Ambivalent cops and institutional eyes: the neoliberal police state
in Japanese animation

by Brett Hack

The mediated public sphere of global spectacle in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex [SAC] (Kamiyama 2005).

This essay will examine police fiction in Japanese animation or “anime,” focusing on two series connected to Japan’s experience of neoliberalism. As David Harvey (2007: 198-206) famously theorized, the neoliberal phase of capitalism has worked to close off alternatives, often resorting to authoritarian methods. [open references in new window] Neoliberalism’s dominance rests not only on policies of privatization, deregulation, and crisis manipulation, but also on the cultivation of a particular relation to the world that becomes “rational” in social institutions governed by neoliberal logics. In Michel Foucault’s (2008: 277-278) formulation, neoliberal governmentality situates the “individual subject of interest within a totality which eludes him [sic]” but “nevertheless founds the rationality of his egoistic choices.” Building on Foucault’s work, Wendy Brown (2015: 35-41) argues that this “neoliberal reason” recasts thought and action as individual “investments” that must adapt to the demands of an essentialized, all-consuming market. Collective politics and democratic organization are thereby erased from public discussion (201-203). Like Harvey, Brown associates neoliberal reason with authoritarianism, since “we are human capital not just for ourselves, but also for the firm, state, or postnational constellation…concerned with their own competitive positioning” (37). I will use Brown’s term “neoliberal reason” throughout the essay to describe this mode of experience that internalizes individual self-management and acceptance of authoritarian systems as the only rational way of seeing the world.

As I will describe below, the individualism-authoritarianism link played a key role in the acceleration of Japan’s neoliberalization process, which took place from the mid-1990s through the 2000s (Nihei 2014). During this period, government and business elites justified economic policies of austerity and casualization, as well as increased police and military activity, as necessary sacrifices citizens had to make to ensure Japan’s international competitiveness (Yoda 2006). Fictional depictions of police are often seen as vessels for justifying dominant ideologies such as these. However, I will argue that anime police fictions from this period display a complex tension between the acceptance of neoliberal reason and the desire to imagine alternative courses of action. In doing so, they effectively model the role of institutional contexts in sociopolitical imagination at large.

As I approach the topic of media fictions and police states, I will avoid the “representationalist” tendency in cultural criticism, which treats fictional depictions of entities such as police organizations as simple reflections of their real-world counterparts and analyzes how accurate or ideologically colored those reflections are. Instead, I am interested in the fictional use of police characters and police institutions as techniques of imagination. Taking a cue from Ursula Heise’s ecocriticism (2008: 67), I use this term to mean the material technologies, genre codes, and stylistic methods that make complex, non-present objects “perceivable and experienceable” within art and media, as well as the collective practices of speculation that these techniques enable. Fictional techniques of imagination can become political in many ways; in particular, they may work to visualize large-scale systemic forces beyond ordinary perception. Such fictions may also present possibilities for characters (and thereby readers/viewers/ players/etc.) to see and act on those forces.

In this endeavor, fictional imagination is analogous to sociopolitical imagination in that both rely on institutions, broadly defined as any “socially sanctioned symbolic network” that combines “functional” and “imaginary” components (Castoriadis 1987: 132). The imaginary components of institutions—the implicit connection of government organizations to power, the shared tropes of filmmaking traditions, the collective mythos of people’s movements—serve to connect embodied experience to larger spaces and times. Each institution opens certain fields of visibility and action while obscuring others. The political stakes in fiction relate not necessarily to whether the fiction provides an accurate depiction of real-world functions, but rather to whether the fiction can utilize institutional visibility to model innovative and agentic modes of engaging with systemic conditions. In other words, institutions like the police appear in fictions not necessarily to depict “what the police are like” in reality but instead to occupy the places and movements conceivably available to the police in order to depict a wider field of social action.

Using this kind of imaginative approach allows us to look closely at how police institutions function within a broader fictional mapping of society. Besides their actual function as enforcers of state power, police institutions also play the role of “interface between government and the governed” (Aldous 1997: 3). Within the imaginary elicited by modern capitalist states, police are simultaneously ordinary and institutionally connected. This is especially true for Japan’s centralized police organizations and their historical relation to its nation-state project (Katzenstein 1996). The lowliest patrol officer fits within a hierarchical chain of national power. Thus, in a fiction―however unlikely it would be in reality―police characters might access confidential information or be in the room where momentous decisions are made. Police genres are also associated with narratives of investigation, wherein readers/viewers expect revelations of hidden places and events. Police in fiction can therefore enact an imaginative pleasure of gazing beyond ordinary citizens’ limited positions to glimpse at otherwise invisible national or geopolitical forces.

In worlds governed by neoliberal reason, which undermines all non-authoritarian institutions, police characters sometimes become the only plausible vessels for depicting large-scale forces. While police visuality most often legitimates authoritarian worldviews, it can also be used for social critique. I argue that in such cases, we should resist the tendency toward representationalist or ideological readings and instead treat the fictional police as a repertoire of imaginative techniques aiming to put institutional spaces and contexts into view. Doing so will allow us to see how the police narrative interacts with other sets of techniques within the fiction, so as to understand how this kind of imaginative activity can reveal hidden tensions and otherwise undetectable social possibilities.

Anime, particularly in the science-fictional genres, provides perfect texts for imagination-oriented readings, since police protagonists and organizations are often used as materials in fictional world-building. To fully understand the social images in these texts, anime itself must be considered as an institution, with modes of visibility enabled and constrained by material and creative production methods, industrial constraints, and genre expectations. Depictions of police, even ones based in reality, filter into anime through institutional legacies. In Japan, the postwar police’s role in annihilating leftist movements appears as a particular aesthetic in anime, most associated with famed director Oshii Mamoru. [Note: Japanese names appear in the “family name, given name” order.] Oshii’s influence at the anime studio Production I.G. engendered a tradition of police stories as part of the studio’s brand image (Kamiyama n.d). Anime’s thematic content also derives from its audiovisual techniques of layered imagery and “citations” of other media-forms and genres, which tend to emphasize relations between media and society (Lamarre 2009; Suan 2021a). The ambivalent police characters described here are part of a repertoire of techniques rather than an underlying reference to real social institutions. Understanding this context is essential for analyzing the dystopian police states anime shows us and for fully understanding the role played by police fictions in perpetuating neoliberal reason.

The essay will analyze two Production I.G. series that depict science-fictional police units while developing critical social themes. Broadcast amid important developments in Japanese society, they view the media environments of their moments through the institutional eyes of police protagonists and anime’s audiovisual techniques. The first, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (Kamiyama 2002; 2005) (henceforth referred to as SAC), synthesizes the key problems of the early Internet and Japan’s place in post-Cold War geopolitics. The second, Psycho Pass (Shiotani 2012), concerns the rise of social media platforms and their functioning as forms of social control. Both series attempt to reject neoliberal reason and offer ways of engaging with the complexity of 21st century media culture. The institutional eyes of police protagonists create circuits of possibility wherein the complexity of contemporary society can be seen and acted on by human perception.

A depiction of a virtual-reality social space in Psycho-Pass (Shiotani 2012).

Each series innovatively models its moment within the history of Japan’s neoliberal trajectory, elaborating that moment’s sensations, stakes, and plausible ways of approaching it critically. However, in relying on the police’s role as interface between government and governed, they can visualize politics only as relations between individuals and an essentialized and nationalized “society.” Police authority depends on and legitimates a governing regime as sovereign social reality while reducing people to individualized national subjects within it. From the perspective of police institutions, political agency can only be seen as individualized resistance against or agency captured within an eternal authoritarian system. The world opened up by police eyes thus traps social imagination within a set pattern that reifies a given social order as inevitable, feeding conveniently into neoliberal reason. As a result, both series’ attempts to turn their critical visions into possibilities for action tend to confirm the neoliberal horizons they condemn.

This is the insidious trap of viewing the world through the institutional eyes of the police; even a critical depiction of authoritarian institutions hides the possibility of different ones. It does not mean that these fictions ultimately serve police authority or ideologies of domination, however. SAC and Psycho-Pass strive to offer their viewers the pleasure of imagined agency combined with a sober view of macroscopic conditions. Both their successes and failures in this endeavor are part of an ongoing process of social imagination in which creators, fictions, and viewers collectively speculate about how to act within worlds governed by individual competition and automated and globalized systems of power. Their recourse to the police as an institutional context is a symptom of a larger problem in 21st century capitalist societies, namely, the scarcity of non-authoritarian institutions through which individuals can plausibly imagine themselves acting on national or global scales. However, anime and its fictions constitute a set of imaginative techniques and institutional contexts that are not reducible to those of the real institutions they depict, and thus approach the process in different ways. I will ultimately argue that, even when captured by the framework of the neoliberal police state, SAC and Pycho-Pass reach for new institutions on imagistic and affective levels. Their small hints of new collective power become incorporated into the repertoire of anime’s techniques of imagination, thus providing possibilities for later participants in the process.

Japan’s police in history and anime

Japan’s police system is headed by a centralized National Police Agency (NPA) that supervises and draws on prefectural police, as well as a Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) operating in the Tokyo area (Katzenstein 1996: 60-62). The institutional power of these agencies derives from relations between the ruling political party and the bureaucratic ministries that oversee the implementation of government policy (ibid). Consequently, their mediated image is that of national-level political institutions embedded in a network of government ministries and military branches. On the other hand, police also have a strong local presence in Japanese communities through regular public image campaigns and police collaborations with local organizations (63-66). Fictional police protagonists can embody both roles, acting simultaneously as embodiments of local experience and as skilled manipulators of complex institutional networks and state-of-the art technology who can gain views of national and global forces. Police fictions based on the NPA or MPD are therefore convenient for condensing social issues into human-sized narratives.

Media depictions of the police also evoke their role in the development of the postwar Japanese state. For example, following the end of the U.S. occupation, Japan’s re-constituted police forces worked to suppress communist and socialist movements, particularly focusing on the student radicals who spearheaded the protests against Japan’s role in U.S. Cold War strategy (Katzenstein 1996: 73-75). The police’s success at erasing the radical left as a political possibility was connected to the rise of a media-consumer society. “Soft” suppression tactics were skillfully used by the postwar police in managing public opinion within Japan’s expanding media environment. Deliberately exercising restraint against demonstrators while coordinating with news outlets, police worked to ostracize leftist groups (82-85). By the early 1970s, radical groups had either left the country or dissolved into terrorism and infighting. As a historical place marker, the live television coverage of a standoff between the Japanese Red Army faction and police tactical units in 1972 is often interpreted as the moment of Japan’s transition from an era of politics to one of media/consumerism (e.g. Kitada 2005). Throughout this period, Japan’s police elicited an image of national stability. However, not all citizens viewed stability positively. Hence, police fictions could become sites for expressing ambivalence about the contradictions of postwar society. This function can be seen clearly in anime and related popular media forms.

“Anime” refers to a style of animation developed in Japan, generally recognized by its stylized character designs, hyperbolic movements, and reliance on fantastical conceits. Stevie Suan (2021a: 160-163) has demonstrated how anime’s “media-form” arises through repeated citation and performance of these recognizable elements, building an “anime-esque” identity through their re-iteration. Anime’s referential style stems from its production process. Anime evolved through the use of “limited animation,” which involves animating simple patterns of movement on layers of transparent “cells” set over still backgrounds (Tsugata 2004: 138-139). Dynamism is achieved by compositing the different layers into complex patterns of formalized expressions, movements, and poses, combined with a fast-paced and contrasting editing rhythm (Suan 2021a: 37-38). In the film frame here, for example, the image of flying police aircraft is composed of the perspectival cockpit in the foreground layer and the more distant aircraft on a transparent middle layer, both of which move cross-laterally over the background layer of the city below.

An image from Oshii Mamoru’s Dallos (1983) displaying the traditional layering style of anime images.

Thomas Lamarre (2009: 37-44) demonstrates how anime’s compositing encourages a spectatorship whose gaze shifts across the multiple image layers. He also notes how multiple “stock situations, generic locations,” and other easily recognizable tropes are integrated into the fiction as imagistic and narrative layers (201). Since every depicted element is cited in anime-esque form and composited into these layers, anime has also become adept at mimicking other image techniques. In this process, everything from classical cinema to news broadcasts to computer displays merge into anime’s layered system in a way that de-emphasizes their received ontological hierarchies (xxvi). As I will describe below, anime thus tends to highlight interrelations between media, perception, and society. These techniques have institutional force; they enable and direct social depictions in ways that conform to anime’s predilections for genre citation and intermedia referencing.

Stock character personalities and interactions are expressed through clothes, poses, and gestures in in Patlabor: The Movie (Oshii 1989).

The anime industry also sets institutional parameters that generate forms of visibility. Anime work is based in studios that coordinate projects for specific broadcast slots and target audiences, balancing artistic goals against censors and sponsors’ demands. (Suan 2021a: 87-101). Creators are selected for projects based on their skill at developing certain genres or premises, emotional tones, spectacular images, historical backgrounds, and other desired affects. Social and political themes sometimes get inherited as part of this collaborative production method. For example, after Japan’s radical student movement failed, many of its members fled into media careers, passing on themes and ideas to younger colleagues along with technical expertise (see Kitada 2005; Ōtsuka 2015). As creators attempted to push anime and manga into more complex territory, an aesthetics of failed political possibility developed. This aesthetic is often characterized by images of masses of young protestors clashing with police, which evoke not only the end of the volatile postwar decades but also the end of hope for radical alternatives to the “peace” of Japan’s state-managed capitalism and Cold War proxy status. Anime’s fictional police states, then, regularly appear as condensations of an institutionalized political ambivalence.

Police states figure heavily in the work of Oshii Mamoru, the director of the famous 1995 anime film Ghost in the Shell. Oshii deploys ambivalent police protagonists across numerous works to problematize both technological development and political history. Hisf disillusioned police characters pursue antagonists with legitimate grudges against Japanese society. According to the influential interpretation of Ueno Toshiya (1998: 61-63), police and criminal in these works are actually

“identical twins.... On the one side are those who hate that the city’s peace and safety are illusions and seek to destroy it. On the other side are those who defend it because their life is there. They see that the illusion is crumbling and on the verge of catastrophe, but play out their role as guard dogs.”

Oshii’s “guard dog” characters thus implicate the Japanese public for ignoring fundamental conflicts in exchange for false stabilities. Oshii builds these themes into the perceptual structure of his fictions via anime’s remediating and layering techniques. The Oshii aesthetic enacts views of postwar Japan’s contradictions that protagonists and viewers recognize as untenable but which surround them as an insurmountable totality.

Anime-esque layeres and robot imagery connect a vision of Japanese development and its negative effects in Patlabor: The Movie (Oshii 1989).

The Oshii aesthetic is exemplified in screenshots here from his Patlabor: The Movie (1989). The film’s plot follows a mechanized police squad’s efforts to foil a computer scientist’s virus program that will cause all “Labors” (anthropomorphic working vehicles) to malfunction and destroy the city. The main story functions as a critique of Japan’s overemphasis on economic development throughout the postwar period. The image above shows a Labor smashing a realistically drawn-slum district with high-rises in the background, the spectacle being observed by a police Labor in the foreground. The science-fictional conceit connects the real results of postwar construction projects with their historic costs. The image to the left shows an officer in a secret room as he discovers the virus program. The digital readout is reflected on his anime-esque face, superimposing two kinds of screen images to visualize how people become implicated in technological systems and their harmful effects. In each shot, anime-esque images layer views of Japan’s construction and technology economies with sci-fi tropes and media screens. Importantly, the characters’ status as police offers is what gives them access to both the public spectacle and the closed site depicted here. Originally developed within a postwar imaginary, the Oshii aesthetic has persisted into the digital age, which coincided with the onset of neoliberal policymaking in Japan.