Serial Experiments Lain is a 1998 experimental anime television series, written by Chiaki J. Konaka and directed by Ryūtarō Nakamura, with animation from Triangle Staff. Although it never really became the animated titan Neon Genesis Evangelion would prove, Lain is often compared to Hideaki Anno’s creation – namely in its use of complex psychology and existentialism; in trying to find out who we are, and what makes a person real.
So what’s SEL about? Well, a troubled young girl (Lain) finds herself drawn into a virtual world – the Wired – not unlike the internet of our own. As Lain becomes more involved in its cyberspace, she hears rumours of a hacker-group-turned-religious-cult, the Knights, and starts seeing strange things in her own world. Her friends and family become sucked in, and soon the reality Lain knows begins to merge with something else entirely, and the boundaries between our world – and the Wired – start to crumble.
One word brought up time and time again in regards to Lain is ‘weird’. And it is weird. I mean it’s really weird. I mean, I thought The End of Evangelion was weird, but Lain gives that a run for its money. It’s a relatively regular occurrence to be pretty perplexed throughout, and at times have absolutely no clue what’s going on. You’ll just have to make your peace with that. I would say that it makes sense after the series’ climax, but that probably wouldn’t be true. It’s certainly an anime that warrants re-watching if you’re a stickler for that sort of thing.
Serial Experiments Lain features a number of different themes, though; chief of them being the concept of cyberspace. Throughout the show, there are constant exterior shots; almost always populated with telephone lines, or interior scenes plagued with computer screens and mobile phones. Lain regularly checks her Navi (high-powered computers that have become so commonplace, even schoolchildren have them), and shadows don’t appear as black splotches – not as the series progresses. Instead we see ‘blood spots’ in them, used to symbolize the murky depths of the Wired (the virtual world underneath everything, constantly blending into our own).
A computerized voice reads out the name of each episode; and early on, we’re introduced to something called ‘Accela’ a kind of cybernetic drug that makes one’s world feel incredibly fast for a short time. Lain’s father only wants to talk to her when it’s about his passion – computers – insisting that she get a Navi ‘mature’ enough to suit her needs. With each episode, the girl’s room becomes more and more consumed by the hissing automatons of computing; from metal boxes to sprawling monitors, and cables which run like capillaries across the (minimal) spaces between, pumping cooling fluid from here to there. Everything furthers this idea that it’s all connected, all wired.
Inside or outside, we never quite escape the sounds of electric buzz or whirring, where no other sounds can be heard. And Lain hits us with this constant repetition throughout; in how nearly every episode stars the same exact way, with the same exact shots; a traffic light turning red, a taxi swerving out of the way of a pedestrian, the streets at night. It’s like a computer booting up. It becomes routine. And we cannot escape that blue-lit monotony.
Thus, communication is another theme that weaves itself throughout Lain. There’s just such little dialogue throughout the entire show. Lain herself is particularly withdrawn, but her sister barely speaks and her mum ignores her very existence. There is no communication between them. And yet, as we see Lain spend more time in the Wired, she is constantly seeking information; finding those who can provide her with something she doesn’t know. She gets her communication from another world; a digital one.
The whole of Serial Experiments Lain has the feel of that age-old narrative: of no one takes the time to talk to eachother anymore. And given that this anime came out just before the internet really came into its own, it’s pretty scary in that premonition. One hates to sound like that boomer at the breakfast table; gawping melodramatically at the mere mention of an iPod, but Lain is, in many ways, more relevant now than it ever was.
Double lives is also something that crops up a lot; or the idea of doubles in general. In the first episode, Lain’s friends are certain they saw in a nightclub, acting like the opposite of her normal self. Her personality fluctuates from instalment to instalment; until the characters within – and us on the either side of the monitor – wonder where Lain ends, and this Lain of the Wired begins?
But what stands out above all else to me is how incredibly minimalist Lain proves to be. In terms of the art style, white space is overwhelming, with the odd shadow or staircase telling you there’s anything there at all. The show almost makes buildings and structures out of the emptiness, in a way that seems both interesting and strangely claustrophobic. You feel trapped, shut in – with only the towering, skeletal telephone lines to mark your way.
Many shots and scenes are repeated, and the dialogue is, as noted before, few and far between. You might hear the faintest of piano keys in the background, the small patter of Lain’s footsteps. You really feel the disassociation within her; this idea that the real world is not really real at all. It’s distant – always shying away from her. One could probably make the point that the same goes for the viewer, who is pushed into feeling more and more disillusioned throughout, like Lain, but, well, we don’t really deal out that kind of high-brow, academic analysis here.
But, perhaps most importantly, is it a good anime? I mean, it’s surreal, and weird, and deeply psychological – questioning whether one really exists if they’re not remembered, or whether human bodies are nothing more than vessels for information – but is it actually a good anime? Is it enjoyable?
I admit, this is where most will disagree with me. I didn’t really get Serial Experiments Lain. And I don’t just mean in the normal way. You’ll understand some of it, you’ll question more of it. But that’s normal. It’s just one of those anime you’re supposed to take in, ponder, and never really comprehend. In that regard, it is just like Neon Genesis, to be fair. But personally, I found Lain a tough one to sit through. I’m not someone who needs action, but I thought it slow and monotonous for the most part; and with each episode barely clocking 20 minutes, that’s quite a feat.
Around episode six, things started becoming clearer; and aspects were introduced into the story that I really liked and found myself invested in. But my interest was quickly lost once more and, though I am glad I watched every episode, I think this was more due to the completionist in me than any actual stimulation. I feel like I’m yet to experience everything I can from Lain, and that’s a shame, but it’s not for lack of trying.
But would I recommend the show? Yeah, I would. At thirteen episodes, it’s an incredibly short anime, but it is well-made. And though it feels depressingly claustrophobic at times, Serial Experiments Lain is supposed to. It’s a statement; about not putting your faith in sole reality, or the internet. You are more than your body – you are yourself, your thoughts, your feelings, and those never really disappear, not entirely. It may be tough to decipher such a coded show, but there’s something in it for everybody. Even if it’s just confusion. There is a message, lost in the endless matrix, but though you might never read all of it, you can pluck something from the jumbled numbers.
Serial Experiments Lain is an odd one – and will, perhaps fortunately, remain a cult favourite evermore. But it gives Evangelion a run for its money and leaves you wholly speechless more than once. And who knows? It might just make you think twice before wiring yourself into the mainframe that proves inescapable these days. Where do you end, and where does your virtual self begin?