Serial Experiments Lain: a Cult-Classic Sci-fi Masterpiece

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After the introspective and frankly weird Neon Genesis Evangelion exploded into mainstream popularity in the mid-90s, a world of opportunity opened. While more niche and interesting anime—everything aside from long-running, broadly appealing, and generally family-friendly shows—had previously been relegated to exclusively physical releases in the form of OVAs, Evangelion directly led to this sort of experimentation migrating to the television. There was suddenly a huge influx of original shows on TV, created by dozens of studios that all wanted to replicate Studio Gainax’s massive success. This movement was at its peak during 1998, a year that saw the release of now-classic adult-oriented anime like Cowboy Bebop and Trigun, as well as the topic of this article, Serial Experiments Lain.

Serial Experiments Lain (SEL) is a psychological sci-fi drama with a focus on the internet, or “the Wired”, as it’s referred to in the show. Over its thirteen episodes SEL explores themes of identity, reality, and existence—all in relation to the internet, and it does so in a way that’s simultaneously thorough and enjoyable. What I find particularly amazing about SEL’s portrayal of the internet, though, is how incredibly relevant it is today despite being over twenty years old. Needless to say, in 1998, the internet was not quite as advanced as it is today. And yet, Serial Experiments Lain predicts many of the future advancements of the internet as well as the issues they bring with them. Examples include obsessive use of the internet, the problems of the online persona, the rise of a hacktivist group similar to Anonymous, and even the invention of the smartphone (or a similar device, at least). The fact that all of this was predicted so accurately at a time when you needed to go through this to even connect to the internet is remarkable. 

The main source of conflict and intrigue in SEL is the merging of the real world and the virtual world.  Throughout the series, our protagonist, Lain, becomes more and more absorbed in the Wired, starting off as a naive girl and ending up as an omnipotent, all-seeing entity. As this happens, the line between the Wired and the real world becomes increasingly blurred, with things like real-world sightings of online personas and mass hallucinations becoming commonplace. This is such a strong, interesting concept and SEL somehow manages to deliver on its full potential, not only thematically, but also visually. 

I’ve come to realise that the biggest strength of anime as compared to live action is the endless presentational opportunities given to it by its nature as an animated medium, and the best anime make use of this inherent advantage to further the experience. Serial Experiments Lain does exactly that, with a psychedelic and supremely interesting visual style. There’s an abundance of washed out lighting, electronic imagery, and visual effects reminiscent of corrupted data, and in my opinion the trippy visuals only added to the experience. They fit the show perfectly: what kind of cerebral, confusing, and conspiracy theory-delving anime about the internet wouldn’t have a striking aesthetic? 

SEL’s experimental presentation and dark tone can pretty much be chalked up to its screenwriter, a man by the name of Chiaki J. KonakaKonaka is a rather eccentric writer to say the least, and his style centres around odd and striking imagery, usually with a sinister undertone. This made perfect sense after learning that he’s also a Cthulhu mythos writer, the Lovecraftian influence is pretty clear in SEL. Even though I wouldn’t necessarily call the show a horror, it can be quite creepy at times.  

SEL is best described as very dense—dense in symbolism, themes, and sheer information sent to your screen every second. Couple that with the high number of purposefully ambiguous scenes and details, and you’ve got a show that’s commonly said to take four full viewings to completely “understand”. This doesn’t mean you necessarily have to watch it multiple times though, I’ve only seen it once and I still feel like I understand the necessary points as well as lot more, (hell it even left enough of an impression on me on the first viewing that I ended up writing a whole article about it). SEL achieves a perfect amount of ambiguity for its subject matter; as long as you’re paying attention and happy to make a few assumptions, you’ll be able to follow the main plot and themes, but there’s still more than enough room for eye-opening rewatches and multiple interpretations.

In conclusion Serial Experiments Lain is a strange, surreal, amazingly well-realised, and endlessly interesting series. If you’re looking for an entertaining and pensive sci-fi masterpiece, look no further!