NOTE: The pilot episode to “Serial Experiments Lain” is embedded for viewing (as of date of publication) at the bottom of the post. (May not be available in all countries).
DIRECTED BY: Ryūtarō Nakamura
FEATURING: Kaori Shimizu, Bridget Hoffman (English dub)
PLOT: Timid junior high school student Lain receives an email from her schoolmate Chisa, who has recently committed suicide. Chisa states that she is not dead but that she has only abandoned her physical body, ending her email with the words “God is here.” After this event Lain develops an interest in, even an obsession with, “the Wired,” a worldwide communications network similar to the Internet. She discovers that there may be another Lain, identical to her in appearance but with a very different personality, inside the Wired, and that the boundary between the virtual and the real world may not be as sharp as it is thought to be.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Set in a world where a global communications network is almost like a spirit realm, “Serial Experiments Lain” is undeniably weird and surreal, and it is also quite interesting and entertaining to watch. However, it is a (short) TV series, not a movie, and as such an exception would have to be made in order for it to make the List of the Weirdest Movies ever made. The competition is very strong, with true classics such as Stalker and Nosferatu already on the List, and in this company “Serial Experiments Lain” is just not quite outstanding enough to warrant such an exception.
COMMENTS: Mind-bending and confusing plots are not uncommon in anime. A few of the more well-known examples are “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” “Paranoia Agent,” “Rahxephon,” Paprika, and the anime series considered in this review: “Serial Experiments Lain.” What all of these have in common is that they have mysterious plots that leave you wondering “What did it all mean?,” and in fact you can find many Internet debates about the meaning of “Lain.” But does “Lain” really have a true “meaning of it all”? I believe, based on some of his other writings, and his interest in the work of the well-known writer of weird horror H.P. Lovecraft, that series’ writer Chiaki Konaka is a weirdophile. It is likely that he chose to make some scenes weird-for-weirdness’-own-sake without having any particular interpretation in mind. In other words, “Lain” is among other things a work of surrealism. It does not necessarily always make complete sense and it does not need to. That said, it contains interesting philosophical and psychological themes that are well worth discussing.
“Lain” is not really attempting to be serious science fiction in the sense of trying to be, to any extent, scientifically accurate. It does, however, very loosely base elements of its story on real scientific theories, although only on theories that have been rejected by mainstream science. We could say that “Lain” takes place in an alternate world where fringe theories of some of the scientists contributing to the early development of Internet technology have turned out to be true. One of the episodes is largely dedicated to presenting excerpts from the scientific history behind the Internet while also presenting discredited theories of the same scientists, seamlessly mixing the fake and real ideas. This episode appears fairly late in the series and can perhaps to some extent be seen as a deus ex machina, but it does have the positive effect that the technology used in the series and some of the characters’ special abilities gain the appearance of having a scientific explanation within the fictional world. However, these explanations do not survive closer examination. Also, there are some events, in particular in the last episode, which can only be interpreted as supernatural, even given the alternative science in the fictional world. There is also a fair amount of technobabble. Despite the excerpts from real scientific history, “Serial Experiments Lain” is better classified as science fantasy rather than hard science fiction. (In case the reader is thinking “well of course, because surrealism and hard science fiction do not mix!” I would like to point to 2001: A Space Odyssey). While the overall scientific explanations are not realistic, some of the ways that communication technology is being used and its the consequences are believable, and arguably prescient. For instance, we recognize the way that people take on different personas in the Wired than in the real world, and something rather similar to modern social media is used at one point. (This in a 1998 series, five years before the launch of Myspace). Chiaki Konaka has stated that media theorist Douglas Rushkoff was a source of inspiration for the series, and it is likely that the Wired was in part inspired by his writings.
There are also more philosophical themes in “Lain.” The concept of multiple realizability plays a central role—that is, the concept that the same mental property can be implemented by different physical properties potentially in different media, for example in a brain or in a computer (as artificial intelligence). This concept has played an important role in science fiction, in particular in cyberpunk fiction. Among other things, in the relatively well-known manga “Ghost in the Shell” and its (first) animated movie adaptation most characters have replaced their biological brains with electronic “cyberbrains.” The Ghost in the Shell movie was released four years before “Lain” and seems a likely source of inspiration. Compared to “Shell,” “Lain” takes things one step further: in “Lain” human minds can be uploaded into the Wired where they can exist without a body as pure information structures (or “programs”). This idea of “mind uploading” is something that has not been explored in science fiction often, even though similar notions are considered (at least in principle) a real possibility by some scientists and philosophers. Another interesting twist on the same theme the “cybergod” who exists in the Wired. This is a “god” who is not all-knowing or all-powerful, but has gained superhuman powers by becoming a part of the protocol of the Wired (which is imagined to interact directly with every person’s mind on an unconscious level). Again, similar ideas have not often been explored in science fiction (something very similar later appeared in the second of the Matrix movies, but I am not aware of anything quite like this predating “Lain,” although I suspect something is out there). These are examples of how far away “Lain” strays from clichés, instead exploring unusual territory, which is what makes it so fascinating to watch.
Other than “Serial Experiments Lain,” Chiaki Konaka has mostly written plots for horror movies and horror TV series (mostly animated), which are often inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. “Lain” also contains elements of horror. A central concept in the series—how the boundary between the Wired and the real world is becoming less sharp—serves as a basis for introducing horror elements to the story. Among other things, ghostly apparitions of denizens of the Wired sometimes appear the real world, and harmless children take on a threatening appearance in the virtual reality of a popular computer game. We also encounter suicide, murder, and paranoia, among other dark themes. The overall atmosphere of the series is the most important element of horror. There are no safe moments; horrific and/or surrealistic events can occur at any time. Even everyday scenes deviate from expectations: elementary school kids frequent a night club, Lain’s computer turns more and more grotesque as she upgrades it. These techniques create an unsettling atmosphere and keep the viewer from ever feeling too comfortable. This aspect of the series I found to be quite similar to the horror movies of David Cronenberg which make me feel uncomfortable in a very similar way for, I think, rather similar reasons.
Konaka’s work often has psychological themes, and “Serial Experiments Lain” is no exception. Themes appearing in the series include voyeurism, multiple personality disorder, desensitization to violence, and a vivid depiction of paranoid anxiety—in other words, plenty of abnormal psychology. This further supports the “Cronenbergesque” atmosphere of the series. Horror fans will find much to like in “Lain.”
“Serial Experiments Lain” is a unique and complex animated TV series that does its own thing rather than following the conventions of any genre. I have done my best to describe it in this review, but you really need to experience it yourself to properly understand what it is like. If you are still reading at this point, chances are that you may like it. The Wired is waiting for you. Don’t be afraid, it won’t bite… just mess with your head and distort your perception.
366weirdmovies adds: I concur with Fredrik’s analysis and his reasons for recommending against including “Serial Experiments Lain” on the List. The series contains a complete story which takes a total of about five hours to view in its entirety. It could be edited into movie form, for certain, but it does adhere to a television-specific episode structure. We could stretch the definition of “movie” to encompass “Lain,” but, although I enjoy the series greatly, I am not sure it justifies making such an exception. If enough readers disagree with that verdict, we could change our minds.
The series’ episodes are referred to as “layers,” which suggests the complexity of the themes the makers are addressing here. Fredrick has discussed several of the philosophical and thematic layers at play here. There is one additional layer I would like to point out, which is that the series is in many ways a young girl’s coming-of-age tale. In the Japanese equivalent of junior high school, at the cusp of womanhood, Lain is a girl going through major changes. As the series begins she dresses in a childish teddy bear pajamas, but she ends the show’s run… we’ll just say with a more sophisticated sense of self. Not that I would suggest any sort of hard and fast allegorical reading, but there are a lot of resonances between Lain’s fictional science fiction arc and the experiences of a girl entering into womanhood: Lain exists in a seam between the real world and the virtual world, as she exists between the worlds of childhood and adult responsibility; she comes to grips with the fact that her parents are flawed individuals who are not what they seem and are not able to guarantee her safety on her personal journey; through an agonizing process of self-doubt and self-reappraisal, she tries out different identities until she finally comes to grips with her own mature power. Lain is occasionally sexualized (she appears nude in the end credits for each epsidode) in a way that, while honest and respectful, may makes Westerners uncomfortable, but it certainly calls to mind the idea of a girl struggling with encroaching femininity. Given the drama inherent in the character’s transitional age, which serves as a constant background to Lain’s story, I think the similarities between the child/adult and real world/cyber world spectra are more than coincidental.
Funimation currently has the entire 13-episode run of the series up on YouTube for free (which seems like it must be an oversight, since on their own site they only offer the first two episodes gratis and require a subscription to view the rest). At any rate, we’ve embedded the first episode to hook you.
P.S. I particularly love the opening credits!