The Literary Secrets of Psycho-Pass

by Gabriella Ekens,

Like many fans, my favorite part of Psycho-Pass was Shogo Makishima, the villainous mastermind whose love of literature left me intimidated. When he wasn't out serial killing (or killing cereal), he was reading, chatting about books with his latest accomplice, or even killing people with books.

Ranging from ancient political philosophy to English theater to pulp sci-fi, Psycho-Pass casts a wide net of references. While many bookish names get dropped in the story, these titles also have a ton of influence on the story and ideas of Psycho-Pass, as well as many other classic cyberpunk anime. So, whatchu talkin' bout Shogo?


1984 – George Orwell

The dystopia to end all dystopias. If you've read anything on this list, it's 1984. Makishima even carries it around for a while, as if he's obligated to by Literary Dystopia Law. (I think it's because it matches his sweater.)

1984 revolves around the idea that constant supervision can be internalized by individuals in a society and used as a tool of fascist control. The gist of is that you'll behave if you think you're being watched at all times, even when you aren't, so nobody has to actually watch you. All that matters is that you believe it. This is true of Psycho-Pass as well. There, the terror comes from the fact that Sybil – like Orwell's Big Brother – always has the authority to check your Crime Coefficient, so citizens are perpetually on trial. If they're not criminals yet, they're just latent criminals, and preventative measures will be taken to make sure they don't enter the caste of second-class citizenship.

Bad things that will raise your Crime Coefficient include, but are not limited to: reading books, watching TV, playing video games, sleeping too little, sleeping too much, chewing with the right side of your mouth, enjoying JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, and existing within 100 kilometers of a French post-structuralist text. Everyone else is always watching you, and you are watching everyone else. Everyone sells out everyone else, and the government need only enforce it to maintain the illusion of omnipotence. (This idea was made most famous in another text discussed in Psycho-Pass, Michel Foucault's ultra-heady Discipline and Punish. Foucault argues that governments are getting wise to this phenomenon and using it as a method of control.)

In the end, the protagonist of 1984, Winston Smith, loses when the government brainwashes him into loving the current regime. That's also the Sybil System's ultimate goal –eventually they wish to make it so that people will happily accept being ruled by a network of disembodied brains. However, that'll require a couple of generations of brainwashing and de-education first. A few years before the show began, Inspectors were educated in criminology, but by Akane's tenure that was phased out. The Enforcer Masaoka is old enough to have been educated in history, but nobody else knows anything about it. As in 1984, Sybil is rewriting human curiosity through a slow boil.


Johnny Mnemonic and Neuromancer - William Gibson

William Gibson is an American science fiction author. He's the man who popularized cyberpunk, so he's also the reason why people in futuristic techno dystopias always wear black leather and know karate. Cyberpunk and anime have had a reciprocal relationship from the beginning. It comes full circle here, when Makishima is pleased to learn that his hacker associate, ChoeGu-Sung, is also a fan of Gibson.

Gibson's first novel, Neuromancer, won the 1985 Nebula, Philip K. Dick, and Hugo Awards. (That's the sci-fi version of an EGOT.) It's hard to understate the novel's importance to the history of brooding body modders – without Neuromancer, there'd be no Total Recall, Ghost in the Shell, or The Matrix, and definitely no Psycho-Pass. (Remember when Major Kusanagi merged with the Puppet Master and fled into the internet at the end of Ghost in the Shell? Well, in Gibson's opus, their names were Wintermute and Neuromancer.) The word “cyberspace” also comes from this book. Gibson invented the idea of presenting a computer's interior as a physical space, which Psycho-Pass explores during the Spooky Boogie case. As a Gibson superfan, Makishima even names a hacking program after one of his short stories. After so many philosophical treatises, it's nice to know that Makishima can kick back and enjoy a terrible Keanu Reeves movie.


Titus AndronicusWilliam Shakespeare

Titus Andronicus has a reputation as Shakespeare's most brutal work. In Psycho-Pass, Rikako Oryo – a serial killer who creates installation art out of dead bodies – has a fixation on a character from it, Lavinia. Lavinia is a princess who is raped as part of an elaborate scheme for revenge against her father. The perpetrators then cut off her tongue and hands so that she can't identify them. The work luxuriates in Lavinia's maimed image, displaying it in a number of setpieces. She eventually outs them by writing their names in the sand with a stick held in her mouth. However, Rikako finds this story empowering and erotic. She's inspired by Lavinia's expression of agency in spite of the handicaps imposed upon her by an overpowering male force. Rikako herself exists in a gilded cage, a private academy meant to keep girls “pure" (both in terms of virginity and Crime Coefficient) so that they can become proper elite housewives.

The problem is that Rikako expresses her artwork by chopping up her classmates and turning them into meat bouquets. Killing ladies isn't exactly the most feminist thing in the world, but I guess that's what happens when you hire Makishima as a teacher. (Gender studies is a notable gap in his reading list.)

Cyberpunk also has an ongoing preoccupation with the deformed human figure – particularly the female one. Think of the Major (Ghost in the Shell) and Lain Iwakura (Serial Experiments Lain) enshrined in wires. Mardock Scramble makes its cyborg protagonist out of a woman, Rune Balott, while Expelled from Paradise's Angela Balzac wears heels so severe her feet must be deformed. It's no coincidence that Sybil also chose to make its face female.

The Most Dangerous Game – Richard Connell

This is a short story about the hunt for the most dangerous prey: man. Basically, a crazy old hunter gets tired of killing animals and sets up his own preserve to hunt humans. This short story lives on as the idea behind The Hunger Games, Battle Royale, and Predator. The idea behind it – that an individual with enough resources and fortitude could begin treating people like animals in the most violent way – strikes a nerve. Hunting for sport is essentially refusing to empathize with another creature, marking the hunter as superior to their prey.

Traits from the short story's old hunter, General Zaroff, seem to have been lifted directly for Psycho-Pass's Toyohisa Senguji. Like Zaroff, Senguji has a habit of humming classical music while he prepares his weapons. Senguji's design is deliberately anachronistic. He lives in a European-style mansion and decorates his home with hunting trophies. He even wears an old-fashioned hunting suit. So he's a bit of a poser. Look dude, you may be a 100+ year old cyborg, but that still means you were born in 2002. We had camo by then.

Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

You know that saying, “stare into the abyss and the abyss stares back?” That's this novel. (Okay, it's Nietzsche, but we'll get to that later.) Heart of Darkness is about a ship's captain, Marlow, who voyages down the Congo River to hunt down Colonel Kurtz, a rogue agent for an ivory trading company. Far from European civilization, Kurtz has established his own society where he's worshipped as a god. The story is framed as a journey away from civilization and toward everything that was cast out of it – meaning evil. In the end, Marlow comes to the conclusion that evil and civilization aren't separate. Civilization can only frame itself as good when it maintains and casts out evil. However, that makes society complicit in the maintenance of evil for its continued existence.

Kogami is the Marlow to Makishima's Kurtz. Like Marlow, Kogami's obsessive hunt draws him closer to his prey both inside and out. He's seen reading Heart of Darkness at the show's midpoint, right after he's had his first encounter with the criminal mastermind.

Throughout Psycho-Pass, Kogami's soul is torn between Makishima and Akane. Makishima wants a kindred spirit in Kogami. He wants him to be a ruthless survivor who shares his love of literature and disdain for Sybil. By contrast, Akane values Kogami as a friend (or maybe more.) She wants him to help in her eventual ambition to reform Sybil from the inside out, but that doesn't happen. By killing Makishima, Kogami grabs darkness by the balls. He ruins his chances of ever being reaccepted by the establishment, goes renegade, and parts from Akane forever. (Translation: until the movie.)


Beyond Good and Evil - Friedrich Nietzsche

Oh, Nietzsche. He is the grumpy old man of a discipline filled with grumpy old men. He wrote a bunch of books, and each one argues for a different flavor of abolishing the common morality. Beyond Good and Evil is the one where he tackles so-called “Judeo-Christian morality,” which he claims favors protecting the weak over allowing the strong to flourish. He argues that good and evil are entirely arbitrary concepts determined by the strong.

Makishima is in alignment with Nietzsche – he believes that Sibyl's limitations weaken humanity because they prevent the development of exceptional people. Like Psycho-Pass's protagonist, Akane, he's a humanist who objects to Sibyl on moral grounds. However, his issue with the system is that it impedes people, not that it fails to protect them. There are certainly non-murderful ways of living up to Nietzsche's ideals, but they are extremely conducive to murder, at least on the surface. They say that, if you're strong, you “reject the current moral reality and substitute your own,” so to speak.

Makishima is a very moral person, strangely enough, if you define morality as having strong internal convictions about what's right and what's wrong. His morals are just the opposite of what we associate with good and bad, because he doesn't place an inherent value on human life. He does believe that the strong should have the unlimited right to act upon the weak, for their own amusement or otherwise. But is he the strongest?


The Parable of the Sower – the Bible

Finally, the conclusion – Makishima has learned the truth about the Sybil System and resolved to take it down once and for all. He plans to destroy Japan's food supply in one fell swoop by messing with its agriculture, which has become one huge wheat monoculture. Before his final showdown with Kogami, Makishima sits around reading the bible, particularly one famous passage – the Parable of the Sower. The parable describes a man who sows seeds in various locations. While the majority die from falling on infertile ground, the bounty from those that survive far exceeds the initial supply. In the Bible, Jesus uses this to say that despite short term obstacles, his preaching will prevail through individuals of deep faith. In other words, the truth will prevail.

Incidentally, Makishima also takes this moment to totally crush out on Kogami even harder than Akane does.

In his own twisted way, Makishima takes on a similar role to Jesus in the Parable of the Sower. Sure, Makishima is a terrible, destructive person, but he was a "messiah" set to shatter Sybil's essential dysfunction. His actions awaken Akane, who becomes a force for positive change under Sybil's administration. While Kogami's ultimate moral standing is ambiguous, he progresses from a powerless extension of Sybil's authority to someone who acts on his own beliefs. Makishima is a very bad man, but he's not Psycho-Pass's symbol of true evil. That's the Sybil System, which operates on the misguided belief that one group of people (psychopaths) are superior, capable of judging the rest, and ultimately penalizes people just for having emotions. Sybil isn't the objective, omniscient arbitrator that it claims to be. It kills people unnecessarily and gently leads society towards a crisis of repression.

Perhaps the greatest lesson Psycho-Pass wants to impart is that sociopaths aren't inhuman monsters. Instead, they are a profoundly human phenomenon: people with mental deficiencies in empathy, like any other kind of person with an unjust deficiency. Makishima is human, only made "inhuman" by a system that dehumanizes, and that's the truth he wanted to leave behind.

Still doesn't excuse all the murder, though.


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