An erudite, confusing, and chilling anime from the late 1990s, Serial Experiments Lain is Creepy Awesomeseinencyberpunk, as well as a notable Mind Screw in the genre. Shōnen has Neon Genesis Evangelion, shojo has Revolutionary Girl Utena, and seinen has Lain. The show takes an information-rich dive deep into the nature of reality and truth, and in the process leads the viewer to come to his or her own conclusions about the meaning of the show, the meaning of reality, and even what actually happens in both.The setting for Lain is a place that appears to be contemporary Japan — albeit with a few telling differences. The story begins with apparently-normal schoolgirl Chisa Yomoda throwing herself off a building without warning. Several days after her suicide, Chisa's friends receive emails purporting to be from Chisa herself. The emails claim that she has not died, but simply abandoned her body for an existence within "The Wired", a pervasive computer network very much like the Internet as first envisioned by William Gibson.This is the point where Chisa's classmate Lain Iwakura — a shy, reclusive teenage girl who looks younger than her actual age — enters the story. With nary a social skill and no knowledge of computers, Lain keeps a resolutely reclusive attitude and barely interacts with her not-really-friends, her best friend Alice/Arisu, her cold parents, or her indifferent sister Mika — until she receives something that will change everything in the whole world: one of the emails from Chisa.Everyone thinks the Chisa emails are a cruel prank, but Lain is curious about the meaning of the message in the email. After Lain's tech-obsessed father happily supplies her with a top-of-the-line "navi" (personal computer), she begins searching The Wired to find out more. What Lain discovers undermines her family, her sense of self, and perhaps even the fundamental fabric of reality — and she is soon forced to deal with a power she is unprepared to control.Serial Experiments Lain is a unique creation. Its visual style is unlike any other animated work, Western or Eastern, and constantly evolves through the course of the series, serving as a metaphoric device in and of itself. Much of the plot development is orthogonal to the viewer — sometimes seen but often simply implied — which requires the viewer to think about and draw his/her own conclusions about what's happening. A fair amount of information is obscured or distorted, but this simply reflects what is happening within the series itself; the story challenges the viewer to impose his or her own interpretation on even the most self-evident aspects of the show.Lain's creators are also quite well-read, as they draw upon dozens (if not hundreds) of real-world sources for what seem to be the most outré concepts in the story:
If Vannevar Bush, W.O. Schumann, Douglas Rushkoff, John C. Lilly, Ted Nelson, or Nikola Tesla mean anything to you...
If "Majestic-12", "Roswell", or the Knights of the Lambda Calculus rings a bell...
If you are a computer techie who knows way too much about esoteric operating systems and the history of computer development, especially the creation of the Apple Macintosh...
...then you will enjoy digging through the densely packed web of information that is the conceptual foundation for Serial Experiments Lain. (While it's not necessary to do so to enjoy the show, it greatly enhances the overall experience if a viewer does the legwork.) To understand some of the references and sources better — or add some examples — visit the Shout-Out page.Lain was originally conceived as a full-on multimedia project, although the other two parts are not nearly as widely known as the anime. The second part of the project is a short manga story included with an art book — The Nightmare of Fabrication — which touches on similar themes (albeit without all the heavy references) and serves as an awkward sort of "bridge" between the anime and the third part of the project by including characters exclusive to each. The third part is a game for the Playstation, although calling it a "game" may be a bit of a stretch — instead of actual gameplay, it acts more as an interface to access parts of Lain's story (which runs in a different direction to the one presented in the anime), presenting a multimedia experience that includes video, diary excerpts, and notes from Lain's therapist.The anime can be watched on Hulu.Spoilers ahead!
This anime provides examples of:
Adjective Noun Fred: The title; the "serial experiments" is never actually addressed in-story, though.
The Alternet: The Wired, which may or may not be alive. This anime took place in "the present day" and "present time" at a time when the internet was clearly named and defined. It's just that much of a Mind Screw series.
Ambiguous Disorder: Lain, what with her crippling social ineptitude, stunted emotional reactions, inability to understand interpersonal relationships, extreme adherence to unreasonable habits, obsessive tendencies, and massive talent for mathematics and computers. She also talks in a weird staccato.Except in the Wired.
It's notable that a lot of the things that happen to Lain are evocative of the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. See Through the Eyes of Madness
Artificial Human: Lain could be anything from a genetically engineered "homunculus" to a computer program to an alien to the anthropomorphic personification of the collective unconscious. The series never makes it fully clear what Lain actually is.
Aspect Montage: The Once an Episode opening scene establishes its city location by a montage of power lines, crowds crossing roads, and the familiar Japanese "Don't Walk" sign. This gives a sense of tension and mundaneness at the same time. Part of that tension might be because the viewers remember what happened during the opening of the first episode, intermixed with these same establishing shots.
The opening scene, because it is set in a relatively recognisable modern-day setting, also links back to the infamous opening narration that we hear before the intro: "Present day...heh...present time! Hahahahahaha-!"
Barbie Doll Anatomy: The scenes in "KIDS" and one later episode of the god-like vision of Lain in the clouds.
A Date with Rosie Palms: Lain's friendship with Alice breaks down when one of the Lains spreads rumours around school that she likes to fantasize about a certain teacher while "playing with herself". It's later shown to not be a rumor.
Chisa's suicidal fall is what kicks the story off, and first clues us (and eventually Lain) into the wierdness of the Wired.
The man who starts shooting up Cyberia eventually kills himself.
Numerous characters (including Lain herself) in the PSX Game.
Do Not Adjust Your Set: When images of Lain start to appear on video screens in public places, which creeps out her sister quite a bit.
Drone of Dread: Images of power lines are often accompanied by an ominous humming sound, phone or data lines by a faint babel of voices. It's implied that Lain is the only one who hears it when she tells the voices to "shut up" in layer 01, startling the man beside her on the train.
Emotionless Girl: Lain appears this way to others. except in the wired, where she is forceful and articulate.
Empathic Environment: Including bleak grey skies, crows, and shadows that look like blood everywhere.
Eternal Prohibition: It is the near future, and yet on one hand, it is obvious that 14-year-old Taro is doing wrong every time he's drinking or smoking at Cyberia, and on the other hand, there are illegal future drugs like Accela.
Follow the Leader: Subverted. Serial Experiments Lain is often mistaken to have been made to chase the coat tails of Neon Genesis Evangelion, but the show's writer didn't even see Evangelion until the fourth episode of Lain.
"Freaky Friday" Flip: Maybe. Episode 10 opens with a sequence where, for lack of a better phrase, Lain and Masami appear to have switched lines. Muddling the issue is the fact that despite the actual dialogue, however, their body language and delivery match what they should be saying—e.g., Masami triumphantly questions Lain's godlike nature while Lain demurely proclaims her supreme power.
The Game Come to Life: The online shooter PHANTOMa gets crossed with a bunch of kids playing tag. It goes very, very awry.
GIFT: Multiple times in the Wired. Most of these people can only form eyes, ears, and mouths, and one was given the nickname "Cheshire Cat" by Lain.
Girls Love Stuffed Animals: Subverted. Lain pretty much ignores the collection on her windowsill and bed, and the former are usually lit from behind as creepy silhouettes.
A God Am I: Eiri sees himself in this fashion. Lain breaks him by pointing out that the timing of his advent means he can be no more than a placeholder for the real god—if there is one—and the real god may be Lain herself.
The Greys: A Grey appears as a mysterious vision, in an episode which also references the Roswell incident. It is referenced in other episodes as well. Unlike the usual nudist Greys, it is wearing a red and green striped sweater.
A teenager hopped up on nanotechgoofballs shoots up a nightclub with a laser sight-equipped handgun. Just before he commits suicide, there is a camera shot where all you can see in the dim lighting are his teeth, and the laser dot on the roof of his mouth — a very striking image.
In the next episode, The Men in Black have laser sights on their high-tech eyepieces. It's never explained what function the laser sights serve, other than tipping people off that they're being watched and generally creeping them out.
The deliveryman who drops off a package for a housewife with a top-of-the-line Navi. Although he's almost as interested in her computer as he is in her, the camera still pans slowly over her body from his perspective.
The corporate bigshot (who is also one of the Knights) takes definite interest in his female cohort crossing and re-crossing her legs.
Mind Rape: What the Knights do to Mika in Layer 05. "Beep...Beep...Beep..."
Mind Screw: The best way to describe Serial Experiments Lain is to throw paranoid schizophrenia and depression in a blender, along with a heavy dose of philosophy. After blending on the "puree" setting, add a dash of conspiracy theories and horror, to taste.
As mentioned in the introduction to this page, Serial Experiments Lain is like this because most of the plot developments are implied, and most of the explicit ones are obscured.
The Walrus Was Paul: The series was intentionally designed to be interpreted in a variety of ways. In fact, one of the producers has said he intended it to be interpreted differently by Japanese and American audiences. (This didn't exactly happen).
Nightmare Face: The girl from episode 1 and 2 who was supposedly hit by a train. One word: Holes.
No Social Skills: When we first meet Lain she has a wide-eyed befuddlement when faced with a social situation, to the point where she is almost mute. Her friends' bubbly interchanges are juxtaposed with an odd — troubling gap where a response should be. She develops some skills as the series progresses: it is uphill work and Lain is never a normal girl. Eventually revealed to be due to "our" Lain being but one aspect/avatar of the instrumentality that is Lain.
Nothing Is Scarier: The series can be very creepy during the long periods when we know something is very wrong, but there is no immediate horror on-screen.
When Mika keeps seeing messages written in red ink telling her to "fulfill the prophecy", without any idea where they're coming from or why she's received them.
In Layer 12, Arisu visits Lain at home and is very unnerved to find her house ransacked and nobody home until she comes across Lain in her room.
Hey look, it's Vannevar Bush and the Memex featured in an anime!
The references to Douglass Rushkoff, John C. Lilly, Ted Nelson, and the Roswell conspiracy theories also fit with the plot very well.
"Infornography" (episode 11) is packed solid with this trope.
The series may be the only anime ever to reference Marcel Proust, with the madeleines that Lain's father offers her (a type of biscuit).
Sigmund Freud: Is Lain the only show to get the term "Ego" correct? This also fits closely with the notion of "Ego" accoring to Descartes, especially when you consider that you are remembered, therefore, you are. à la "Cogito ergo sum".
Silence Is Golden: The series often has long scenes without dialogue, including montages of Lain walking around the city or in her room. The minimalist soundtrack fits as well.
Soundtrack Dissonance: Midway through Layer 13, an upbeat pop song starts playing as life in Lain's town starts going back to normal because she erases everyone's memories of her.
Spell My Name with an S: Is it Arisu, or is it Alice? Probably Alice: You can see her name written on her cell phone near the end of the series, among other places. However, Pioneer used "Arisu" in their subtitles, hence the confusion. The production notes booklet included with the new BD/DVD set also gives her name as "Arisu".
Starts with a Suicide: The series kicks off when middle schooler Chisa Yomode jumps off a building. It then follows up with the girl's Internet conversation: "How does it feel to die?" "It really hurts :-)"
Stock Footage: Closeups of telephone lines and stylized shots of city traffic at night. One repeated bit of footage is rather poignant: Lain walking under telephone lines casting creepy shadows: in the last episode the same footage is shown without Lain after she erases herself from existence.
Stock Shoujo Bullying Tactics: Lain's desk goes missing and everyone, including the teacher, starts acting as if she doesn't exist right when she's questioning her own existence.
Surprisingly Good English: The theme song is sung in English by British band Bôa. Each episode has an English name and English is used extensively throughout the series, from school to the Wired interface.
The Tape Knew You Would Say That: Or so it would seem in the first episode when Lain has a conversation with Chisa's e-mail. Justified in hindsight: Lain really was conversing with her e-mail.
The Team Wannabe: The Knights fanboy who wanders around the streets wearing a virtual reality headset and begging them to let him join their group.
Technology Porn: Depending on who you ask, this is slightly more literal than in most cases.
Terrible Artist: Lain's doodles in her notebook are often just spirals and other random shapes.
Through the Eyes of Madness: The series can be interpreted this way; a number of Lain's experiences resemble symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, including visual and auditory hallucinations, loss of perception of time, paranoid delusions, and inappropriate emotional reactions. In fact, one of the symptoms of schizophrenia is the delusional belief that everything is connected and is somehow directly relevant to the believer, no matter how innocuous or unimportant. One might call it an inability to tell signal from noise...
Uncanny Valley Girl: Lain of course, seeing as she is very pretty, quiet, and seemingly normal at first, except she's not a normal girl.
The Uncanny Valley is used to full effect in Layer 08, where we see a glimpse of the Wired where each user has her face... on their own bodies. She freaks out and knocks the head off of one, but that just makes it even creepier.
Sometimes this includes real, actually cool-for-the-nineties interfaces. Episode 1, for example, shows Lain's dad's computer running NeXTSTEP, the ancestor of Mac OS X and Apple iOS. This is more or less what it looks like◊.
Chisa is practically forgotten after the first few episodes, only getting a basically inconsequential mention in episode 10, though she is shown to be alive in the rebooted post-Lain world.
The fate of Mika and Lain's fake parents is not revealed, although after Lain hits the Reset Button, we see a scene where all three of them formed an actual family, at Lain's behest one would imagine.
Where Does She Get All Those Wonderful Toys: Lain's computer setup. It's made vaguely plausible in that her father seems to work as a computer engineer of some sort, but by Layer 4 she has entire racks of servers and several monitors in her bedroom.