Serial Experiments Lain – Review

[Justin’s note: This entire Lain section was written by Irina March, who has retired from the site]

I remember when, a little over a year ago, a friend of mine (let’s call him Dom, purely for convenience’s sake) shoved a grimy videotape in my hands enthusiastically babbling: “You HAVE to see this, it’s weird, it’s really weird, you’ll like it, it’s kind of like Eva but I don’t know, not really…”

Coherence is not the first thing I look for in a friend.

When I got home that evening, I obediently popped the tape into my VCR and waited to see what had transformed an otherwise calm and cynical young man into the jiggling, jabbering creature that had accosted me earlier. I watched with polite attention the opening credits (after all I had promised to give this a serious try) noting that the animation seemed a bit minimalist for my tastes, the music was not my cup of tea but it did seem to fit the animation well, and the heroine (or at least the little girl we follow around through the opening theme) had an inexplicably eerie presence. I was settling down for an interesting evening of anime, nothing too exciting, I got something completely unexpected. Right from the very first scene, Lain hit me like a ton of bricks. As the series begin, we see a young girl (not the one from the opening) complete with schoolgirl uniform and bag shuffling through darkened city streets. The focus shifts from her to a pair that could be lovers or a prostitute and her client. The street is dirty, garbage is strewn about the place, many broken neon signs flicker and buzz overhead. Obviously this is not a place for a Japanese schoolgirl to be taking a walk. At this point most people would expect to find something out about this girl, what is she doing here, where does she come from or even what is her name? Instead though, we watch her go to the roof of an apartment building and then remorselessly fling herself over the edge. Through all this, cryptic messages with psychedelic backgrounds flash on the screen. Although we are spared the graphic details I found this scene extremely unsettling, probably because it was shown with such complete detachment. I also found this scene totally engrossing, needless to say that after that, Serial Experiments Lain had my entire and undivided attention and politeness had nothing to do with it.

The episode went on to introduce me to the figure I had found so creepy in the opening credits, Lain is in fact a lot like I was in high school, to an extreme of course. She’s shy, goes mostly unnoticed by her fellow students and family alike, she never takes the lead in any situation, in sum; she’s the classic shrinking violet. In fact, watching her, you get the feeling that she has resigned herself to being alone. From what little we gather, the girl who killed herself, Chisa, seemed to have been much the same way.

Because Lain is so introverted, it is difficult to get to know her even if you happen to be in the audience.

Once Lain gets to class, she learns not only of the chilling news of Chisa’s death but also that somebody has been playing a cruel joke. Several girls in Lain’s school have gotten e-mail messages from Chisa apparently sent after her death. Although most people disregard these as the product of some deranged mind better left ignored, Lain herself becomes obsessed with them. Even though she was not very close to the dead girl and is so clueless when it comes to computers, she doesn’t even know how to get her e-mail; she feels she should receive a message as well. Of course she does. Again, it’s some cryptic message the bulk of which reads: “I have only abandoned my flesh, I am still alive.”

Spooky isn’t it, and that was just the first episode, after that things start getting a little bizarre! So what is Serial Experiments Lain? I know that despite the fact that I have given you a thorough account of the first episode you probably still have no clue what this series is about. The problem is that Lain’s story is so full of twists and turns that it becomes difficult to give someone even a very general summary without giving something away. The best I can do is this: the writers of Serial Experiments Lain have created an elaborate story seeking to answer two basic questions. Question number one:

-Once the Internet becomes available to all and at all times, how will it affect human society and interactions, as we know them?

Question number two (and most important):

-How far can the Internet evolve?

Now that you have some vague idea of the storyline, let me tell you what’s so good about it, and what isn’t. First off, Lain was obviously meant for a thinking public and that’s kind of flattering. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a hormone driven shonen comedy or mecha splatter fest as much as the next guy but it’s good to make sure that my brain still works once in a while. Of course, the fact that S.E.L. will be categorized by some as an intellectual anime can also be it’s downfall, after all not everyone enjoys theses kinds of series and I should warn you that if it’s the case for you, you should stay as far away from Lain as possible. Second, Lain’s world and its mysteries are so close to our own that we can easily identify with the surroundings. This could almost happen to us. The only reasons Serial Experiments Lain is not part of my top five favorite anime series of all time are that for one thing several very interesting elements of the storyline are just abandoned in the middle. It’s a little like talking to an elder grandfather who forgets what he was about to say. Let me give you an example without giving too much away, in the second episode we are given a full description of the drug Accela, an engineered nano-machine that stimulates the brain and metabolism creating a sensation that one is accelerated in comparison to his surroundings, and then, the drug is never mentioned again. Several such examples pop up throughout the series and this can become quite frustrating, especially when you are anxiously waiting for a follow-up. Also, you might have noticed that I don’t talk much about the characters, that’s because, there isn’t much to say. Whether to create some kind of mysterious ambiance or to try to get a message across, the creators of the series have opted to keep the characters shallow and unemotional. This will put off most people.

Last, as I mentioned earlier, the animation itself was a bit of a let down. I would qualify it as average at best. The character designs are very realistic, none of the girls look like supermodels and there isn’t a bishonen in sight, unfortunately, they are also very boring. The only up side for me was Lain’s popular one piece, teddy bear pajamas.

One the other hand, the soundtrack is perfectly suited to the series. Scenes alternate from being flooded with deafening silence creating a rigid and tense atmosphere out of nothing, to being positively littered with frantic techno beats.

In short, Serial Experiments Lain is exactly that, a series of experiments that, like most experiments, will either fascinate you or bore you to death. To this day I don’t know what Dom saw that could have made him think of Evangelion. Maybe I’ll ask him some day.