Serial Experiments Lain Anime Review
Serial Experiments Lain
US Release By
13 25-minute episodes
1998-07-06 - 1998-09-28
In a year not at all far from today, the Internet has taken one step farther into becoming a world of its own; with powerful systems called Navis, everyone from businessmen to kindergartners jumps into the Wired to interact, play games, make friends, and gossip. (Imagine that.) Left out of this is Lain, a reserved junior high school student who has never taken much to the Wired, despite the fact that her father is in the computer business. That begins to change when a classmate of Lain's commits suicide, and a few days later several students--including Lain--receive e-mails from the girl, telling them that she merely left her body, and is still alive and well in the Wired. Slowly, Lain's attitude begins to change, but as she becomes more involved with her Navi, the world around her and her friends become increasingly more unstable. More suicides and bizarre killings happen one after another, and Lain is somehow connected to them... but how?
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Slow, surreal, layered with symbolism and a vague, wandering non-story, Serial Experiments Lain is a unique and defiantly weird series. As with most things that go this far out on an artistic limb, you're likely to either find it enthralling or be unable to stand it, but there's little room for middle ground. Built around a frightening, dreamlike vision and laid out with a steady, confident hand. Every scene, every action feels significant, however little sense it might make, and everywhere there are subtle hints and allusions to... something. Twisting, disturbing, surrealist scenes comprise almost the entire first third of the series, and are where Lain is at its best throughout. Sadly, while utterly successful on a visceral level, the more it explains--particularly through the middle stretch--the less impressive it becomes, although it recovers in time for a powerful climax.
In the end, Serial Experiments Lain is a unique piece of anime, featuring a masterful blend of strange characters, unusual art, and a surreal setting, all employed toward exploring the boundary between what is real and what is Wired. Most definitely not for everyone, but an engrossing experiment and a complete departure from the norm.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
Before the opening credits even roll, when an edgy voice cackles out "Present day... present time" in English, you get the sense that Serial Experiments Lain is something different. Slow, surreal, layered with symbolism and a vague, wandering non-story, it is a unique and defiantly weird series. As with most things that go this far out on an artistic limb, you're likely to either find it enthralling or be unable to stand it, but there's little room for middle ground.
Serial Experiments Lain is a piece of truly impressive filmmaking, built around a frightening, dreamlike vision and laid out with a steady, confident hand. Every scene, every action feels significant, however little sense it might make, and everywhere there are subtle hints and allusions to... something. Twisting, disturbing, surrealist scenes comprise almost the entire first third of the series, and are where Lain is at its best throughout.
The production has the look and feel of a music video or an issue of Wired magazine--constantly shifting, colorful, abstract, and filled with barely comprehensible information. Despite this, it is most definitely not fast-paced--even though the story jumps, twists, and weaves around reality, it does so at pace that is at times maddeningly slow. It establishes an uncomfortable stillness, interrupted by sudden bursts of motion, information, or departures from "reality" that keep you constantly off-guard, never quite sure what to expect next. Guessing what will happen next is particularly hard since you're never quite sure what's happening to begin with, and when the series eventually does begin to explain itself, it's even weirder than you might think.
Lain is surreal in the truest sense of the word: There is a definite "real world," but there is a sense that something is terribly wrong with this reality. There are constant departures, both subtle and not, from what appears to be reality, and you're never exactly sure what is real, what is a hallucination, what is connected to the Wired, or the why of any of it. Add to that a creepy mood--varying from vaguely unnerving to subtly frightening--and you have a show that is unsettling to watch yet absolutely engrossing.
On a more analytical level, Lain explores the ever-blurring line between the real world and interaction over the Internet--unusually accurately for something produced in 1998--and how this affects individual interactions and civilization. This is achieved through the various levels that the story takes place on, and the fuzzy border between them.
First is the Real: Lain's life is an exaggerated analogy of the modern Japanese teen, consisting of a nearly-non-existent family relationship and some relatively normal friends. Her life, however, seems somehow detached and drained of emotion, and paints a picture of extreme alienation despite an outwardly normal setting.
Then, in a prescient reference to modern blogs, there are levels of rumor. We see parts of various deaths and hear allusions to everything from grand conspiracies to Lain's exploits, but the word is spread through rumors in the Wired--almost fact, but not quite.
More detached still are the events at Cyberia, a place as familiar as the local dance club but that seems to be unconnected from the real world. Then there are ventures into the Wired, which vary from the completely abstract to the mundane. Finally there are Lain's visions, which hint at some connection between everything.
All of these levels are constantly overlapping and mixing, and you have the feeling that it will all come together somehow (which it eventually does). Adding an additional unsettling touch, Lain's childish look makes otherwise normal scenes--working on a computer, a group of friends in a dance club, a police interrogation--seem not quite right. Clever, weird, and entirely confusing, but undeniably unique storytelling.
Unfortunately, as strong as Lain is on a visceral level, the intellectual aspect of the story is its sole weak point. The first part effectively has no story, which, though disorienting, works surprisingly well. As the series progresses, we start to get fragments of the big picture, and the more it makes sense the weaker the series becomes.
The worst of it is the middle stretch, where Lain begins to seek out answers to all the questions raised. Lain (and hence the viewer) is given a series of facts and left to put them together into a semi-coherent picture. Conceptually, this is fine--challenging to the viewer, and it leaves enough unsaid that it's hard to complain about any logical flaws. But it also feels forced--the info-dumps are far too straightforward and too close to standard anime sci-fi to blend comfortably with the surrealist mood. Along with the explanations come metaphysical rambling--bordering on pseudo-religious conspiracy theory--that fit better, but are a standard feature in too many anime shows.
Once the story has been (vaguely) laid out, the series moves into its final stretch and regains some of its footing. As the climax approaches, fractured reality returns in force, and the story begins to take on an emotional tone, something that had been conspicuously absent. Cleverly, the palpable alienation has left you desperately craving emotion, heightening the impact. The themes also take on an apocalyptic edge which, while slightly out-of-scale, held my attention and builds the story to its crescendo.
The series finally lays out its (perhaps too simple) message in a short, simple, and powerfully touching scene near the end. On the unfortunate side, the introduction of a clear "bad guy," albeit a creepy one, is entirely unnecessary, and the heavy-handed metaphysical questions keep coming. I was also disappointed by the conclusion in the last episode. Simultaneously concrete and wildly metaphysical, it makes perfect sense within the story, and is every bit as strange as the rest of the series demands. Even so, it's far too clean for my taste, and felt like a cop-out when compared to the rest of the series.
Once the series is over and you start thinking about it, another problem crops up. Though many of the fragments fit together in the end, there are a number of creepy sub-plots and hints that never go anywhere, and are never explained. Had everything been abstract and mysterious, I wouldn't have minded at all, but once I was given a framework to put the pieces into I expected most of them to fit somewhere. Some bits are just there to make a good scene and others are sidelights of the larger story, but the ones that are seemingly forgotten toward the end (like Lain's sister) feel more like oversights than intentional mysteries.
In all, the first part is visceral and spectacular, but the more sense the series makes, and the more it tries to explicitly discuss its "point," the worse it gets. Nonetheless, the steady-handed direction and fascinating imagery held my attention from beginning to end.
Indeed, so much of the story is told visually that the unique imagery doesn't just mesh with it, it defines it. Some of the best parts of the series are a purely sensory experience. On one hand there are a host of images and unusual effects more at home in an experimental short film than an anime TV series. The heavily symbolic Wired is cast as a land of disembodied parts and locations, interacting in an otherwise empty void, and even some of the backgrounds in the Real are completely abstract. In sharp and effective contrast are realistic computer hardware and everyday places. Yet even the most mundane locales are given an unsettling look by an eerie splattered effect in the shadows, and much of the art manages to make normal locations seem to be something more through strange lighting, harsh shadows, and uncomfortable camera angles.
The character designs are unusual, yet realistic in their own way--they're not shaped like real people, but the Japanese schoolkids look the part, without exaggerated hair or huge busts. The eyes--which many scenes feature important close-ups of--are realistic and small by anime standards, with pupils that are expressive and out of the ordinary. The rest of the character animation is of similarly high quality. The facial expressions in particular are understated, effective, and occasionally very creepy. While there isn't a lot of animation and it isn't notably smooth, it isn't at all detrimental to the air of quality. Appropriately, there is pervasive use of computers for the visuals, both subtle and not. The computer displays are digitally painted (even if they are abstract and don't look much like the real thing), and digitally composited cel art on top of computer-generated backgrounds gives the whole thing a clean, superrealistic look. The only flaw is the character art, which is occasionally inconsistent.
The experience of watching Lain is complimented not by a musical soundtrack, but by a masterfully subtle soundscape. Almost every scene features some sort of ambient noise--chattering conversation, humming transformers, the soft scratching of a hard drive, chalk relentlessly tapping on the board in a motionless classroom. These sounds are much more unnerving than any music could have been, and are an integral part of many scenes. It's well worth watching in a quiet room with the volume turned up to properly appreciate the sound design.
The only music in the series is the thumping dance beats at Cyberia, but the opening and end theme are 180 degrees from the anime norm: A lovely, folksy, alternative tune by British group Boa for the opening (accompanied by appropriately weird imagery), and a low-key techno end theme by Chabo, who also scored the few bits of background music.
The acting is appropriately low key and well cast in both Japanese and English. The Japanese is the better of the two--all-around good acting with the right balance of normal schoolgirls, the strange inhabitants of Cyberia, and Lain's near-emotionless monotone, provided by Kaori Shimizu. It also fits the location better, of course. The acting in the English dub is solid, but some of the writing is a little overzealous.
In the end, Serial Experiments Lain is a unique piece of anime, featuring a masterful blend of strange characters, unusual art, and a surreal setting, all employed toward exploring the boundary between what is real and what is Wired. The whole series isn't, unfortunately, as strong as the early parts--as it gets more concretely weird it loses some of its mystery--but the exquisite filmmaking and mind-bending nature of the initial episodes carries through to the end. Most definitely not for everyone, but an engrossing experiment and a complete departure from the norm.
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There is nothing quite like Serial Experiments Lain; Boogiepop Phantom and Ghost in the Shell both have notable similarities which I'd like to go into in some detail, but first a few other notably similar things.
The closest, paritcularly in terms of soundscape, would be Ghost Hound, although that series has a somewhat more conventional narrative style. Perfect Blue has the very similar themes of Internet rumors and deteriorating reality, but is a much more concrete movie. Vampire Princess Miyu (the OAVs) is vaguely similar for the generally unsettling feel, and Revolutionary Girl Utena is worth a mention for the heavy symbolism, even though the execution is the diametric opposite of Lain's.
As for Ghost in the Shell (the original film), it and Lain are similar inasmuch as they both examine the boundary between the human mind and technology, and they are both slow, deliberate, and set in a realistic future world. But there is a subtle difference in the theme of the two that carries through into a drastically different style of storytelling. Where Ghost in the Shell focuses on the boundary between the human mind and body, and what makes a mind, Lain is more interested in the boundary between the mind and the worldwide network, and the boundaries of reality in a networked age; Ghost in the Shell is a movie about cybernetics and artificial intelligence, where Lain is about the Internet.
Ghost in the Shell's sequel, Innocence, and the Stand Alone Complex TV series (particularly Second Gig) touch on these themes of networking more, but both movies are differentiated less by the destination than the road to it. In Ghost in the Shell, every action and motion is deliberate and planned, and although the fabric of reality is discussed and questioned by the characters, it is solid--it is the perception of it that is flawed. The reality of Lain is constantly in a state of flux, occasionally throwing you off balance with a barrage of images or sound, and never letting you quite get your bearings.
I discuss the similarities with Boogiepop Phantom in that review, but in a nutshell: Lain is an abstract and surrealist metaphysical story that always keeps you at an emotional arm's length from the characters. Boogiepop Phantom is an equally twisting but very concrete story where the viewer's standpoint is all too close to the tortured psyches of its characters. Lain depicts the breakdown of external reality, where Boogiepop Phantom does the same for the breakdown of an individual's perception of outside reality.
Notes and Trivia
Serial Experiments Lain is so loaded with references and symbolism that you could fill a book with observations, but here are a few things that I found interesting:
To begin with, it's worth noting that the very appealing intro theme, Duvet, is by boa, a British band. They are easily confused with the now very popular Korean J-pop singer BoA, who despite having sung several anime themes and having a nearly identical name, had nothing to do with Lain.
If you think that the girl in the Device previews looks a bit like Lain, you're right. She is Kaori Shimizu, Lain's voice actress, and Lain's character design was loosely based on her.
Being a bit of a computer buff, I noticed dozens of interesting and mostly quite subtle technical references throughout the production. Much of the technical end of how the Wired works (a cyberpunk-style extension of the modern Internet) is based in fact. Indeed, its role in the world of Lain was relatively prescient considering that it was created in 1998, largely before the Internet had pervaded world culture to the degree it did in the next decade.
If you're curious, the IP (Internet Protocol) version 7 that becomes involved in later parts of the story involves real concepts; the data that you received to read this web page traveled through the Internet thanks to IP. As of 2012 most of the internet is still using IP version 4, but version 6 (the main version in use during the story) is slowly becoming more widespread (there is no version 5).
There's a relatively subtle reference in each episode to the BeOS (a next generation multimedia operating system that never went anywhere; it was eventually bought by Palm and pretty much disappeared). The "To Be Continued" phrase at the end of each episode features a blue and red "Be", which was the original logo of the BeOS. Similarly, the word "nExt" in "Close the world, Open the nExt." is a capital-inverted reference to NeXT, a lesser-known computer company founded by Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computer. NeXT was later bought by Apple, and the NeXT OS formed the foundation of the modern MacOS (and, in turn, the iOS that iPhones, iPods, and iPads use).
On another OS front, I'm pretty sure whoever made Lain not only used Macs but was a fan of them. First off, Lain's old Navi looks quite a bit like a 20th Anniversary Macintosh, a special edition "futuristic" machine produced in limited quantities in 1997. Second, I'm pretty sure the voice that introduces each episode is from Apple's MacInTalk speech synthesis software (specifically, the "Whisper" voice as pointed out by a reader). It has since become a narrator in other anime, such as Scryed. Third, the operating system that Lain uses shares part of its name with the code name of an old, never-released revision to the MacOS--Copland. And, finally, though this has to be a coincidence due to the date, Lain logs onto her system with a voice password, which was a feature in MacOS 9. In one of the Devices clips you can also see a real-life Mac tower in the background. There are many, many more references to spot, but those should get the Mac conspiracy theorists started.
Spoilers: Plot Summary
For those who saw the series spread out or just want to confirm that they "got it," here is a very loose rundown on the concrete part of the story. This isn't intended to delve into any of the symbolism or explain anything past the main points of the technical end of the plot, and do not read it unless you've already seen the series.
Essentially: in the future, a crazy man by the name of Eiri wrote a couple of additional features into the newest version of the protocol that the Wired (Internet) uses; one was his own memories and personality, making him essentially "part" of the Wired, and the other was a feature that allowed the Wired to interface directly with humans without any machine, thanks to electromagnetic resonance. As it turns out, this change in the way humans are networked brought the Wired and the human network to a new level--essentially touching the domain of God, or perhaps a Gaia-type force (alluded to as the "network of humans" that existed in the past). This is why the Wired begins to infringe on the domain of the real world. Somewhere along the way, Lain was born out of this information network, an omnipresent, omniscient being of the Wired. Eiri, or rather his Wired-integrated ego after his death, used the newfound power of the Wired to give Lain physical form as a child, a sort of hologram in the real world, unaware (initially) of her origin. Eiri thought of her as something less than him, but as she comes to realize what she is, it becomes clear that she is the God of the Wired, not him. In the end, she "deletes" Eiri from the Wired, and in fact "resets" the real world to a state before she entered it, and before Eiri had any effect on the Wired. But Lain continues to exist as a sort of guardian angel of the Wired (and to a degree the physical world), always present and quietly watching.
Finally, here are a couple of things that weren't included in the review on account of being major spoilers. Again, do not read them if you haven't seen the whole thing yet.
I'd like to touch on just a couple of the religious parallels in the story. Eiri and Lain can easily be cast as Internet-age representations of Christian symbols. Eiri, the False God, is a sort of Antichrist--trying to gain control of humanity, thinking of himself as a God when he is not. More easily, he can be interpreted as Satan, pretending to have true power and tempting Lain. Lain, in turn, is an obvious Christ figure: She is the God of the Wired (and perhaps even connected to the "true" God, as is at least obliquely implied by the story), but is also made flesh and experiences the world as a human. At some point, she becomes aware of her true nature, and must eventually sacrifice her Earthly form so that the world might return to a peaceful state--a forgiveness of sins, if you will. And she continues to subtly watch over this world and its inhabitants, all-knowing, not unlike Christians believe Christ does. If you want to take it a step further you can even parallel some of her trouble coming to grips with simultaneously being everywhere and knowing everything--being many Lains to many people--while still being the one Lain as an interpretation of the mystery of the Trinity (one God manifested in three persons). Alternately it could be an interpretation of the myriad of religions, each with their different deities, but perhaps all really acknowledging the same force.
Lain can, alternately, be interpreted as a representation of Zen Buddhist concepts; Lain has physical form but for her to transcend reality she must delete herself from the Real--attain a state of nothingness, so to speak. Only through completely discarding her connection to the physical world can she attain peace.
And that is enough peripheral comments for any series.
US DVD Review
The recent Blu-ray/DVD combo release is more than just a nice box set. The video was remastered in high-def, and the show itself is subtly improved--the director personally went through and cleaned up bits of art throughout to prepare the series for its high-def rebirth. The result is a gorgeous production on either Blu-ray or DVD, and one that has subtle improvements even beyond simple better mastering. The box is also very nice, and includes a fat book with information about the series and re-mastering effort.
All that said, Pioneer's classic DVDs are also very nice. They include some sharp looking menus that match the visual style of the show, Japanese and English stereo soundtracks with an English subtitle track. The menus provide access to a well organized, thumbnailed chapter index, with several chapter stops in each episode, a bunch of production sketches, and a couple of very short promo videos, creditless opening and endings (on later discs) as well as the standard Pioneer catalog section. The next-episode previews are also included (after the credits of the final episode on each disc, or accessible through the menu), which are short, weird live action clips of various "devices"--parts of the human body. The audio transfer is pristine, and the video transfer is similar to Pioneer's other DVDs; very crisp, but with some slight mottling visible in large, nearly black areas (and there are a lot of those in this one).
These discs were re-released as cheaper but otherwise unchanged Signature Series versions later on.
Pioneer appropriately rates the series 16-up. Though there is little explicit sexuality or violence, the general themes and imagery are adult and at times disturbing.
Violence: 3 - Several scenes of not overly graphic but realistic violence.
Nudity: 2 - Not much nudity per se, but there is a tasteful pan during the closing credits.
Sex/Mature Themes: 3 - Several short bits of making out and other generally mature themes, drug use among them.
Language: 3 - Not extreme, but significant profanity in a few scenes.
Available in North America from Funimation on a combo Blu-ray/DVD box set with remastered, touched-up, high-def video and bilingual audio. Previously available from Geneon (formerly Pioneer) on four hybrid Signature Series DVDs, which are re-packaged versions of the original four-disc release. The four volumes were also available in a box set. It was originally also available on four subtitled or dubbed VHS volumes.