Way back in that murky period of my teenage years between finishing British high school and not yet being of legal age to booze publicly with friends, I’d while away a lot of my time surfing the Internet. This was back in those heady days when Netscape Navigator was still a thing and social media wasn’t - not even Myspace had gotten started yet, let alone Facebook. And in such a fledgling era - one that probably enjoys a lot more nostalgic yearning than it should - methods to connect with others were available, but few. The people of the world were just a dial-up tone away via the communication services your trusty ISP provider offered - and if you don’t know what the initials AOL, AIM or A\S\L mean, you’re fortunate. All manner of 'delights' laid in store once connected. Brave souls could visit a chatroom (which were guaranteed to be full of 35 year-old basement dwellers posing as 15 year-old girls), or those opting for a more passive conversation could visit web forums instead (which, in a refreshing twist, consisted of 35 year-old basement dwellers posing as 35 year-old basement dwellers).
Compared to our current landscape of tweets, Snapchats and Skype calls, it really wasn't much. But even in those days, it was easy to get lost in a world that existed beyond the tangible. The illusion of connection, so fervently debated these days as a symptom of social malaise, manifested itself just as easily among the Web users of the 90s as it does with any selfie-obsessed Instagram junkie of today. The only difference is that in those days, it was something to be embraced. The Information Superhighway, as it was so naively labelled, was going to bring us all together - and for the better. The idea that we could know someone sitting behind an ICQ handle just as intimately as our real-world friends, or access depths of knowledge not even a public library could provide, were both feasible and exciting promises of the social utopia that beckoned. Humanity was going to interact with others in ways they never could before, and in a revolution of webcams, instant messages and crackling modems, they were going to get enlightened doing so.
Few opinions could have expressed a wise understanding of what such a jump really meant for society though, given all the rampant optimism of the time. But Serial Experiments Lain, a series right out of that age of early Internet hysteria, comes pretty close. Keen to offer its commentary on Internet ascendance in the guise of an abstract, non-linear psycho-drama, it’s also not a show for those looking for a bit of simple entertainment. Rather, it’s an unnerving, but frequently fascinating take from 1998 on just what the World Wide Web could have had in store for us. And even if some of its concepts and predictions prove it to be a product of its time, Lain’s refusal to clarify the abstruse, disconcerting nature of its plot still makes it an incredibly compelling watch - as does its beguiling lead character.
In fact its lead, 14 year-old Lain Iwakura, is not your typical Japanese middle schooler. Introverted to the point of near-isolation, she spends her time struggling to build friendships with her class peers while at the same time being drawn further towards The Wired - a vast global network that carries the world’s entire volume of electricity-based communication; television to email and everything in-between. In this late 90s alternate reality Japan, almost everyone has access to the Wired and uses it for their daily conversational needs - much like today. What isn’t quite so normal however, is when Lain and her schoolmates suddenly receive an email via the network from somebody they’d never have expected - primarily because that person is confirmed dead.
The message in question is from Chisa Yomoda, a former classmate of Lain’s who recently committed suicide. Though she never had much interaction with Lain during her living years, the message of the email is personal in tone, and insists that she isn’t dead at all. Instead, she has ‘left her physical body’ to live in the Wired itself. While the clique of female students that Lain is on the fringes of pass the incident off as an unexplainable, weird little happenstance only useful for gossip, Lain is both perturbed and intrigued.
Booting up her own home computer after school to view Chisa’s message, she attempts to interact with the sender, even if it’s a hoax or not - only to get back a response not only verifying that is indeed her, but that within the metaphysical world of the Wired, God itself also resides.
This revelation is but the beginning of a series of increasingly bizarre, hallucinatory events that Lain begins to experience as she becomes further embroiled in the mysteries of the Wired, and what it means for her own existence. Interspersed between late nights with her friends at the local night club, Cyberia, and awkward interactions with her curiously aloof family, the Wired’s pull begins to take it toll - to the point that she even begins to see mirror images of herself, personalities differing from her own, out in the real world. As the lines between the Wired and reality become blurred, it becomes increasingly apparent to Lain that Chisa’s digital revival is but a prologue to her own personal transcendence - and what that means for the future of society, plus the mysterious individuals beginning to track her activity in both the digital and physical worlds, are questions that only Lain can answer herself.
It’s also a question that, rather intentionally, refuses to answer itself in anything close to a straightforward fashion. As previously mentioned, Serial Experiments Lain is deeply - and defiantly - esoteric. The depths of the show’s philosophical musings are far reaching, and cunningly disguised under a disorientating morass of lurid-coloured pop-up messages, dead conversational silences and side-plots that unravel themselves in unordered fashion. By far, the most potent weapon the series uses to mystify its viewers is with its own timeline, which seems to be weaved in a similar way to that of a tangled-up fibre cable. Events that make little sense in earlier episodes are only given meaning in later ones without exposition in-between, leaving not only Lain in constant puzzlement as to what's happening, but the viewer as well. It’s an important observation to make though that as confusing as it can all become, it never feels like it’s odd purely for oddity’s sake. Every scene of every chapter only holds an additional riddle to go alongside all the others - and vague as they may be, it’s impossible to shake the idea that they’re all connected. Thankfully, at least for those who love a show that indulges in techno-spiritual symbolism, Lain does conclude itself in fairly coherent fashion, just enough for it to leave a few unexplained mysteries floating around for another re-watch - which was surely the intentional effect.
Even if the existential conundrums themselves aren’t enough, immersing oneself in Lain’s world of neo-modern dystopia is captivating in itself. All throughout its 13-episode run, Lain’s atmosphere is creepy, ethereal, and compulsively arresting. Its unconventional art style and its haunting soundtrack of largely electronic instrumentals (contradicted by a brilliant soft-indie opening theme courtesy of little-known British band Bôa - not the Korean popstar) have aged wonderfully, providing perfect compliments to the show’s otherworldly ambience. This ambience is abundant in Lain’s incidental sounds as well - the humming of power lines in her neighborhood, the bursts of television static that open each episode being just two examples. They all highlight the show’s eagerness to inject a sense of ghost-like sentience into the very technology that binds its plot. This effect is not only a key contributor to the series' necessary and pertinent suspense - it's also a constant auditory indication that a technological awakening is on the horizon - with Lain’s own self-realization the catalyst.
And of course, there is Lain herself. Her subtly striking character design, coupled with her initially awkward personality, make her a fascinating central figure for the show to hinge itself upon. The relationships she begins to successfully build with her school group, particularly with her eventual best friend Alice, form an interesting backdrop for her own digital metamorphosis to take place upon.
But it’s the interactions with both her family, and especially the doubles of herself that she finds on the Wired - some bold, some taunting and others just outright malicious to her - that highlight the changes she’s undergoing the most. What it all leads to is not worth the spoiler here - watch and draw your own conclusions. But it is a development worth the patience, and is driven largely through, and not in spite of, the show’s love for sparse dialogue and abstract visual metaphors. All in all, she’s a captivating figure worthy of having her name in the title, and also a character that will stay with the viewer long after the show is done, whether they’ve enjoyed it or not.
Enjoyment of Serial Experiments Lain, more or less, depends on how much you enjoy shows or movies that favour analogies over cohesion. Forgiving the faux pas it repeatedly makes when prophesizing about the future is key too. Where Lain does suffer is in primarily focusing its story on the tech of its time and making idealistic predictions about its future, resulting in a setting that winds up significantly different from what we have in our current day.
Still, this is a show from the late 90s, and these failed guesses do at least produce a look to Lain’s hardware that is incredibly distinctive. With its all-encompassing platform of the Wired a part of that, it also manages to accurately critique the advent of social media too. Whether that’s completely accidental or not, Lain does deserves some kudos for speculating on that area of things. Particularly for getting it pretty spot-on.
Alienating, eerie and thoroughly engrossing, Serial Experiments Lain definitely isn’t for everyone, but it definitely is worth at least one viewing for any fan of The Matrix (which this show predates by a year), or any anime junkie in need of something with serious philosophical complexity. Against all expectations, and in a similar vein to Ghost in the Shell, its various messages on the future of a networked society - whether that message be technological, psychological or spiritual in theme - have stood up surprisingly well. Those without patience for artistic ambiguity will dismiss it out of hand without question. Those with a willingness to be led down into a dark labyrinth of tech-noir delusion though, will find it’s not just an essential milestone in modern anime storytelling - it’s a landmark for the entire cyberpunk genre as well.
Serial Experiments Lain is currently available for streaming on Crunchyroll, and is available for purchase on DVD and Bluray on Amazon.
Media utilized in article is property of: Triangle Staff / Pioneer LDC / Funimation