Ascendence. Transcendence. Unknown. Supernatural. Technology. Fear.

These things need not have anything in common, but more often than not, for better or worse, the human race considers them related. For long has technology’s advance filled people with dread, less so nowadays, but even as late as 1998, some people feared, or at least were awed by, the rise of the Internet and the technology associated with it.

Thus the bizarre and surreal story Serial Experiments Lain was born. This show is a magnificent exposition of the fear of the unknown, the fear of what lies beyond, and the fear of technology’s link to that unknown beyond. As far as anime goes, it’s difficult to categorize this show. It’s not the only high-quality psychological thriller anime out there. But I think it’s by far one of the best. Its themes, whether subtle or overt, are fairly deep, fairly complex, more than a little disturbing, and yet very artistically satisfactory in the end. 

You have to be “in the mood” to watch this show, but it’s a must-see for any serious anime fan. If you’ve been watching anime for several years and you’ve seen lots of popular shows and a few cult favorites, but you still haven’t seen this one, you need to prepare yourself and stop what you’re doing and go experience the ascendance of the one they call Lain.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Characters

Rating: 9

How many characters are there really? One? Five? 10 or so? The whole world?

Only one matters though. Lain Iwakura, born to live, born to rule, born to dominate, born to her own world, a god among men.

I’ve watched this show twice. I had significantly different reactions to it both times. The first time, I was extremely troubled and sad for Lain. Her world was turned upside down, inside out, nearly literally, and she had no control over what was happening to her. She watched the people in her life disappear one after the other as she descended to the ethereal netherworld of the Wired. But the second time through, I marveled at the power of Lain’s existence. No matter the circumstance, no matter what “life” threw at her, she never flinched, never cried out in pain. She stood like a rock, her dead brown eyes calmly taking in the often bizarre surroundings, her ornamental lock of hair hanging upon her left temple like a sword in a sheath. She was the catalyst. She was the reason the events around her occurred. She was the cause, and what’s more, she wanted it that way. This second time through, I saw Lain as having nearly total control over her environment. She didn’t always recognize this, but as it became clearer to her over time, she ascended further in her power. It thrilled my heart!

What is Lain? Is she a human in the right place at the right time? Is she a special creature born to oversee this surreal transition of the human race from corporeal to ethereal? Was she created? Did she create herself? Ah, did she initiate her own existence? Did circumstances result in her creation? Was her creation intentional or circumstantial? Is she a “god?”

I’m not sure there is an answer, or if there should be. The “god” aspect is highlighted fairly overtly in the series. As long as someone believes in a “god,” that god can exist, according to Japanese mythology. If no one any longer believes in a certain “god,” that god will cease to exist. This pops up a couple of times in Lain’s dialogue. Certainly she debates this with Masami Eiri, the self-proclaimed “god” of the Wired, about their mutual status as “gods.” In the end I think we’re supposed to recognize that Lain has some greater power in the Wired than anyone else, and that she’s unique in her abilities and position, but I don’t know if this constitutes her being a “god.”

Her creation and “purpose,” if such a word can be applied, is unclear as well. And I’m not sure if she evolves into her supernatural self or if she’s already that way and simply discovers it. If she’s a “program,” does she evolve in an AI sense or is all of her code already written and she’s simply discovering it? There’s so many questions about her, it’s sometimes a little hard to even know how to approach discussing this character.

An interesting moment early on. Apart from its ghastly alarm, what do you read into this picture?

But perhaps searching for an exact answer to these kinds of questions does a disservice to the quality of the character Lain. Perhaps her greatness as a character lies in the fact that she is inexplicable. Her being, her creation, her existence, her purpose, her relationship to the human race, all defy easy explanation. Even her role within the various factions at work in the real world and the Wired isn’t easy to define. Certainly she isn’t manipulated to anyone’s benefit, nor does any group seem able to control her. Their somewhat worldly interests don’t affect her anymore than the murderer’s gun does in Cyberia. She defies all definition and explanation, and simply exists, dominating her own existence. She is fascinating.

Probably the most interesting aspect of Lain’s development is how she holds onto her physical body. This metaphysical topic of the human need for a physical body plays a big role in this story. Underneath all of this is the ongoing question of what it means to be human, something that’s also a really big part of this story. Lain treats her body with as much impassivity as she does the human race in general. The scene with the gunman in Cyberia is a really good example of this. But at times she holds onto it, as if it is the definition of her humanity. In the most memorable of these moments, Lain attaches all manner of wires to her body, perhaps in some irrational attempt to better connect her “real body” with the Wired, despite the fact that some version of her is “already there.” I forget the other specific moments at this point, but there’s a handful of times where Lain defies the voices of the Wired and insists the human body is important.

The only problem I have with this aspect of Lain is that I’m not sure how it resolves itself. Lain appears to have abandoned any attachment to her physical body by the end of the series, choosing to exist as the omnipresent “program” and simply entering and exiting the physical world as she wills. She doesn’t insist on maintaining her physical form constantly, nor does she seem concerned about whether there’s one, or two, or any other number, of herself in existence. She stops fixating on it. So this part of her character is both interesting and a little weak at the same time. Perhaps its subtle prominence is what causes me to examine it so closely in the first place, revealing little flaws more easily as a result. Regardless, this is one of the most interesting parts of her character.

Her school friends appear and reappear as the story unfolds. Arisu “Alice” Mizuki is a true friend, and tries to remain so to the end. I think she’s part of what helps Lain to better understand humanity in the end, which I think is a good thing. Those other two bozos Arisu hangs out with are weird characters. I’ve heard it said that Arisu and those two are characters in another work by this same author, but I haven’t confirmed that. That would not surprise me, as these characters seem like they could’ve been just dropped into this story from another source. 

As much display of emotion as you’ll see out of Lain. Why, because of rumors? No, because the very existence of rumors implies information exists that she’s not aware of.

Who else is there? Lain’s family is there. Or, the people who are supposed to be her family. They’re all kind of interesting. Dad is kind of aware of what’s going on with Lain at a high level. Her mom appears to know too, though it’s less clear how much she knows. Lain’s poor sister loses her mind throughout the bizarre process through which Lain becomes aware of her true self. I’m not really sure why this happens. There’s various theories out there. But considering these three together, I like to think they all represent different kinds of human reactions to the realization of a complete lack of control over their own lives. Dad knows what’s happening and passively accepts it, even encourages it through his actions. Mom probably knows what’s happening, and isn’t very happy about it, but doesn’t attempt to stop it either. She’s content to live her human life, holding on to the physical things around her (you’ll see her uncharacteristically embracing her husband several times at odd moments) for as long as she can. Mika, the older sister who goes mad, is very worldly, and refuses to accept the reality of what she believes humanity is. She grips her human, worldly life with disdain and passion, and refuses to accept what is clearly put before her. Her reaction to her impotency is to deny reality, refuse to accept the truth, and therefore lose her mind to the impossibility of her stance. It is hard to fight the truth.

Chisa Yomoda is the original catalyst in all of this. She’s the first person to communicate with Lain from the Wired. She embodies another unhappy human reaction to powerlessness: suicide. Having been bullied to her limit, Chisa comes to a realization that she “doesn’t need a body,” so she jumps from a rooftop to her death. Thereafter she communicates to Lain via the Wired, sending her an email to which Lain responds. The most interesting part of this–and it’s really easy to overlook–is that Chisa sent the email to lots of people. Why? To tell you the truth, I don’t yet know why. There must be something relevant to the fact that she sent it to multiple people from her school but only interacted with Lain through it. Surely other people, for whatever reason, chose to respond to the email? Why did only Lain elicit conversation from Chisa? Sure, you can say it’s because Lain is the central figure in all this, so Chisa of course responds to her. But this doesn’t explain why the email was sent to everyone else. Again, this defies explanation, and is therefore interesting to consider.

If there’s something that’s not handled particularly well in this anime, it’s the role of the mysterious organizations working in the shadows of the Wired and the various characters we briefly see from these organizations. This show did not originate in a manga or light novel, or I would pass this off as a poor adaptation from the original. It’s not clear to me what role the Knights of the Eastern Calculus (huh?), or Tachibana Laboratories, or the various shadowy individuals mentioned in one of the middle episodes, play in this show. They add to some of the details in some of the individual episodes, but other than that their role is very unclear. They provide antagonists for Lain, but they don’t always seem set against her. For sure, they all have various interests in her development, evolution, creation, whatever you want to call it, but none of them affect it. Their efforts simply deflect off of her as she charts her own path to enlightenment.

What I do know is that every character that isn’t named Lain is here to simply support the character named Lain. If you’re ever debating with your normie friend and want to give an example of an anime with a central main character that all other characters exist simply to support, Serial Experiments Lain is a great example. Everything’s about Lain. There’s no side plots for supporting characters, no backstory for supporting characters, nothing like that. Side characters appear, disappear, and sometimes reappear within the story, but never play any central part themselves. This story is about Lain, and whether there are five or five billion characters, they all serve to highlight this one central figure. Pretty unusual for anime of any kind!

Artwork

Rating: 10

Woah Hawk, a 10 for this? 

Reason number one: This art is not adapted from a printed source. This is the original and only Lain artwork. That alone doesn’t qualify it for a high rating of course, but combined with everything else, this is big reason why I really like this artwork.

Reason number two: The artwork plays a hugely central role in the story as a whole. Consider the vast amount of times we’re shown power lines in this series. Power lines are probably one of the simplest background items to draw (I imagine) but their prominence here is intentional. Another example is the opening. Only four of thirteen episodes (correct me if I’m wrong) use the opening song. The rest all begin with the same set of traffic lights and car head and tail lights. Or, mostly the same. You’ll spot a difference every now and then, and while you may not recognize the significance of the change, you can be sure there’s some artistic reason for it.

Reason number three: Look at Lain. Do you feel her power? My heart thrills at some of the images of her visage. She could stare down Lelouch, Ken Kaneki, Eren Jaeger, Guts, Jotaro Joestar, Goku, Luffy, name the powerful hero of your choice. And she could do so without any rage on her countenance. She could do so without any obvious emotion on her countenance. Lain does display emotions, but they’re subtle, and they don’t control her. They’re a very human part of her, but they don’t affect her. Her being is the center of her life, not her emotions, not the people around her, not the things she sees, hears, tastes, or feels. Her emotions serve her consciousness. If you look at the various images of her scattered about this review, you see some of that in all of them. Whether she’s happy, sad, depressed, curious, dejected, excited, or angry, her face doesn’t change a lot. She’s not a powerless victim of human life. She lives at the center of human life, and it shows all over her face.

But can she beat Goku?” Hahahahahaha…

Reason number four: It’s the year 1998, and this kind of desaturated art style is everywhere. I’ve talked about this a little with other series I’ve reviewed from this era. A little desaturation of these aging anime can be attributed to degradation of their original film, so that by the time it’s digitized it’s lost a bit of color. But we can all probably agree this anime wasn’t supposed to be super Technicolor. And I love when this style and coloring is used to effect. Specifically, Lain’s desaturation isn’t the typical kind we see. Think of Berserk or Madoka or Monster, and you see a gray tendency in the coloring. Lain’s desaturation is more on the brown side. I’m not sure why this choice was made, but I know I like it. I’m not a fan of shades of brown usually, but for some reason it has a noticeable positive effect on my experience in this show. I like this late ‘90s art style already, but combine it with this somewhat unique coloring and I’m enthralled. 

Reason number five: lighting and cinematography. I could go into details of the sunlight that streams through Lain’s bedroom window and how it’s not much different in appearance than the light from her computer screens. I could go into the distinctly weird shadows cast upon the ground by structures, something you notice right away with its red splotches, but never really resolve the mystery of in your mind. I could go heavily into details about perspective angles, such as the notable face-forward frames or those odd scenes where people’s faces are turned towards Lain while their bodies remain mostly unmoved, sometimes unnaturally so. Our point of view is never restricted to eye level. Almost randomly, we view characters from above, below, side to side, behind, all manner of angles. I almost believe there’s a reason for all of it.

Put it all together, it’s a fantastical visual display. I would never say it’s beautiful, other than the fact that it’s anime artwork and therefore has that inherent beauty. But I can’t describe anything here as “beautiful.” But I can’t describe it as ugly either, nor plain. I can describe it in that one way that makes anime artwork so great to me: this artwork is as humanly-nonhuman as any example you’ll ever see out there. This brings to mind all the questions about the human need for a body, etc., aforementioned, and that thread of undercurrent in this show. Hence the artwork goes the extra mile, as we say, and supports the story in that way. It does the thing that makes anime artwork great in the first place and supports a huge story element while doing so. I can’t ask for much more from anime artwork than that.

Story

Rating: 9

Like many people, I’ve spent time wondering if this is a character- or story-driven anime. On one hand, you have Lain, and she speaks for herself as a character. On the other, you have this curious tale interwoven with a number of highly interesting literary undercurrents that compete for your attention throughout.

So I’ll leave unresolved the matter of whether characters or story propel this tale forward, and simply note some of those interesting undercurrents. You don’t see some of these every day in anime, and even if you do, not on the level of intricacy that they appear in Lain.

The biggest one is the fear of technology. Remember, this show was created in 1998, at the tail end of the 20th century. The 20th century was often characterized by this fear. Without making you sit through history class again, recall the fears that arose in the late Industrial Revolution era, culminating in the rise of mechanized warfare and the horrors of World War I that shocked the consciousness of the world. Certainly the literary world from that era is littered with the fear of life and unknown, a great part of which came from the societal upheavals that rose from massive technological advances. This subsided for a short period until the end of World War II, which ended with the two atomic bombings of Japan. After witnessing those displays, fear reigned supreme during the Cold War era. The dread that arose from the fear of nuclear holocaust still affects mentalities from that era today (2021). Finally, as that fear dragged on for nearly fifty years and eventually began to dwindle, a new mysterious technology arose: the personal computer and the Internet.

People often didn’t know what to make of the Internet. What was it? What constitutes it? Remember, people had been communicating by telephone wire for less than 100 years at this point, and by slow ass handwritten and hand-delivered letter before that, one person to one person. Now suddenly their communication was exposed to innumerable numbers of people who they often had no idea who were, where they were, or whether they were even welcome to the communication. You might understand how this could freak some people out. We accept the Internet as a given today, and most people have heard the word “server” or “IP address,” etc., and have some idea of how that relates to the Internet, thereby removing any fear of an unknown. And we see it everyday—thankfully, as I can now transmit all of this to you today! 

CoNnEcTeD.

But in the 1990s, there was still a great deal of uncertainty about the Internet. Fear of technology riddled the entire 20th century, and it culminated at this point for many people. Serial Experiments Lain is an outgrowth from that fear, and it portrays it very well. Just the title itself sounds spooky, doesn’t it? I don’t think she, or anybody else arguably, is doing any experiments, serially or otherwise. 

Electricity humming through power lines. The whirring and clicking of ‘90s era hard drives. The unsteady blue light of computer monitors. The uncertainty of how information is transmitted from one point to the next. What was this new and fearful world? All of this plays an overt role in Lain. I could go on about it for a lot longer, but it suffices for now to recognize its presence and shape in this anime, and to note how unusual this kind of a theme is for anime.

Tied directly into the fear of technology is the fear of the unknown. People abuse this phrase and twist it into applications in the real world too often–and too often improperly–and as a result it becomes less interesting as a literary or metaphysical topic than it should be. In Lain’s case, I’m simply talking about a fear of what lies beyond our universe-bound consciousness. Fear of the supernatural, if you will. Combine that with a fear of technology, the Internet being that technology in this case, and you have a steaming cauldron of irrationality that seeks to boil through one’s mind and shut you down in a state of absolute terror. Little wonder that Mika Iwakura goes insane right?

While I would argue that these fears are irrational, its presence in human life is undeniable, and the cause for great error in human judgement. Serial Experiments Lain shines a big spotlight on this kind of fear by coupling it with the fear of technology. One could argue these two fears are inextricably related anyway, but if they weren’t, here’s a good example of how they could be related. I don’t want to dig into the details in this simple review. But it’s worth noting, again, that such themes are somewhat rare in anime. Even if fear of the unknown makes lots of appearances in lots of other media, it usually does so poorly as I mentioned, making the subject trite and usually uninteresting to more artistically-minded audiences. But in Serial Experiments Lain, we see a great example of how such themes can be used to great effect while avoiding any resemblance to the trite iterations in other media.

Can you face fear with this kind of power?

The last big theme or undercurrent revolves around the debate over the human mind. I don’t mean the “need for a body” theme, which is slightly different, and less interesting (ask me why), in my opinion. I mean the undiscovered power of the mind. This is something physicians and metaphysicists and philosophers continue to explore to this day. Most of us have heard the saying “we’re only using x% of our brain,” where x is far less than 100%. Stuff like that is to writers what a giant playground is to little kids! We’ve all seen applications of this concept in all kinds of modern literature, anime or otherwise. While Lain doesn’t deal with this matter as overtly as it does with the other themes mentioned above, it touches on it unavoidably. Beyond just the physical capacity of our brains, we don’t fully understand what constitutes our consciousness or what we are not perceiving. We know what we are perceiving (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!) but we cannot know what we cannot know. We don’t know the limits of our abilities. We don’t know the limits of willpower (though, depending on your shounen protagonist, it apparently can make you physically stronger, not feel pain, suffer massive blood loss without blacking out, etc.!) or whether communication is limited to outward signals alone. This is all a giant subject extending all over the physical and extraphysical realm. But once again, Lain does a great job highlighting this interesting idea for its viewers, again an uncommon theme in the world of anime.

You might say that just because an anime is covered over in interesting themes doesn’t mean the story is high quality. Absolutely this is true. In fact, usually the opposite is true. The more intricate themes a writer tries to cram into a story, usually the more confusing and uninteresting it becomes. We’ve all seen examples of this. This usually results in some character screaming at the top of their lungs about some realization or other that he or she just came to in the last few minutes when we realized it 10 episodes ago. In Black Clover’s case, this happens every one or two episodes—I have to beat up on Black Clover occasionally, I can’t help it. In other words, the result usually is an incoherent mess. But, on the other hand, if a writer uses powerful themes effectively, then the result is quite remarkable. Fortunately Lain falls into that latter category.

Does the story make sense? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think any thread in the story particularly carries through to the end. Lain lives with a family that isn’t “her own,” and through a series of timely events and machinations of those with more worldly interests, she evolves into her transcendent state. Not much to it. But the whole story is borne along by its heavy undercurrents. In that sense, there isn’t really an “outward” story apart from Lain’s realization of her state, but there is a ton of story “between the lines.” This is another rarity in anime, or perhaps in any literature. I feel free to draw a little bit of an odd comparison here: the best example of something like this in literature is undoubtedly The Great Gatsby, where a very plain story sits atop a massive set of intricate themes. I choose to highlight that novel because, number one, a lot of you have read it, and two, because of its preeminence in the literary world. That respect comes not from the storyline itself, but from the power of what’s “between the lines,” what undergirds the characters and the story. So while Lain doesn’t particularly have much of an interesting story, the reason you can’t put this show down once you start is because of how much is going on beneath the story. It cannot be easily seen, but it cannot be ignored either.

There was one part of this story that felt completely out of place and I couldn’t comprehend its inclusion. The little alien guy that showed up. I don’t think I’ll ever understand that. That episode gives a lot of the backstory as to how technology got to this point in the recent past, and showed some of the people involved in that progression. But the alien baffles me. Maybe it’s just supposed to.

Oh, and do you remember “Present day…present time…hahahaha”? What, you thought there was a time travel element to this show? Hahaha! Yeah, weird.

Overall: 10

Serial Experiments Lain is unique. That’s one of the greatest compliments one can give to a work of art. Uniqueness combined with artistic quality in anime puts you in the top 20 all time, no question. Lain is a must-see for any serious anime fan. 

The show is so unique it creates a single drawback. The age old anime fan question: “What anime would you recommend to a first-time viewer?” Lain is not it! This anime is a great example of how the medium can be used to great effect for such interesting artistic elements, but it surpasses what we commonly understand as anime for that very reason. Not that “anime” is understood as an average artistic medium—quite the contrary to cultured viewers—but that the anime experience usually isn’t one of such thematic and philosophical depth. That’s not a bad thing. Art needn’t be academically sophisticated to be great (ever hard the term “artsy-fartsy?”). But if you think of “anime,” Lain is one facet of a large jewel, without which the gem wouldn’t be as precious, but it doesn’t well represent the entire medium. 

Maybe that’s not even a negative. Perhaps the show is just too good to be put in the same category with KonoSuba or Tonikawa or One Piece, all of which I often recommend as first-time-viewer shows. But that’s the same reason I don’t recommend people start with Monogatari either, because it transcends the medium in a sense. Lain is very similar. It’s anime, but it’s more than that. It’s something only anime could be, but it’s more than anime as we know it. And I could hardly describe that as a negative.

In any case, Lain adds to the world of anime as only it can. I don’t think there will ever be another show like it. Even if this art style saw a serious revival (and I’d be ecstatic if it did) you couldn’t recreate the thematic power and relevancy. Other shows could be made that use a theme of fear of technology, and certainly others will be made using the fear of the unknown and the ethereal, but given the timing of this show in 1998, you won’t have that kind of timely relevance. This show fits well into history in that sense. How many anime can you say that about?

An interesting show. An evocative show. A confusing show. A stimulating show. But above all, an engrossingly entertaining show, on both the casual and academic level. You can’t watch this show straight through. It’s too much for your mind to keep up with. But you won’t want to stop watching. You’ll want to finish this in a day even though your mind tells you to take a break. It’s quite powerful and quite absorbing. For the newer viewer I say this: put it off for a while or just soak it in if you decide to go ahead and watch it. For the seasoned view I say this: what are you waiting for? Use that piece of technology before you and go experience this masterpiece!

Don’t be sad. We will always be connected.

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