Sibyl faulty?

psychopass-coverAs part of the research for the PSYCHO-PASS anime film, director Naoyoshi Shiotani trained with Tamura Tactical Gear, a company that offers military re-enactments. “I asked them what was never done in movies,” he recalls, “and they told me that hardly anyone ever shows the wounded getting treated. I thought that was a brilliant idea.” It’s precisely the sort of attention to counter-intuitive detail that has made PSYCHO-PASS one of the anime hits of recent memory.

In the year 2113, Japan is kept safe by the Sibyl system, a super-powerful computer that uses on-the-spot brain scans to determine how likely someone is to even think of committing a crime. Anyone with criminal leanings can be terminated or imprisoned before they do wrong, except for a few “latent” criminals who are employed as enforcers to do the establishment’s dirty work. What could possibly go wrong? Well, as it turns out, everything, from deluded criminals whose psychological profile shows up as normal, to innocent people who inadvertently show signs of criminal tendencies. And that’s assuming that the system itself isn’t faulty or open to corruption. What happens when Amazon stops recommending things you might like, and rings the police instead to grass you up for liking too many films about terrorists?

“Intelligent people do not fit in,” warns writer Gen Urobuchi. “Because in that world knowledge is not regarded as something that makes people happy, so those who devote themselves to knowledge are criminals and drop-outs from the career track. The Sibyl society is a utopia where people become happy by putting a lid on knowledge.”

If that all sounds a uncomfortably prophetic about our post-truth, Brexit-obsessed world, PSYCHO-PASS is rooted firmly in the “If this goes on…” school of sci-fi, positing a world where big data is increasingly used to control the citizenry. Far from creating a safe and happy society, the concentration on pre-crime has led to a paranoid and fearful dystopia, where people are tarred with the brush of criminality not because of what they have done, but what a computer thinks they might. The series reflects a healthy scepticism about the reliability of statistical tests – a particular bugbear in Japan, where school examinations are often ridiculed for squeezing out originality of thought in favour of rote learning.

The reasoning behind the scenes at animation studio Production I.G is liable to be tied up in both the success and limitations of their former cash cow: the Ghost in the Shell franchise (affectionately known in fandom as GiTS). Ever since the 1995 movie, GiTS has periodically rebooted as a TV series, as spin-off movies and video works, the rights in its ownership becoming increasingly tangled. With the oncoming splash of the live-action Hollywood GiTS movie, starring Scarlett Johansson, the intellectual property is liable to become even more convoluted. Meanwhile, GiTS is based on a manga from the 1980s, arguably a whole generation behind the times. For a long while, Production I.G has injected fresh new sci-fi ideas into the franchise, but someone must have surely asked: why don’t we just invent our own?

The name to watch behind the scenes is supervising director Katsuyuki Motohiro, a man with only an oblique relationship to the anime world. The director of the live-action TV and cinema smash Bayside Shakedown, Motohiro is a master at crafting thoughtful policiers, and brings to the table a healthy disrespect for anime trends. It was him, one suspects, who was largely to be credited with the production’s stated “anti-moe” policy, refusing to fetishise cute female characters as a sop to an imagined audience of emotionally stunted fanboys. The result is leading lady Akane Tsunemori, who believes in the system even though she is confronted with its many flaws.

A PSYCHO-PASS animated feature went into production alongside the second TV season, offering a new plot in which the “successful” Sibyl system is experimentally installed in a South-East Asian country. Writers Gen Urobuchi and Makoto Fukami welcomed the chance to showcase how an idea that almost makes sense in strait-laced, conservative Japan could go right off the rails in an unstable dictatorship where all sides have better access to firearms. They also observed that Motohiro was on hand to push them in unexpected directions, such as forcing the cast to speak English even in the Japanese release, and insisting on a puzzle introduced in the first act. “He said,” remembers Urobuchi, “that if you want the audience to sit there for two hours, you have to offer them a mystery at the start.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #11, 2016.

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5 thoughts on “Computer Says No

  1. As part of the research for the PSYCHO-PASS anime film, director Naoyoshi Shiotani trained with Tamura Tactical Gear, a company that offers military re-enactments. “I asked them what was never done in movies,” he recalls, “and they told me that hardly anyone ever shows the wounded getting treated

    I disagree – this kind of statement indicates an utter lack of familiarity with European film, Soviet film, and even some Japanese film. But, I think that’s a fairly frequent issue in anime in general – directors thinking the are the first ones ever to come across an idea or image.

    • True, Mikhail. As noted in Anime: A History, the kind of things that directors say when trying to sell movies do not necessarily tally with objective reality or academic rigour.

  2. I actually watched the film for the first time last Saturday and I was sitting there thinking “I was reading recently about a film where the Japanese cast spoke a lot of English, but I haven’t looked up any reviews of PP…”; it took me a while to remember I’d read about it here.
    The field treatment scene stood out more as a result, but I can’t help remembering a not dissimilar scene in the original series so is he discrediting his own work there?

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