I’m sitting outside of Au Bon Pain on the morning of Black Friday, doing something that resembles blogging. The whole scene felt somewhat surreal and out of character for me; that is, until I watched this week’s Psycho-Pass. I’m glad that I had already gotten that whole eating deal taken care of, because that was gruesome. Every time I watch this show, it seems to pre-empt my mental state and drag me back to reality – and that’s precisely what the first two parts of the Ouryuu arc provided.
If the first few set of crime cases were foundational in our understanding of the Sibyl system and its limitations, the producers really stepped on the plot pedal for the last two episodes. Shougo Makashima’s role as the primary antagonist and the mastermind behind many of the crimes we have seen has been cemented. Even though Mr. Makashima has enjoyed so little screen time thus far, he has the air of the one of the most compelling villains that I have seen to date. The theme of moral ambiguity, when characters perform drastic and “evil” acts in order to carry out their own ideal of good, has become a bit ubiquitous as of late but rarely performed well. An example of fairly well done moral ambiguity is the Spiral King and the Antispirals from Gurren Lagann, who brutally suppress human growth to protect them from unwittingly eradicating themselves.
On the other hand, Makashima does not seem to be a morally ambiguous character. His role is fairly unprecedented, as he serves as a catalyst that empowers those who have the willpower to rebel against society but lack the means to do so, rather than carrying out crimes first-hand. Makashima appears to have an extensive understanding of medicine and philosophy, an also seems be an aesthete who tries to bring out the darkest passions of the human mind in a society that actively suppresses them. As a result of these qualities, he is singlehandedly a foil for the Sibyl system and its products. During the first few episodes, we were asked as to why people still committed crimes even though they would be quickly brought to justice. Even though we were provided with relatively unconnected points of critique in regards to both the nature of human behavior and the flaws of Sibyl, perhaps better questions are to ask why such a flawed system was implemented in the first place, and why there seem to be so few detractors within that society.
I will try to devote time to providing my answers for these questions, as well as exploring the philosophical, artistic, and medical themes presented in these two episodes. Finally, this is a great time to step back and consider whether or not Psycho-Pass succeeds in offering a critique of modern society.
At the beginning of this show, Psycho-Pass appeared to have two major lines of conflict. I expressed some apprehension about Kogami as the main character because of his status as enforcer, out of fear this his impetuous actions would result in fairly innocent people like Tsunemori getting killed off. While this fear still could become reality, Kogami’s personality and history have been developed much since then. Kogami’s fall from grace due to his dedication to his sense of justice not only redeems himself as a believable character with whom it is possible to empathize, but also places the spotlight of moral decisionmaking upon the Enforcers. Despite being at a lower caste, these individuals bear the brunt of the faults of the Sibyl system. They bear the pain and sorrow of a system in which Inspectors can carry out their duties without once considering the morality of what they are performing, and as a result, have much more legitimacy in choosing their actions. Kogami contends with his guilt over the death of Sasayama, an Enforcer under his command who was murdered by his very target. Instead of dropping the case, he furiously continued to attempt to gain a lead on the man responsible for Sasayama’s death, and his rising Psycho-Pass rendered him unsuitable for Inspector work.
Normally, actions such as fighting for one’s friends are considered laudable acts, even if vengeance is considered as a poor motive. Especially because Kogami seemed to be motivated by compassion, we should be reasonably concerned about how the power structure in Psycho-Pass actually maps onto the morality of members in those groups. At this point, both Tsunemori and Ginoza are up in the air; Tsunemori simply doesn’t get any chances to act independently in making her impact. Ginoza seems to be excessively cautious and shackled by textbook “rationalism,” to the point that he comes across as incompetent. If anything, however, Ginoza cannot be said to be any more rational than the Enforcers that he governs. If Kogami’s moral character, Kagari’s efforts to enjoy as rich a life as possible, and Karanomori’s intelligence (and perhaps insert yuri-goggles here!) are generalizable characters of Enforcers and some “latent criminals,” it’s conceivable that these criminalized individuals are the most human of all. They have the most complete view of the world, including an emotional and sentimental aspect that gets selected out by Sibyl.
Enter Makashima, an individual who has been said to understand Kogami better than any man (and vice versa), and conducts in a manner that seems to champion those who are marginalized by Sibyl. In the Johnny Mnemonic case, Makashima’s involvement broke a decree of silence that preserved the overall mental health of an inhumane drone production facility by subjecting one individual to extreme bullying and violence. Of course, we don’t know what would have happened if there was no way of actually committing the murders (presumably, the role of scapegoat really would have been transferred to someone else), but there is reasonable evidence to believe that Makashima doesn’t just stir up chaos for the sake of doing so – he legitimately feels that Sibyl is creating an unsustainable and undesirable dystopia.
This idea is further corroborated by Makashima’s “favoritism” towards Midou Masatake, the murderer in the previous arc who sought to change the world with influential online representations of timeless platonic ideals, or paragons of virtues. Even though Makashima’s role as someone who connects motive and means is readily identified by Kogami, this relationship is perhaps a bit more cut-and-dry than what Makashima is aiming for. Instead, we see a kind of symbiotic relationship in which Makashima empowers others who feel oppressed and powerless against Sibyl. Actually, it might be more like parasitism since those people almost invariably end up dying at the hands of the police (but not before spreading their ideas). This role becomes much more concrete in this arc.
Ouryou Rikako is an adored ojou-sama at a prestigious girls’ school, and the daughter of a formerly famous painter who despite being a moral man in private, depicted extremely graphic scenes using dismembered bodies as a motif. According to Makashima, the disjoint between one’s public and private images among artists is common, because the artist is able to forward a social agenda or criticism through his work. In the case of Ouryou Rouichi, his use of the dismembered bodies of young women represented the cruelty inherent within the human mind, and bringing those horrors to the surface of one’s mind would allow open discourses about empathy. However, with the advent of Sibyl and Psycho-Pass, the need for that discourse was replaced with therapy to control one’s mental state. Instead of struggling through the cognitive dissonance created by images of cruelty, people could fall back onto the computer system. They no longer had to make moral decisions – Sibyl would make those decisions for them. They no longer had to question what the conditions for just action were – Sibyl would affirm their beliefs as long as they had a healthy mind. Rouichi accepted this conception of social peace, and as a result, lost his drive to continue his artwork. He embraced Sibyl and attempted to utilize medicine and technology to ease his own doubts and struggles, and eventually fell into a vegetative state as a result of his growing addiction and dependence upon therapy.
“This disease is serenity, a form of death that people wish for.”
The fleeting nature of beauty, and of life itself, was a theme that was pervasive in much of the 6th episode. Rikako was portrayed as sociopathic when she seemed like she enjoyed committing murders because it was beautiful and aesthetic. The impetus for her actions seemed to be a desire to capture and idealize beauty in a pure form that would be untarnished by time, and her approach in doing so was quite literal. Indeed, while she may still be a bit crazy, we now have significantly more background as to why she goes to such lengths to produce her art. At the core of this discourse is the interaction between the artist’s visions of the world and the society that encapsulates it. More broadly speaking, there is an extensive effort to define what it means to live – for the artist, one’s life might be broken down into the talent and work that makes up his identity. The other aspect would be the message that the artist dedicates his life to portraying, the impetus for his career.
In this sense, Makashima recognizes that Rouichi may have been killed twice by the advent of Sibyl and Psycho-Pass. First, the ability to quantify one’s psychological state and then provide treatment based upon that analysis was so successful in correcting morality on a broad level that it invalided his method. No longer did people have to face their own nature – that entire process could be mechanically bypassed. Rouichi’s first death was the shattering of the basis of his career: invalidation of his ideals, and of the artwork in which he forwarded his ideals.
At this point, Psycho-Pass revisits an old component of the disciplinary system that was not discussed in detail. If you recall, latent criminals are not punished for criminal tendencies, but rather for a refusal to obtain therapy in a controlled manner. In the case of the rape victim in the first episode, we were shown that more standard counseling type therapies were still applied with great success. In addition, however, we now know that the disciplinary therapy can involve heavy drug usage as well. The danger of relying on such a therapy is similar to the gradual loss of moral decision-making, in that they are extreme mental painkillers. Instead of feeling stress that would result in higher Psycho-Pass conefficients, people can induce relaxation through drug use. This dependency is called “eustress deficiency syndrome” and leads to a cascade of psycho-physiological changes that culminate in coma and death by heart attack.
First, addiction on stress therapy may be quite prevalent. In the same way alcoholism and drug addiction in modern society is often the unfortunate byproduct of social pressure or coping mechanisms, many addictions can be explained by when a behavior or substance gets causally linked to a desirable outcome or mental state. In other words, if somebody feels like they need something to be happy, that can lead to dependency. The importance of not feeling stress in Psycho-Pass is not only a quality of life issue, but ultimately affects one’s livelihood within society as well. Undoubtedly, however, never being stressed out feels amazing, but coming from someone who is very lax and stress-averse, truly abandoning one’s sense of stress actually comes hand in hand with a lack of responsibility and motivation.
In reality, such a loss of responsibility is accompanied by changes in behaviors that may be self-destructive. For example, overall sanitation and attentiveness to nutrition may be decreased significantly. Does this begin to sound like another attack on hikikomoris and otaku culture? Psycho-Pass takes this phenomenon a bit further, claiming that there are additional physiological changes that accompany the mental quality of not feeling stress. The body itself begins to function less responsibly, as if it is also unmotivated. By this process, people suffering from eustress deficiency undergo a complete mental and physical atrophy that render them into a vegetative state. Finally, the heart stops beating and death occurs. The decent into this process was Rouichi’s second death.
Is Sibyl a moral instrument? I don’t feel like it would be entirely adequate to tackle this weighty question in depth, but based upon what I’ve seen so far, I would say quite the opposite. Being able to take a reductionist approach to morality actually deflates the contemplation that goes into proper decision-making. People’s sense of right and wrong is entirely pre-determined, and they are exercising neither empathy nor rationality in making choices. What Sibyl provides is an extremely powerful self-binding constraint. That Makashima recognizes that is particularly salient, because he is certainly not portrayed as sociopathic. Returning to a previous point, he appears to have a keen sense of morality that is grounded in extensive philosophical, medical, and historic understanding. At this point in the game, I really can’t call him a villain with a clear conscience.
Kierkegaard: Suffering as the essence of life
Psycho-Pass has a tendency to incorporate philosophical tidbits into the dialogue (last time, in addition to Plato’s theory of ideals, it was Rousseau and game theory, but I glossed over the point because it lacked the thematic weight that I sought to discuss), and this time, the theme was prevalent and close to home: Søren Kierkegaard’s existentialism.
Kierkegaard, widely regarded as the father of existentialism, focused extensively on the role of negative emotions such as alienation, dread, anxiety, and despair in reaching “subjective truth.” For Kierkegaard, truth was not merely a concern with objective facts, but rather a more complicated process of mapping one’s subjective emotions and experiences onto matters of fact. The meaningful life for Kierkegaard was inextricably linked with a passionate engagement with facts such as death. For one to truly live, he wrote, she has to truly come to terms with death; it is not that she recognizes that death is a fact, but she must internalize the inevitability of her own death, that she too will die. Only a thorough understanding of this inevitability will create the stress required to reignite a true passion for life and the meaningful things within it.
The passion I discuss is not the colloquial usage of strong emotions, and Kierkegaard’s conception of Passion goes much further, requiring the passionate individual to purge all ideas of objective content out of a desire for the absolute. Indeed, this desire is an idealistic pursuit that was heavily influenced by Plato, and takes the specific form of a desire to transcend one’s mortality. While I’m busy being impressed by the haunting of Midou Masatake’s ghost, there’s still one more important foundation: Kierkegaard regarded passion as the motivator for life, rather than rationality. We do not get through life by thinking, but rather by doing. Where rationality is constrained by fear and by doubts, chooses inaction whenever the odds are stacked against us, it is passion that shatters those constraints and allows us to fall and suffer. When rationality is consumed by suffering and turns into despair, it is passion that allows one to pick him up again and endure through the pain.
The origins of “eustress,” which I’m pretty sure is fictional outside of the Psycho-Pass world (but I’m not Googling this though), should at least be fairly evident from what we now know about Kierkegaard. A moderate amount of stress is quite beneficial: that stress can prime the immune response is something that is actually true. Stress is associated with fight and injury, and therefore the body upregulates parts of the immune system associated with wound repair. However, extended periods of upregulation means that the body is sustaining higher levels of cell division in addition to potential changes in behavior caused by stress (such as unhealthy/excessive eating, substance abuse, irregular sleep cycles) that hamper the ability of the body to self-repair. Increased rounds of cell division increase the risk of cancer through two fundamental processes – one is the random mutations associated with errors in the DNA replication process, the other is telomere shortening leading to chromosomal breakage fusion bridges. In the latter case, repeatedly exposure to things that damage the body, such as chronic inflammation, necessitate many more rounds of cell division in order to continuously repair the damage. Every time a chromosome is duplicated, the ends of the chromosome, or telomeres, are shortened slightly. One important role of the telomere is to actually indicate that the chromosome is indeed at an end rather than being a broken end that is free for recombination. When the telomere region of the chromosome has been completely lost, chromatids may fuse to each other at their ends, resulting in aberrant “bridges.” During anaphase, when these chromatids are pulled apart, they may tear at random sites on that bridge. Over several cycles of cell division, the chromosome recombine at places that would not be possible under normal replicative processes, and these chromosomal aberrations have been associated with every type of malignant tumor.
A complete absence of stress is not something that readily has a real-world analogue beyond what I have already discussed. The mechanisms associated with eustress deficiency can be seen as a sort of atrophy where this upregulation process associated with repair is lost over time, simply because nothing ever stimulates the repair process. Over long periods of time, the body most likely fails to repair itself at all, becoming unresponsive to external stimuli. In essence, by sheltering one’s mind excessively from stress and damage, the kind of impotency that results is not purely psychological, but has adverse effects on health as well. Can a similar concept apply on a broader social level? Will systems that fall into serenity die as well – and is Makashima doing the world a favor by challenging it?
The setting sun in the Land of the Rising Sun: Japan’s Health Care Dilemma
For the first time, Psycho-Pass broaches the issue of health care and public health in a very concrete manner. I was looking for a good time to tie in real-world applications, and this particular episode really blew the doors wide open for that analysis. At this point, I’m convinced that Urobochi indeed has some significant degree of social critique in mind, so I won’t be overanalyzing and reading too much between the lines.
Japan’s system of universal health care, kaihoken, was established in 1961. Taxpayers fund part of this system, but the state foots a vast proportion of the expenses due to an aversion to raise taxes. Instead, much of the burden of the cost is shifted to providers such as individual hospitals, many of which operate at a loss. As a result of this structure, kaihoken has enjoyed great success for its 50-year run thus far, providing excellent care that has vaulted Japan’s average life expectancy to the highest in the world, and cut infant mortality to the lowest in the world. Furthermore, the average Japanese citizen has more access to care, seeing doctors twice as often per year, taking more life-prolonging drugs, and spending three times as much time in hospital beds compared to comparable European health care systems. All of the benefits of kaihoken are delivered for a mere 8.5% of the national GDP, one of the lowest rates (the most efficient European systems are operating at an average of 10% GDP, with the United States spending almost twice as much of its GDP as Japan).
However, the economic growth and population dynamics that accompanied the explosive success of kaihoken have turned on their heads. With the average life expectancy of Japan extending by nearly 30 years since 1961, the proportion of the elderly have quadrupled, whereas the population has shrunk. As with any system of health care that utilizes a form of insurance, the healthy masses bear the brunt of the expenses for people who need access to health care at that moment, with the tacit understanding that the same access will be available to them should they need it. Essentially, it is crucial that there is a proportionally larger part of the population that can foot the bill of the sick and elderly so that the system does not buckle in on itself.
Recently, kaihoken has been struggling to preserve this. According to Kenji Shibuya of the University of Tokyo, “the Japanese health system that had worked in the past has begun to fail. The system’s inefficiencies could be tolerated in a period of high growth, but not in today’s climate of economic stagnation.” The signs of inefficiency are clear – there are significantly fewer doctors relative to the population than the first-world average. Specialists tend to be fewer, and doctors work grueling hours for relatively low pay. Despite the fact that almost everyone has access to doctors within a day, the wait time can be extremely long for a consultation, and this has resulted in well-publicized cases of deaths. Even though “the Japanese are a quarter as likely to suffer a heart attack, they are twice as likely to die if they do (Economist, Sep 2011).”
Urobochi weighs in on the effectiveness of health care from the perspective of “over-care,” an issue that has garnered more attention in the United States in particular, where the fee-for-service reimbursement model is dominant. Under fee-for-service, doctors are paid based upon the number of services that they provide, rather than the outcome of those services. As a result, doctors are incentivized to provide more drugs and services, even if such treatments have no positive effect upon the health of the patient. Overtreatment and over-prescription of drugs has been shown to actually have negative effects upon health, including broader public-health dangers such as drug resistant pathogens. Strains of anti-biotic resistant staphylococcus are a source of constant concern for US hospitals, which suffers from relatively high risk of deaths by infection after major surgeries.
The broader point made in Psycho-Pass is that science and technology, no matter how advanced, still represents a sort of rat’s race. Even though treatment under Sibyl is highly specialized and even individually tailored, the outcomes actually appear to be counterproductive, as the average life expectancy has actually dropped since the institution of Sibyl. Such results are readily observed in actuality as well, particularly in the realm of end-of-life treatment. A large proportion of all health care expenses incurred within the United States are spent upon aggressive interventions in the last year of life, and within that amount, much of that is spent within the last month of life. Alternative methods to end of life treatment, such as hospice care, do not opt for the expensive surgeries and drug regimens that are so prevalent. Instead, they focus on improving the quality of life of the dying patient, by administering the proper treatments to reduce pain and suffering. It has been found that on average, heart attack victims have a longer life expectancy on hospice care than the intensive care unit, and enjoy significantly more happiness (time with family). The families themselves are far more likely to accept the outcome of the treatment at the time of death, and are less likely to sue.
One major axis of contention in which Psycho-Pass negatively reflects upon the current system of health care in Japan could particularly be the process of drug delivery. Due to the time pressures placed upon doctors by their workload, there is a tendency for doctors to over-prescribe. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that many hospitals own their own pharmacies. Furthermore, their doctors are largely unable to serve as researchers as well, and little data is collected on the outcomes of the drugs that they prescribe. This lack of data suggests that the quality of drugs is not tightly regulated, a condition that could lead to a reversal in the effectiveness of kaihoken in years to come. It remains to be seen whether concepts of health continue to be employed in Psycho-Pass. Ultimately, it has been shown that the world has a lot more flaws than initially believed, and I’m keeping a close eye on Makashima. He’s the most interesting piece on the board right now, if you ask me.