Serial Experiments Lain Collector’s Edition (Cert 12)
3 Discs DVD/Blu-ray Combo (Distributor: MVM) Running time: 310 minutes approx.
MVM’s occasional trip back into the archives resurrects a polarising cyberpunk classic that is both a product of its time yet prescient in its depiction of the Internet. This re-release reduces the DVD disc count to just two and includes a Blu-ray upgrade for those wishing to experience the psychedelic imagery in shiny HD.
Originally released in 1998 when the pre-broadband, pre-YouTube, pre-social media era of the Internet, the ideas presented by writer Chiaki J. Konaka seemed far-fetched but wildly ambitious in exploring the online world. Unsurprisingly, many of them were achieved and are commonplace for today, although it is unlikely they come without the existential angst our protagonist suffers from.
The titular Lain Iwakura is an introverted 14 year-old schoolgirl who, like many of her classmates, receives an e-mail from a girl who days earlier committed suicide. The message tells Lain that she isn’t dead, only abandoned her body, and is living in The Wired (internet) because God is there. Lain is inspired to upgrade her Navi (computer) to be powerful enough to enter The Wired herself.
Upon entering this virtual reality world, Lain is welcomed with a degree of familiarity which surprises her for her first time online, but things become more curious in real life when her friends make accusations against her behaviour in situations which Lain is confident didn’t involve her. Suddenly Lain is confronted with the idea that there are two versions of her – the real one and the virtual reality one. But which is the true Lain?
Describing Serial Experiments Lain to somebody who has never seen it is rather hard; using anime comparisons it’s part Ghost In The Shell, part Neon Genesis Evangelion and part Paranoia Agent. Even then, that only offers a glib suggestion of the tone, aesthetic and the company it keeps genre wise, yet Lain has largely managed to remain in the shadow of the three examples above.
Where it stands out from the others is in exploring the potential of the internet and the hidden darker depths that lay beneath the surface of joyous flashing images, readily accessible media and social interaction. This last example is at the crux of the story, at least for Lain, who finds it hard to make friends and even co-exists with her family, yet in The Wired, she is a revered figure of some influence and power.
Quite how this came to be is the mystery element of the story which is as baffling to Lain as it is to the viewer. Shady Men In Black (no relation) loiter with intent outside Lain’s home; a multinational technology company has an interest in Lain; a hacker group called The Knights are using online games to drive people to death. A lot for this 14 year-old to take in and even more for the audience. If only it made sense.
And it is for that particular reason Lain is regarded as a contentious series. Anime is a fickle enough subculture that is lambasted for its production line laziness when it comes to new shows yet in trying something different and challenging, tends to go too far, alienating more viewers than it attracts. In fact, the show’s producer Yasuyuki Ueda considered it “an enormous risk”.
In reality, there are arguments for both points of view. The premise and plot is straight forward but the execution is meandering and sometimes abstruse with its overloading of the senses and abstract approach. Every episode bar the final opens with the same shot of a neon lit Tokyo street against a green sky with silhouettes of people crossing a road, confusing us into thinking the first chapter has played again.
The basic framework and time line of the story is linear but the distractions of Lain’s entry into The Wired serve to distort this, the virtual reality setting being presented as a maelstrom of psychedelic abandon, a home to the faceless. Like GITS it ponders the idea that flesh and bone is obsolete and one can live on as an AI in The Wired – rather eerily foreshadowing the symbolic rise of online streaming vs. physical media.
Cyber-bullying is also subject to presage here, along with the advent of the MMORPG and the power to share information on a wider scale to name and shame the ne’er-do-wells of the world. For all its narrative faults, unresolved subplots, flimsy character development and general obtuseness, Lain can claim to be a show that doesn’t rest on its laurels and follow the pack.
Visually the show’s age is exposed through the character designs and economic cell-drawn animation which flits between astoundingly detailed and accurate beauty to still -framed laziness. The greyed out flesh tones and effective use of chiaroscuro to illustrate Lain’s descent into her confused self-absorbed mania adds to the quaint vintage charm, buttressed by the immersive atmospherics of the sound design.
The outside world is largely rendered in white, with nary a definitive line shown, while shadows appear as swirling blood red forms as if revealing what is beneath the ground. Lain herself is a unique creation, neither exceptionally eye catching (aside for her lone side-pony tail) or particularly non-descript and as a personality, is not a protagonist one can easily root for, since her definition is ambiguous at best.
As ever, there will be the Lain loyalists who will defend this show to their last breath and they have good reason to, as it is a strangely compelling and intelligent dissertation on the subject of losing one’s identity to an online alias. But it is also a script heavily burdened with pretentious non-sequiturs and pseudo-intellectual ramblings that feel more obfuscating than revealing.
If anything Serial Experiments Lain does indeed warrant a reappraisal in lieu of the technological advances it foresaw almost twenty years ago and may win new fans with this re-release, whilst likely to continue to be too arcane for others to appreciate. A true cult classic if there ever was one.
Japanese 2.0 w/ English Subtitles
DVD Disc 2:
Textless Opening Song
Textless Closing Song
Rating – ***
Man In Black