Serial Experiments Lain opens with the main character, Lain, receiving her first PC (personal computer). Lain is your average Japanese teenager, though a bit shy. Her family belongs to the solid Japanese middle class and she lives in your average Tokyo suburb. Lain doesn’t know much about computers or technology, but her relationship with both take a sinister turn when she begins receiving emails from a classmate who recently committed suicide. The emails suggest that this girl did no die, but merely abandoned her physical body to exist completely within the Wired, a global communications network similar to the internet. After this revelation, the series become increasingly surreal and dark as the barrier between the real world and the Wired becomes increasingly blurred and Lain is drawn closer to her electronic doppelganger and possibly the God of this virtual universe.
The series is notably lacking in any explosive action or confrontation. Relying instead on gorgeous animation and superb writing, the series is a deeply philosophical look at man’s relationship with technology – a topic that is as relevant today as it was in 1998 when the anime was released. The standard images of the Japanese cityscape become increasingly twisted; the buzzing of power lines are an ever-increasing roar, their shadows intersect with one another and the humans around them, and concrete sidewalks seem pulsate with electronic energy. The true strength of Serial Experiements Lain is its ability to take mundane environments and objects and twist them into surrealist nightmares, which adds to the atmosphere of unreality as Lain’s psychedelic confrontations with her electronic double drawn her further into the virtual universe of the Wired. The story follows a non-linear format, a style of storytelling that has been more warmly embraced in Japan than America. The anime splices together fragmented scenes and vignettes with a chaotic mess of colors and sounds to bring the audience from Lain, the epicenter of the series, towards an expansive vision of the future of mankind and technology.
Released 10 years after Akira, Serial Experiments Lain continues to explores many of the same concerns central to the anime classic and rests comfortably within the Japanese cyberpunk subgenre. However, this series is an interesting response to the quintessential cyberpunk anime films (Ghost in the Shell, Armitage III). Unlike the rebellious motorcycle punks and cybernetically-enhanced police women, Lain is a shy junior high school student whose increasing integration into the virtual world of the ‘Wired’ (something much more vast than the Internet) leads her to question reality, the concept of ‘self’ and ‘God,’ and her very identity. The choice to explore a variety of post-modern philosophical musings through the perspective of a young schoolgirl, an iconic figure that became (and continues to be) a highly commercialized and exploited figure in Japan, is of key significance to the series. The young girl has become a signifier of contemporary Japanese consumer culture and its obsession with the ephemeral (youth and beauty) and the material. The vulnerability of shoujo characters is particularly significant in relation to contemporary Japan, underlining the fact that the country is intensely aware of its anomalous international position – economically powerful but militarily vulnerable, no longer completely ‘Asian’ but certainly not ‘Western,’ with its traditions constantly threatened from both within and without.
Serial Experiments Lain is a complex series that moves slowly and offers little in way of answers to the questions it poses. Drawing from a variety of intellectual and historical references and layering complicated narratives with dark surrealist images, it is also a series that deserves close attention and revisiting. Serial Experiments Lain is an important addition to the long history of films and series that address Japans ongoing negotiation with technology and modernity and I highly recommend it for the passionate anime fan and anyone interested in Japanese filmmaking. Casual viewers looking for popcorn-entertainment or silly anime entertainment will not like this series.