Reviews Too Late: Lain

by wjw on January 6, 2009

Serial Experiments: Lain (1998) is a kind of philosophical novel lightly disguised as a shojo anime. The frame story suggests it might be aimed at 13-year-olds, but the subject matter is— not more grown-up exactly, but one that deals primarily with existential issues. I’m not sure what an actual 13-year-old would make of it.

There’s very little violence, no sex, and little of the focus on relationships that one might expect in a shojo. Instead, we get a lot of dialog about the nature of reality, and of modern anomie and alienation. If Albert Camus decided to write an anime, this would be it.

Lain Iwakura — who may be named after the late Mac Observer writer Rodney O Lain, who committed suicide in 2002— is in junior high. Lain is a bit young for her age, somewhat socially retarded, though she has a posse of friends who try to convince her to be interested in the sorts of things that teenage girls are supposed to be interested in. Her chief friend is Arisu— Japanese for “Alice”— who is pretty clearly named after the Lewis Carrol character, but is in fact a very practical, feet-on-the-ground sort of Alice who will absolutely not go down the rabbit hole even as the apocalypse beckons and the rabbit hole seems the only remaining refuge.

Lain lives in a hideous world of urban alienation, suggested by the design’s striking de-saturated colors (reminiscent of Boogiepop Phantom), a technique that creates strong divisions between light and shadow and tends to reduce people to anonymous silhouettes. When commuting to school, Lain stands by the train door staring out at the world, but is never shown going through the door. Her family consists of a snooty, uncommunicative older sister, a computer-geek dad who might care for her if he could be torn away from his viewscreen, and a mother whose chief mission is to prevent communication at all costs— whenever conversation threatens to become meaningful, she pointedly reminds Lain of chores that have not yet been done.

The opening scene is of the suicide of another schoolgirl, Chisa, who topples from a tall building with a blissful smile on her face. A few days later, Lain and some of the other girls start receiving emails from Chisa, who informs her that she isn’t really dead, but has abandoned the flesh and met God (“Kami-sama”).

Lain decides to upgrade her computer so as to be able to receive more complex messages, a chore her geek dad is happy to help her with. Her friends also drag her to a hacker nightclub, Cyberia (a reference to the book by Douglas Rushkoff), where people keep mistaking her for a “wild girl,” also called Lain. A local hacker, who had earlier ingested a microchip that speeded up his time sense, starts shooting up the club. Lain confronts him and tells him that there’s no point in killing people, since everyone’s connected anyway. This revelation terrifies the madman and causes him to shoot himself in the head.

Eerieness ensues. Weird psychedelic patterns lurk in the shadows. Lain begins to be followed by a couple Men in Black (who are actually two of the series’ more sympathetic characters). We find out about a quasi-Masonic hacker order, the Knights of the Eastern Calculus— “Knights” for short— that is looking for God online. Online gamers begin to be pursued by spooky otherworldly children, who then kill them. Other versions of Lain begin competing for people’s attention. Lain’s computer expands until her room is full of circuitry bubbling in eerie green cryogenic fluids. Lain’s sister begins to receive mysterious messages ordering her to “fulfill the prophecy.” When she runs into another version of herself in the front hall, she goes catatonic and can only make modem sounds. A giant glowing image of Lain appears in the sky and is seen by thousands.

Chisa, the girl who committed suicide, drops out of the story early on (though she has a cameo toward the end). She’s the trailhead, and once Lain gets on the track, Chisa’s job is done, and the story forgets about her.

It is revealed that Lain’s family isn’t her real family, but actors hired to play her family. She is actually a construct, created by a scientist named Eiri Masami, who subsequently threw himself under a train. He also created her software, with which she is able to control reality both online and off.

We are also given a lot of lectures, some by God Himself. They reference Vannevar Bush (who tried to put together an early version of the Internet in the Forties), Majestic-12, Timothy Leary, Ted Nelson and Project Xanadu, John C. Lilly, and, um, lots more.

There are references to Cordwainer Smith and Marcel Proust. I’m sure this is the only work of fiction that unites the two.

God, in one of his lengthy monologues tells us that when the Internet (called “the Wired” in Lainspeak) is sufficiently mature, it will merge with the human collective unconscious using the Shumann Resonance as a carrier, at which point physical incarnation will become unnecessary and we all get to live in the web all the time and worship Kami-sama all the time. Rapture of the nerds!

But consider the source. Kami-sama, it turns out, is a rather shabby sort of god who appears to be literally held together with gaffer tape. In reality he’s Eiri Masami, who uploaded himself before committing suicide, and who has proclaimed himself God and wants to get everyone permanently online so that they can worship him. He begins to deconstruct reality. Practically everyone dies, or flips their wig.

Lain— who actually is the Internet, incarnated by Masami for reasons that I don’t believe he ever explained— begins to fall for Kami-sama’s line, but is dragged back from the brink by her sensible friend Arisu just as the world approaches its twilight.

Lain = Internet = Kami-sama. But she’s a rather retiring sort of goddess, and in an act of Buddhist self-abnegation begins to erase all record of herself from existence. In the end she’s a sort of blissful ghost, seeing to the happiness of the other cast members, and drinking tea and eating madeleines with the actor who played her father. Or perhaps just a hallucination who looks like him.

Impressive, neh? If nothing else, you have to give the creators credit for reading widely!

But does it add up to more than the sum of its parts? Whole subplots are either forgotten (like Chisa and the whole “fulfill the prophecy” thing), or they turn out to be Lain’s hallucinations, or one of the other Lain’s hallucinations, or Kami-sama’s, or the hallucinations/projections of Lain pretending to be someone else. The Knights and Cyberia and the madmen and the spooky murderous children seem to be trails that don’t lead anywhere in particular. The series seems a little short on plot for its 13 episodes, many of which are just one damn psychedelic thing after another. Writer Chiaka Konaka has a background in horror, and horror (especially Asian horror) doesn’t have to make sense.

Here’s my problem: when reality is completely plastic, and at best temporary, and when characters are equally conditional, can we possibly care about their fates? When everything is nothing, then nothing is at stake.

But since the series is in large part about alienation, could it be that the creators anticipated this objection, and dismissed it ahead of time? Maybe we’re supposed to be alienated from the series.

Maybe I’ll have to see it again. Though I don’t think I loved it well enough to actually do that.

Lain is a series both visually and intellectually stimulating, though your brain may find itself hungry again after a few hours.

Farhan Mannan January 6, 2009 at 2:13 pm

I liked it a lot but not sure why. Meh.

Zora January 7, 2009 at 5:34 am

My then-thirteen-year-old daughter received Lain as a Christmas present, back when, and adored it.

However, as her parents had started an ISP in 1994 and she knew the net better than many younguns, she may have been an outlier.

dubjay January 7, 2009 at 5:36 am

Zora, your daughter is clearly a superior specimen!

Captain Button January 7, 2009 at 11:44 pm

I read somewhere that the writer had hoped or expected that Japanese viewers would interpret it differently than Western viewers, but as it turns out, they don’t.

There is a Lain Playstation game, but only in Japanese. I’ve read it tells a somewhat different version of the story in a non-linear fashion.

I’ve seen footage from the game used in some anime music videos (AMVs), which gave me some ideas of what it was like. Probably wrong ones, though.

Posted anonymously because blogger apparently can’t tell the difference between no answer and an answer of no. – Captain Button

dubjay January 8, 2009 at 1:20 am

Yes, Lain was an early attempt at cross-platform marketing, with the video game followed by the anime. I don’t know how well it succeeded commercially.

I also read that the creator intended the story as a kind of dialectic between the Japanese and American approaches to life, and that he expected that American viewers would come away with a completely different understanding of the series. We USAns disappointed him, though, by understanding the series in much the same way the Japanese did.

Puredoxyk January 20, 2009 at 9:46 pm

This was a nice review, though I interpret the series differently. Then again, it’s been one of my favorite pieces of media for a decade, and to this day I will occasionally toss in an episode or two — any old one; once you’ve seen the whole thing it seems to compact itself nicely into any of its parts — and it brings me a wonderful sense of, er, futuristic transcendency. (I will NOT say “Nerdvana”, though gods I want to.) To me, though there’s several ways one could read the plot in a linear sense (you do a darn good job, insofar as it’s possible), the series is really more a single piece of art, more like a painting than a movie or show. As you watch the episodes, the picture is gradually revealed, and it’s a beautiful picture that shows, among other things, how the world is never quite as shallow and boring as it can seem.

Thank you for the review!


dubjay January 20, 2009 at 10:10 pm

Yeah, as the series went on I began to get a sense of it as an =artifact=, a kind of strange objet d’art in video form.

But I’m kind of a slave to narrative, and that’s what I responded to first.

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