Management: While my opinion of the show is generally positive overall, this essay, by no means, is meant to serve as a comprehensive review, but rather, as an articulation and analysis of some of what I feel is this series’ most integral and interesting themes. This essay covers thematic material from Psycho-Pass as a whole and Episode 14 of Psycho-Pass, “Sweet Poison.”
Additionally, I go over content from Haurki Murakami’s Underground, a non-fiction piece that reflects on the testimonies of individuals caught and involved in the March 20, 1995 Tokyo Sarin Gas Attacks.
So I was reading Haruki Murakami’s Underground and while I was digesting its content, a point struck me that made me think of Psycho-Pass. For those who aren’t familiar with him, Murakami is a novelist. Post-modernism is a pretty broad and oft ambiguous genre of storytelling, and Murakami in particular is well-known in contemporary literature for his post-modern brand of literary treatment. If there’s one common thread in the post-modern literary genre that could be pinned out, it’s that it often entails a challenge to the status quo, a shakedown of the essentialist assumptions that people take for granted: about themselves, the world, and their place within it.
In one way, Underground is a departure. Murakami’s career up until then was in fiction, not non-fiction. In another way, it’s not. Many of Murakami’s works deal with the recurring thread of the underground, the underworld that, if not quite belies, runs underneath, clandestine, interior to the exterior of the trappings of the external civilities of societies and individuals, specifically those of the culture of Japanese. It’s like the difference between tourism and immigration to Japan. The Japanese take to the former foreigners more warmly over the latter. The title of his book is Underground, the setting is the underground Tokyo subway system, and the theme is the underground of people.
Underground specifically deals with the Tokyo Sarin Gas Attacks of March 20, 1995, specifically those of the cult of Aum Shinrikyo. Kunihiko Ikuhara’s Mawaru Penguindrum makes visually explicit allusions to it, and there are obvious thematic parallels that could be made between anime and event. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if Gen Urobuchi also reflected on what that incident exposed when he wrote Psycho-Pass, and specifically Episode 14 of Psycho-Pass, “Sweet Poison.”
At first viewing, it’s a rather sensational scene. Urobuchi’s never been one for subtly when it comes to making his characters suffer in the most visceral manner possible, to the point that he’s been accused of creating shock for its own sake. He’s made his thematic points with the literal points of pens as well as gore bomb splatters, knife gore swishes, limb dismemberments, limb-flesh terraformers, flesh-accelerant fire, whizzing buzz head saws, repeated blows to the head and torso with a hammer, etc. Make the victimized a woman minding her own business, the perpetrator a seething mass of a man who, through the course of their bout, rips off her clothes for double the perverse satisfaction. To top it off, juxtapose the hammer blows with witnesses on every side that either walk away unconcerned or crowd around with their camera phones out asking themselves: “What is that?”
Seriously, “What the hell was that?”
I get the point being that this experience was totally alien to the crowd and thus somewhat novel. At least for me, however, the crowd felt a bit too horrifyingly alien and the experience of a woman getting brutalized, raped on-screen in all but the literal act of coitus itself, as too horrifyingly familiar. It’s beyond the bystander effect. How could these people not register in their minds what was obviously a horrific crime in-progress? Desensitization to violence might be a thing in human psychology, but the act itself felt so intense that it feels incredulous to believe that the best thing it could arouse from these people was curiosity.
At first viewing, it felt unrelatable. There’s a balance that has to be made in fiction when it comes to using violence in order to illustrate points, and overindulging in it runs the risk of causing a disconnect with the people consuming that fiction. It’s a fact of life. People suffer, and people die. Depending on the person, they may suffer and die from varying degrees of physical and psychological trauma, but not all people suffer and die horribly. To feature that kind of horribleness incessantly and without the necessary foundations, the intellectual and emotional context, is to reduce a show to exploitative schlock. Whatever point, if there was any, that was trying to be made is lost in the sea of blood and screams.
And Urobuchi seemed to veer dangerously close to that with this sensational scene. In the world of Psycho-Pass, “crimes of spontaneous passion” been reduced to near nothing as a result of a preemptive combination of therapeutic action suggested and lifestyle controls mandated by remote sensors of the Sybil System. The sensors gauge people’s so-called “crime-coefficients,” or psycho-passes, most like biometric readings. Where violence that slip through the Sybil System’s sensor net, “crimes of more calculation,” they are handled through a postemptive combination of psycho-pass controlled “dominators” and more traditional law enforcement. Since “crimes of more calculation” are relatively few, far between, and thus, manageable, the result is a domestic society safe and stable, yet, for the most part, utterly desensitized to danger and fear.
So long as the Sybil System’s theoretical framework is able to control most, if not all, of the violence in practice, order will be maintained, and the public can get on with their lives relatively stress-free. The only problem is that theory doesn’t match exactly with practice, as Shogo Makishima goes about provocatively demonstrating by distributing helmets that circumvent said sensors.
Japan in Psycho-Pass reflects Japan in modernity in the sense that citizens in both respective worlds were living in prolonged eras of domestic safety and stability before Shogo Makishima and Shoko Asahara, for different reasons, decided to shatter the illusions that nothing seriously bad could happen here. They injected danger and fear into the populaces with their respective acts of terror, and in the process, scar the Japanese psyche.
Murakami pours over account after account of ordinary Japanese riding the trains on their way to work the moment sarin gas was released. Admittedly, that most Japanese had little clue as to the effects of sarin was a fact in itself that wasn’t unusual. In the course of human history, chemical warfare, let alone the use of sarin gas, has hardly ever been used. World War I was the only major conflict that employed massive and exchanged use of weaponized chemicals, and while the Nazis developed sarin gas right before World War II broke out, sarin gas and other lethal chemicals were only ever used on people in the liquidation camps. Liquid canisters of the chemicals would be punctured, turning into vapor, and that vapor would be directed via pipes into gas chambers. The only time weaponized chemicals and sarin gas have actually been used in warfare against belligerents up to the moment of the Tokyo Sarin Gas Attacks was by Suddam Hussein’s Iraq against separatist Kurds and warring Iranians. The vicissitudes of world affairs in general were subjects the average Japanese has always been immune from.
But even still, the scene Murakami describes from the testimonies of the survivors of Tokyo Sarin Gas Attacks he interviewed showcased a myriad of reactions not unlike what Urobuchi illustrated in Psycho-Pass. A stubborn disconnect by most between the peculiar smell of sarin and all the symptoms that suddenly started affecting everyone on the trains and platforms:
– Many hadn’t the thought of exiting the trains and platforms immediately once they started to collectively fall ill: when they started coughing, started finding it hard to breath, started to have difficulty walking, and started becoming blind. They rationalized their inaction as blaming it on seasonal bugs, schedules and deadlines to meet: If I could only hold on until my final stop…
– They see numbers of people falling on top of themselves trying to struggle out of the trains, and numbers more of people leaning on walls and lying on floors, sometimes motionless. The contaminated trains took a while to pull out of service, and many people still boarded them as they continued running.
– Once some platform attendants at some subway stations began putting two and two together, that perhaps the cause of all these people collapsing in droves might have to do with poison gas, they began yelling at people to exit the underground at once. Many of these people complied, albeit slowly, reluctantly, despite the dire urgency in the attendants’ voices, treating it more like an inconvenience to their daily routine than anything serious.
– Some people entered the subway stations to see what’s going on or to board the trains themselves despite the unusual exodus of people leaving them, many of them sounding and appearing like they were hacking their lungs out.
– An overhead shot of the plazas and streets outside of the subway openings was half sarin gas victims crouched or prostrate, half onlookers peering curiously over them as they went about their business.
Urobuchi’s brutal scripting in “Sweet Poison” and Murakami’s analysis of the Tokyo Sarin Gas Attacks seem too critical of the same aspect of the Japanese zeitgeist for there not to be a connection to the same event that demonstrated this particular aspect in its unadulterated form. Without necessarily condemning the merits of a peaceful society, Urobuchi batters the thematic consequence of a society made through a bad peace, where the resignation of people’s faculties of self-awareness leads to a facade of security and a true sense of apathy.
Ingrained ignorance and deliberate aversion of the unpleasant things about our neighbors, ourselves, and our world may provide some measure of bliss, but that bliss makes us like towers built on unsteady foundations. There are some realities we can’t ignore, and because we haven’t prepared ourselves for them, they can be disrupting enough to shake us to our core. They can make us topple. And because our ill-conceived bliss has made us towers of ceremonial innocence, the girth between sky and soil will make the impact of our fall from complacency that much more devastating. The artificiality has given way to the sea. We will founder, and in our flailing, our innocence will drown.
For Murakami, the realities being ignored by the zeitgeist were the social expectations, soulless materialism, and resulting mixture of alienation and self-denial by a Japan that had fallen into economic and moral stagnancy and consequently produced Aum Shinrikyo. For Urobuchi, the realities being ignored by the zeitgeist was a society-wide surrender of human self-awareness and sensitivity for security.
So like Murakami, maybe Urobutchi wasn’t being entirely sensational there.