Serial Experiments Lain Revisited: Episode 01

Twenty years ago this summer, a series premiered in Japan that tackled the complex topics of communication, reality, depression, and even theology. Serial Experiments Lain, the brainchild of a number of individuals but most closely associated with Yoshitoshi ABe for his character designs, became an influential series both in Japan in the west. Mesmerizing in its imagery, the psychologically screwy series is seen through the eyes of middle schooler Lain, as reality slowly melds into the digital realm as she (and we) question, what is real?

Here at Beneath the Tangles, we have a complicated view of it—some of us, myself included, consider it among our favorites; others couldn’t manage past the first couple of episodes. But even just my personal relationship with the series is complicated. I was enthralled by it at first—it was one of the first anime I watched. I sold off my DVDs, however, when I became troubled by the religious content, before later purchasing the excellent BD collector’s set when I had grown enough to grow past my issues with the series.

This summer, we’ll honor this series by going episode by episode through it. I’ll post on Fridays—feel free to join along with your own re-viewing (or watch it for the first time) as we dive in.

Layer 01

Lain, a middle-schooler with asymmetrical hair and a fixation on brown bears, begins seeing and hearing strange things, none more than the messages she exchanged with fellow student, Chisa, through her Navi (personal computer), unusual because Chisa is dead, killing herself several weeks prior. Lain also notices—or daydreams?—the suicide of another girl, who passes in front of her train to school. But are these girls really deceased, or do they live on in the Wired (Internet)? A message beckons Lain to possibly find out: “Come to the Wired as soon as you can.”


Serial Experiments Lain was startling when I first watched it. The creators meant to make you uncomfortable, even to create terror within the audience. It feels unsettling even now—maybe even more so now, away from a time when psychological thrillers were more common among the core of anime viewing habits. Back then, we had Evangelion and Perfect Blue to prepare us for shows like this—there’s little popular anime of that sort these days. But even so, I wasn’t ready ready for the discomfort, which begins with ABe’s character design. Lain’s appearance is especially childlike, compared both to her family and classmates, but she’s cold and distant. There’s something off about her, extenuated by the one ponytail on the side of her hair.

The other characters, too, add to the ambience, the only “normal” characters being Lain’s classmates. Her family is striking, especially dad in episode one: he carries on a conversation with Lain behind multiple CPUs and monitors—she walks in with her famed bear costume, exemplifying her childishness, and talks to her father who responds to her only until he brings up the media of his pleasure on his screens—not pornography, but animation of headless figures in burlesque costumes.

The animation, too, adds to the effect. Distortion and blurring is frequently used, especially as we see through Lain’s eyes. But more subtle (and more impactful) are the backgrounds. Each 3-5 segment in the episode is so artfully crafted, focusing on specific elements while blending into backgrounds that are unconventional and sometimes abstract. Even without a plot that focuses on this theme, the shots themselves tell us, “nothing is as it seems.”

It’s easy to imagine that the characters in the series might suffer existential crises, but at their displeasure we’re awarded with important topics to consider ourselves about the nature of reality, the significance of communication, and the place of the Internet. In fact, Lain feels far ahead of its time—we should be past some of these questions by now which have to do with digital communication, but it seems we’ve bypassed them and let the Internet become the center of our lives without wondering what effect this all has and what it means. And so, while Lain is prescient in some ways that are amusing (her Navi OS log-in reminds me of the face log-in feature on my iPhone), other ways are disquieting, which is perhaps why it’s worth rewatching this classic in the first place.

Present Day. Question Time.

  • I’ve watched Lain twice through, and parts of it several other times. Still, outside of the opening scene and the conversation between Lain and her father, the episode seemed new to me. The next episode is more memorable to me (not that this one isn’t good), and I’m looking forward to watching it again.
  • When Lain says aloud to “be quiet” on the train, and everyone stares at her, I was reminded of Shinji Ikari. Though the series isn’t said to be influenced by Evangelion, which aired several years earlier, the scenes are comparable. In both, neither means for others to hear their words (Shinji just kind of pumps his fist and says, “Yes!”), but then the two are marked by differences. Shinji is laughed at by children and retreats further into his shell, while Lain doesn’t notice the stares of adults, who seem to try to ignore her—the earlier is starting to spiral toward suffering and psychosis, while the latter heads toward “truth,” even if it’s also difficult to comprehend.
  • Lain’s mom not responding to her daughter—class A parenting! The point is certainly made that things are very broken in this family. In fact, the scene only subtly demonstrates the true dysfunction of it all.
  • The OS design for Lain’s Navi was once available for download, though apparently it’s no longer functional.
  • When I first started watching anime, I really wanted to purchase cels. I would frequent eBay for them, especially for Tenchi Muyo ones, but those in my price range didn’t look particularly interesting. Going back in time, I think I’d want to buy cels for this series instead for reasons I mentioned above—individual cels for Lain are pieces of art.

Let us know your thoughts below! And join us next Friday Thursday (we’ll go one day early for next weekly only because of our light novel club, previously scheduled for Friday) for the next installment.


11 thoughts on “Serial Experiments Lain Revisited: Episode 01

  1. This anime reminds me of an anime that my brother watched called Made In Abyss, which is exclusive to Amazon Prime Instant Video. I haven’t seen it at all
    (neither this one), but I can definitely see what you mean by “wasn’t ready for the discomfort” and “headless figures in burlesque costumes”. Hearing that, I try to honor God and His Word by not watching anime like that, because I feel like it could almost bring the same harm toward Him too. I hope I’m not wrong…
    For myself, the sensitive person I am, I’m going to say no to this one.

    I’m sorry if I hurt you’re feelings.

    1. No worries, Rachel! Some of our staff is turned off by this series as well, and I was at one point, so I definitely understand. On the other hand, I’ve heard incredible things about Made in Abyss—I keep meaning to return to it (I’ve only seen one episode).

  2. I’m really looking forward to read your reviews! Lain resonated deeply with me; it’s the fourth show in my list, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that subtle and nightmarish feeling of unease conveyed throught the art (which I recognized from my daily, technological life), and those strange but fragile and human characters, and the strange but hopeful search for a theology… There’s a lot to analyze, this is going to be fun!

    1. I’m looking forward to it, to! I’m not sure I’m up to a heavy theological analysis, so any thoughts as we get into the real “God” portions of the series are more than welcome!

  3. Serial Experiments Lain was one of the anime I watched when I was very young, barely twelve. In essence, I would’ve been slightly younger than Lain appears to be. And the reason the show stands out for me is thus…a little different.

    I can’t say that my younger self understood anything that was happening in the show at all, but I *intuitively* understood exactly one thing: the idea of the childlike Lain growing wiser, stronger, and learning to become more forceful and opinionated. To me, her peculiar childlike nature wasn’t unusual at all: it was the exact rut I was stuck in. Somewhere between a child and an adult, and accepted as neither, while in puberty being forcibly pulled between the two. The show mirrors this by having “two of Lain”: the unawakened child Lain and the weirdly sexually mature, charismatic, “god of the Internet” Lain. The two merge by the end of the show. But for a while, you have this disconnect between the adult and child self. And metaphorically, that gap is what puberty was like for me, and probably a lot of people. You see it pretty prominently in metaphor in the opening.

    Outside of that though….yeah. There’s something alarming, cold, and disquieting about the show itself. The uncanny sense that somehow, the Internet is *watching you,* and you are watching it. The thing Lain is wrestling with…we just kind of used bread and circuses to drown it out, didn’t we? We forgot about it. Then again, our Internet and real life personae are, in a sense, a good deal more connected than they were in the age of Lain….

    1. That’s an interesting perspective! From that POV, it makes sense that Lain is a middle schooler, beyond the traditional use of that aged protagonist in anime. Her best friend undergoes that kind of awakening, in several ways, throughout the series, but I hadn’t though of it from Lain’s perspective as well.

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