So I’ve realized I’ve been rambling a lot about some modern anime titles, that I thought it would be nice to talk about an older show that I recently just watched. Airing in 1998, Serial Experiments Lain is regarded by many anime connoisseurs as one of the all time classics. Its considered to be up there with the likes of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell, and Akira as far as cyberpunk themed titles go. And to an extent, I can highly concur to that.
However, let it be known that Serial Experiments Lain is also a colossal mindfuck of epic proportions. Its really the type of series that originally leaves you confused, awestruck, even somewhat terrified by the time the penultimate episode propels itself into existence. I remember binge watching all 13 episodes of this beast with a friend and finding ourselves trying to fully comprehend what the hell we just witnessed by the end of it all. Anyways, Lain is a 13-episode psychological and philosophical examination of the blurred boundaries between the real world and the internet (also known as “The Wired” in the anime).
Each episode starts off in an eerie fashion. The words “Present Day, Present Time” appear on screen, read aloud by a narrator in a rather sinister tone. He ends his speech with a mocking laugh, only to have it followed up with a 10 second clip of television static and a creepy image of a young girl’s head fading in and out. This belongs to our main protagonist, Lain Iwakura, a rather stoic but curious young girl who speaks in a monotone voice and has about as many friends as the ugly duckling on a dreary day. One evening she gets introduced to a new computer system readily installed in her room, and in return the world of The Wired. Things seem to go well enough for her, until she finds out that’s she able to communicate through her monitor to the dead. And then, that’s where things start going haywire.
The anime embraces its psychological and even philosophical roots to its very fullest. A portion of the show mainly serves as a character study for the various people impacted by The Wired, and how they use it as ways of escapism or as coping mechanisms for whatever situations they’ve landed themselves in. It’s also very philosophical in a sense. The characters ponder excessively about their own existence in the real world, and what purpose it serves for both theirs and society’s benefit. There’s even clues and cryptic messages related to whether there’s a God in this world, the existence of cults, the paranormal and so on. But what’s most captivating about the anime is its mystery component. A lot of weird and out of place events happen throughout the early episodes, and its done in such a way that it encourages viewers to want to piece together an explanation. There are even sporadic clues that may hint that The Wired isn’t just the internet but also some alternate dimension, or that Lain herself may not even be human. It doesn’t give out the answers clearly, but it also drives audiences to want to find out more about them. The idea that the writers have set up Lain as this introverted, emotionless girl is a stroke of pure genius. In any other work this would come across as a sign of bad writing, but in this anime, it works well to its advantage. Its almost as if Lain is an alien coming to earth on a mission to decipher all these philosophical messages.
Serial Experiments Lain may be confusing and somewhat indecipherable to newcomers, but its high re-watchability and experimental nature pinpoint it as one of anime’s classics. The idea that a single story is told through subtle clues rather than exposition, is an instant sign of artistic merit. Good writing is the kind that respects the intelligence and deductive abilities of its audience; the type that doesn’t talk down to them or treat them as if they’re morons. Exposition is pleasant and all, particularly if you want some scientific or fantastical jargon defined, but too much of it and it begins to sound overly grating. That’s not to say there isn’t any jargon involved, but its not explained in a manner that’s common with most anime titles. You don’t suddenly have an individual freeze in his tracks to deliver to the viewer and other characters a long-winded description of a concept or object. Exposition in this show feels natural.
But the biggest flaw in Lain is aptly confusing narrative which can be frustrating to get through for first timers. Although subjectively, I’d say that episode 9 somewhat irked me the wrong way. It felt like a cheesy 90s documentary with floating heads of real life figures interspersed across the screen over some crappy CGI effects. This alone, took me out of the episode entirely. I get its purpose and understand that in the 90s it’s kinda difficult to execute something like this, but I just couldn’t get over how cringeworthy it all feels. One minute you were stuck exploring Lain’s uncanny life and the next moment you’re given a history lesson on the internet. I feel like if they truly wanted to do something like that, they could have just made it its own episode instead of trying to intertwine two plots together. Make it an extra on the DVDs rather than try to weave it at constant points throughout the episode.
So, there you have it, Lain is a philosophical romp that takes patience and focus to piece together its subtle and jumbled narrative. Those with a watchful eye and an open mind will be rewarded with a gripping psychological thriller that explores the relationship between our world and the internet, and how everyday both realms are merging together. It’s also very relevant to our times despite being a 90s property.
But despite all this, Lain isn’t the most influential piece of Japanese media in the 90s. That award goes to the next anime I’ll talk about.