Quiet, insular schoolgirl Lain Iwakura has her life turned inside out when a schoolmate commits suicide but still seems to be sending messages from the beyond, through the Internet-like medium known as “The Wired”. When Lain begins to investigate, she discovers absolutely nothing in her life—especially not her—has ever been what she believed it was.
An experimental cyberpunk/SF anime that’s notorious for being as frustrating as it is fascinating, Serial Experiments Lain is at least as much about showing us its story through bizarre imagery and moody behavior than it is about telling it. The experiment—pun intended—works as often as it doesn’t, but those who stick it through to the end will be rewarded for their effort. If David Lynch had directed anime, the results might have come out something like this.
- Engrossing and fascinating story told through powerful and bleak imagery.
- Top-notch restoration work.
- Not easy viewing; demands a lot from the audience.
- Some elements haven't dated well.
- Director: Ryutaro Nakamura
- Animation Studio: Triangle Staff
- Released By: Geneon
- Released Domestically By: FUNimation Entertainment
- Audio: English / Japanese w/English subtitles
- Age Rating: TV-14 (disturbing and mature thematic elements)
- List Price: $89.98 (Blu-ray / DVD combo with 320-page artbook)
"Hello, Navi." "Hello, Lain."
Lain Iwakura is a waifish girl, perhaps in her early teens, with a perpetually wide-eyed, hapless expression. It’s not hard to see why she’s so distant and reserved: her home life is a dead zone, with her cipher of a mother, her disinterested sister (whose sole defining trait is that she’s on a diet), and a father who’s more fascinated by the computers in his study than he is interested in his own daughter.
The first real spark thrown into this emotional dead zone comes from a classmate who throws herself off a roof, in Serial Experiments Lain’s striking opening sequence. Her suicide is disturbing enough, but even more unnerving is when many of her former classmates begin receiving what seem like e-mails from the dead girl. Not delayed messages; newly-written ones. Is this a bad prank?
Lain’s not sure, and based on her own tentative experience with “The Wired” (i.e., the Internet), she’s convinced there might actually be something to the idea that the dead girl is not wholly dead. Rather, she’s somehow uploaded her intelligence into the Wired, and simply killed herself to do away with a body she doesn’t need anymore. To investigate further, Lain has her father buy her a more sophisticated PC, or “Navi”. He’s only too happy to oblige, and we somehow sense this is not going to be a good thing for Lain’s mental health. Is it ever.
Curiouser and Curiouser, said Alice -- er, Lain
What happens next, and especially the way it happens with this show, is guaranteed to frustrate anyone who has been expecting a story told along remotely conventional lines. That’s the idea, for better or worse. Lain is proudly experimental in its concept and execution, and while it’s not easy to follow the show through to its conclusion, it’s also heartening to see the show’s creators never take the easy way out.
The show tips its hand early on that it’s not going to be a straightforward experience. People used to the slam-bang of Bleach or even the slow-burn suspense of Death Note are going to be climbing the walls by the fourth episode. Many scenes seem aimless, as if the camera had been left running by mistake. Ordinary conversations are tinged with heavy, brooding menace for no discernible reason. Half the goings-on are seen through a digital haze, as if cobbled together from whatever surveillance camera happened to be in the vicinity. The heavy atmosphere of the show is occasionally broken with dark humor, such as the way over time Lain’s room becomes a cavern of liquid-cooled computer equipment with cables like jungle vines and pools of condensation forming on the floor.
That said, there is an actual storyline, however abstractly presented. Lain’s curiosity about what lurks in the Wired grows as she unearths one clue after another. She learns of the presence of “the Knights,” a hacker group with an agenda to break down the boundaries between the Wired and the real world (shades of The Matrix, released a year later!). She also learns that this may well have already happened, and that she might have been an instrumental part of it without ever knowing. And there’s a great deal more beyond that as well, none of which lends itself to summary in a review but bears witnessing firsthand.
A gorgeous headtrip, painstakingly restored
Aside from its dizzying conceits, one other thing Lain is never short of is things to look at. The images of Lain in her room surrounded by computer equipment grow all the more Gothic and forbidding, and the scenes inside the Wired have the surreal dream logic of Satoshi Kon’s Paprika or Persona 4: The Animation. Texhnolyze (another Geneon production from the same screenwriter, Chiaki J. Konaka), also used defiantly unconventional storytelling methods and striking imagery, although Lain is the slightly less relentlessly downbeat of the two. Another connection with that show is the character designer, Yoshitoshi ABe, who gives Lain his trademark, and highly effective, haunted-eyed look. Plus, for a show made in 1998, Lain’s still remarkably avant-garde in its conceits and execution, even if some of the topical details are dated (e.g., the design of Lain’s Navi).
Lain was also one of a number of shows that benefited from a major restoration job courtesy of its owners, Geneon. It was a tough job, given how the show is a free mix of conventional hand-drawn animation, computer graphics, and video effects. Rather than simply take the existing standard-definition master for the show and blow it up to HD, which would have looked terrible, the studio went back to the original film sources, remastered those in HD, and then re-added newly-generated graphics to match. The end result is fine enough that even the DVD edition of the show looks terrific; the Blu-ray Disc, doubly so.
It’s been said that one of the risks of calling any work “experimental” is that the experiment might have to be declared a failure. Lain may be tough sledding, but it’s not for nothing. The payoffs that start coming near the end have at least much to say about Lain herself as the strange universe she’s been navigating, and how one girl’s good heart can remain strong against a newborn god who can’t stand the idea of not being worshiped. The term “head trip” was never more appropriate.