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.
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.