Serial Experiments: Lain

Serial Experiments - LainSynopsis: Close the World. Open the Next. Decades before the internet was something people carried around in their pockets, these words introduced anime fans to a surreal existence where computer monitors served as portals to brave new worlds. Serial Experiments: Lain and its deceptively “ordinary” title character redefined an entire generation’s concepts of the world wide web, prompting us all to suspiciously take note of humming power lines and central processing units. Follow along as fourteen year old Lain – driven by the abrupt suicide of a classmate – logs on to the Wired and promptly loses herself in a twisted mass of hallucinations, memories, and interconnected-psyches. Close the World. Open the Next. It’s as simple as the flip of a switch.

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Serial Experiments: Lain 8.5

eyelights: the challenging, abstract themes. the hypnotic tone.
eyesores: the animation.

“No matter where you go, everyone’s connected.”

How does one describe ‘Serial Experiments: Lain’? Would “metaphysical science-fiction animated drama” do the trick? Hard to say. But, in my books, it’s as close as one could ever get, given the density of the subject matter and the abstract quality of the storytelling. Let’s just say that this isn’t your average anime – nor is it not pop culture stuff like ‘Pokémon’, either.

‘Serial Experiments: Lain’ is the story of a lonely school girl who begins to explore the Wired, an alternate version of the internet, and finds her everyday life crumbling in the process. Very soon, she is unsure what is real, what isn’t, and who she truly is. Complicating matters are emotionally-detached family members, sinister agents, and shadowy revolutionaries.

I knew nothing of this series when I first grabbed it, some 12-15 years ago. DVD was new at the time and a local second-hand shop had it for relatively cheap. Based on the looks of it (I hadn’t seen anything like it before!) and the price-point, I decided to give it a try. I was immediately engrossed, and eventually picked up the whole series.

Since then, I converted a close friend of mine to it, and later my gf. As challenging as it was, we all found it uniquely satisfying; it forces you to stay sharp and makes you reflect on existential matters in a way most animated shows don’t. I’ve since met a fair number of people who also relish this show – which has appropriately picked up a cult following over time.

A true original, it deserves this attention and praise.

But it’s a puzzling piece. I will stop short of serving up spoilers because this is a mini-series whose layers (ironically, the episodes are called “layers”) are worth peeling away one by one. This is a series that’s best savoured slowly. (and, as such, I would highly recommend not reading up on it too much if your interest is already piqued – just go get the darned thing and watch it!)

Unlike regular anime, ‘Serial Experiments: Lain’ is designed as a more atmospheric, contemplative piece. Eschewing action in order to make intellectual stimulation its central force, aside from some minor ambient noise, these episodes are filled with silence, allowing the viewers to sit back, absorb what has transpired and try to fit the pieces together.

It’s a good thing, too, because it can get especially cryptic.

Loaded with questions about reality, existence, the nature of God, human inter-connectivity and many brain-wracking other subjects, it’s unsurprising that it would get confounding. I myself have seen the series two and a half times (I initially watched the first half twice) and still can’t wrap my mind around all the aspects of this slow, but challenging show.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

For instance:

  • I loved that Lain started with a rudimentary, but cute, computer (called a “Navi”), and then built herself a monster computer that requires coolant to operate. But why is there water all over the floor at all times? And why are the parents letting that happen? How does this not leak into the floors below? Don’t get me wrong: it looks awesome.. but it defies logic.
  • How do people plug their consciousness in the Wired so that they seem physically present? At first, the show seems to suggest that it’s a visual interpretation of the internet, but by the end one realizes it’s meant more literally than figuratively. What’s interesting is that the more powerful a person is, the more fully-formed they are in the Wired. Interesting concept, but how does that work?
  • How can Lain affect the real world by making changes in the Wired? What kind of power does she hold? How do the two inter-connect, exactly? And why is this power only possible for her? Surely someone else would have tried to do the same and succeeded, or come close. And how could she possibly be more powerful than “god” himself, who created the code for the Wired?
  • Lain can’t tell the difference between her reality and the other Lains’. We can’t always tell either. Is she fragmenting mentally or are there other entities being created by the Wire? This remains unclear in the show, although there are plenty of assertions being made online to this effect. By the show’s end, one gets the sense that it’s the latter, but the explanation doesn’t really make sense.
  • Why is her family behaving so weirdly? For starters, her parents have such a strange, detached way about them. If they’re not her real parents, why wouldn’t they play the role more properly? And if they are her parents, what gives? Secondly, why does her sister suddenly becoming catatonic? And why isn’t anyone doing anything to help her? And if she was planted there, like that parents, wasn’t she prepared for what was to come?
  • The Knights are extremely clever and seem to be very organized. However, we don’t understand who these truly people are – these people who seem like regular everyday folks. And, if they’re so clever, how is it that they’re so easily knocked off? You would think that they would have planned for counterattacks. You would also think that they wouldn’t be so localized, that it would be more of an international operation.
  • The show makes claims about scientific research into technological connection and the Earth’s frequency. Is that for real? Or is that fiction? Is the theory that the Earth’s human population coming close to the number of neurons in a human brain accurate? Either way, I love the notion that the world might activate when our population hits that magic number. Of course, this doesn’t account for other life forms…

And that’s just for starters!

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

Of course, that’s part of the appeal. A story that lays it all out too clearly, leaving no challenges for its audience, is not nearly as remarkable as a story that leaves enough unsaid that it forces people to exercise their minds in order to get a full understanding. It makes the audience participate, ultimately giving the tale more longevity than if it were spoon-fed.

Stylistically and structurally, ‘SE:L’ also likes to challenges: a mixture of animation and live footage, fiction and historical records, urban legends, religion and science, and so forth, it’s very hard to pin it down.  It radically changes on a dime and then returns to then resume its regular broadcasting. With ‘Lain’, one can’t complacently expect traditional storytelling techniques. This isn’t Disney.

Visually, I also find the series interesting. For one, I’ve never seen an animation style such as this one: it’s minimalistic, reusing visual motifs frequently in each episode and from one episode to the next. This prevents the audience from being distracted from the show’s plot and themes. It’s also not entirely realistic, which is in keeping with the questions being raised here.

From an aural perspective, it’s also fairly minimalistic. As mentioned earlier, there’s lots of silence, which serves to highlight the frequent unnatural hum of generators and computer equipment that are central to the science fiction side of the story. This reminds us of the relationship between the organic and inorganic, a major theme of the piece.

‘Serial Experiments: Lain’ has been picked apart, analyzed and discussed in great detail since its inception, and I could hardly even attempt to encapsulate all that’s been said about it. I would urge anyone remotely interested to simply plunge in and try to sort it out for themselves – and then go read up about it in the many resources available online, in our version of the “Wired”.

It’s well worth it. It’s not every day that one stumbles upon a metaphysical anime – one that talks about human connection and dares to question reality and consciousness. It’s a rare treat. Brain candy. And, even if one doesn’t end up enjoying the direction that goes in, ‘Lain’ is worth experimenting with; it’s an experience like none other, one that one cannot soon forget.

Date of viewing: January-February, 2014

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