Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Serial Experiments Lain: Anime That Blows Your Mind

... Though being anime, that almost goes without saying.

I'm not a great devourer of anime.There are some that I truly like, but I'm indifferent toward the rest.Because my greatest exposure to anime occurred about 10 years ago, all of my favorites date from the 1990s and early 2000s... so apologies if some truly great anime series have premiered since then.I enjoyed Neon Genesis Evangelion, Cowboy Bebop, and a quiet little series called Serial Experiments Lain.

While the other anime involved giant monsters and space travel, Lain was a 13-episode series about a lonely girl.The setting was the present -- or the near future.Or was it?One of the intriguing things about Serial Experiments Lain was that it posed questions about human connection, what was and was not real, and this strange new thing called the "Internet."

Lain premiered in 1998, when the Internet as a public resource was still fairly new.Remember how excited and nervous we were about the possibilities?Would we ever need to leave our homes again?Were our 'net friends as real as our real friends?


Lain Iwakura is a 14-year old girl who lives with her parents and older sister in Tokyo.Her age is important because at 14, you can still look as young as 11, or as old as 16.In Lain's case, it's the former.

Lain has no friends, except for her well-meaning classmate, Alice.Even her home life feels emotionally isolated, with her sister disdaining her and her mother ignoring her.Only when Lain receives an email from a dead classmate, Chisa, does her life take an interesting turn.Chisa committed suicide so that she could live freely inside "the Wired," where "everyone is connected" and bodies are unnecessary.All of Lain's classmates received the emails and are understandably horrified, but Lain is intrigued.After her father surprises her with a top-of-the-line "Navi" (Lain's version of a Mac), Lain uses it to communicate with Chisa.

From there, Lain develops into a computer prodigy, steadily adding servers and monitors until she has technology that could rival the CIA's.She starts to lose interest in the "real" world in favor of virtual reality, much to Alice's concern.More alarmingly, it turns out that there is another Lain that exists in the Wired -- that has always lived in the Wired -- with all of the brash confidence that the "real" Lain does not possess.Is it just a bad joke, or could this Lain and the "real" one be the same?

And what about the elite group of hackers called the Knights of the Eastern Calculus?They seem intent on dissolving the boundaries between the real world and the virtual one, until there is nothing to distinguish them.Could it be that they are working for someone else?Someone with grand plans for Lain?


Without giving anything away, let me just say that Serial Experiments Lain is a giant mindfuck.That's intentional, though maybe not as much as Lain's creators would have us believe.So many random events happen that, even when you start at the end and work your way backward, you can't make sense of them all.The only conclusion is that the creators had an end result in mind, and vague outlines of how to get there, and then just threw a bunch of shit at the wall and watched what stuck.

So much about Lain seems stylized, creepy, and cool purely for the sake of being stylized, creepy, and cool.There's nothing wrong with that, but it means that Serial Experiments Lain is just a good anime, rather than some remarkable Da Vinci Code where everything connects and makes sense if only you decipher the clues.


Lain's animation is often quite limited, with characters standing motionless for long periods of time, only their mouths moving.Ten years ago, I was just in awe of Lain's design and the realism of movement, so unlike anything in the United States.But since then, American animation has premiered shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, which equal and surpass it in visual quality, if not mindfuckery.

Even so, Lain remains a lovely looking anime.Three things stand out in particular:

1.CHARACTER DESIGN.The characters are drawn simply, yet with a stunning amount of detail.You can read Lain's thoughts in the shading of her eyes, and her distress in the lines on her face.While Lain has some of the big-eyed quality of a Disney princess, it is far more restrained than in shows like Sailor Moon.If anything, Lain emphasizes realism in its character design.

2.ANIMATION.As I mentioned, Lain's animation is frequently inert, with just the characters' mouths moving.However, when the characters move, their motion is completely realistic -- see the moments where Lain runs from the two "Men in Black."But even more impressive is the way the animators captured the nuances of movement to signify emotion.I mentioned the blood bending scenes in The Legend of Korra last week; while I focused on Tarrlok, the posture of those being blood bent also made me think of Lain.The wide-open eyes, the rigidity, the faint trembling around the eyes -- it reminded me of the scene at the night club in Episode 2, when the terrified, disoriented club goer was under the effects of Accela.I had never seen such attention to small details before Lain and its anime brethren.

And it's not just the character movement -- everything moves realistically.Bottles jangle when a character opens the fridge door; the train car that Lain rides in shifts around like a real train would.The realism of the animation just makes the unreality of the story hit you that much harder.

3.SETTING.Lain is set in the present, or at least the near future.Everything about it has a cyberspace/virtual vibe to it, even settings in the "real" world.Lain and her classmates play with phones that seem like primitive versions of our iPhones, but were high tech and futuristic back in 1998.Each episode begins with a computer voice reciting which "layer" the viewer is in, as if the characters were all just part of a sprawling computer game.

But it's not just those things that give Lain a unique, alienating quality.It's also the use of heavy shadow juxtaposed against harsh light, as seen in images of the streets, in Lain's room, and on the subway train.It's the sterility of her surroundings: in her bedroom pre-cyber explosion; in the secret room where she meets the Tachibana Labs executive; in the grim classroom where her classmates are hunched over in a uniform gray mass.Everything in Lain's "real" world is cold.Only Alice comes across as a real human being capable of emotion, making it obvious why Lain is drawn to her.

If not for Lain's painstaking renderings, I would probably be much less tolerant of its mindfuckery than I am.It is Lain's art that makes it a cut above most other anime.


Good question.If it does, it seems to be no more than the basic theme of "virtual reality is no substitute for real human connection."

But I'm not sure Lain intends even this message.It seems more fascinated by the possibilities that await us in the virtual world, back then a very new experience.How far can we take virtual human connection?How easily or frequently can we remake ourselves?How quickly can our mistakes spread not just across town, but across the globe (predicting the Facebook and Twitter era)?


I considered recapping all 13 episodes of Serial Experiments Lain, but that would be a fool's errand.Lain is just too overwhelming to describe in a way that makes sense.You really need to see it for yourself.And then once you do, maybe you can answer these questions:

Spoilers Ahead!

1.If Lain's entire purpose was to destroy the boundaries between the real world and the Wired, then why have her first learn about the Wired from Chisa?Why didn't her father just say "Hey!I've got a new Navi for you!Let's check it out!"?Lain's natural interest in the Wired would have ignited right there.

2.In fact, what was the point of people killing themselves?What was the point of the crazy-shit girl phantom monster character that Lain saw on the train and in the school hallway, who showed up to scare us for two episodes and then never again?

3.What was the point of Lain's sister essentially splitting in half, with one half stuck in the Wired?If you study the episode carefully and try to determine how it happened and which one was which, it still makes no sense.Even the sister's "dummy" self seems normal at first, only to lapse into a vacant shell in later episodes.

4.Why even give Lain a "real" life at all?It's not as though her "real" self existed to coax other real people onto the Wired.Her only purpose was to dissolve the boundaries.She could have done that from entirely within the Wired.Not to mention having a "real" Lain is kind of pointless when the "Wired" Lain can also cross the border into reality, such as when she attends the night club.

5.Why were so many people afraid of Lain?Even for a near-deity, she looks so darn non-threatening.

Ah, I feel better now.

Present day.Present time.Hahahahahaha!
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