If the purpose of Serial Experiments Lain is to get your mind whirling, it succeeds. If its purpose is to get you thinking, not so much. This anime is a hit-or-miss philosophical cesspool that could either captivate or disgust. It’s like swallowing a series of shots that burn your throat and make you either drunkenly euphoric or nauseous.
At the time, Serial Experiments Lain was covering ground few had covered before, and people were hailing the work as the turn-of-the-21st-century version of 1984. Now, more than ten years later, one could look at Lain and call it even more relevant. As it ponders the consequences of over-stimulation and over-connectedness, we ourselves have to ponder if being connected is the only way to assert our identity. In this way the anime is worthy of praise. It uses an innovative, pertinent medium to ask an age-old question.
Is it possible, though, for subject matter like this to come in such an unsavory form? The anime’s highly experimental and impressionistic style ends up blurring much of what it wants to say. In ingesting the Lain pill, the viewer becomes desensitized instead of enlightened, and eventually he gets lost and stops paying attention.
For all the effort it takes to watch the thing, it leaves one with a diaphanous general idea and little satisfaction. There have been arguments that Lain does this purposefully so that we can make our own conclusions, but the storytelling isn’t engrossing enough for us to even want to make our own conclusions. The anime burrows under a smothering blanket of metaphors, leading us on and then giving us a paltry return for how much we invested. We will follow the mystery as if by masochistic impulsion, stomach the nearly indigestible, and then emerge at the end with our mind whirling but not made any better.
The animation does its job. And it’s an important job.
Rarely does one come across an anime whose central tenets are linked so closely to how they are drawn. The dark red splotches on the pavement hints at a shadowy world that lurks just beneath the real one; solid gray figures sit inertly at their desks and on the train, unable to connect to the world around them; connected power lines loom against a garish yellow sky, ready to entangle those who walk in their midst – they’re all symbols. It is a visual style so abstract it could be called meaningful, a style so distasteful it could be called artistic. A cruel beauty, if you will.
The sound, or rather the lack of sound, suits the anime well, and eerie minimalist electronic music quietly adds to the unsettlement. Personally, I would have replaced the ill-fitting alternative-rock riffs for some Berg or Kurtag. Rock is just too down-to-earth for this business.
Lain is not a girl I would want to take up in my arms and cuddle. Her vacant expression and porcelain-glass eyes incite more unease than empathy. However, the identity crisis she undergoes in the latter half provides all that is needed for the story to jump-start. Lain’s efforts to fill her empty life with worth becomes mildly arresting, if not frustrating. As she continues to ask herself the same questions and uncovers no answers, her journey to self-discovery teeters between suspense and stagnancy. Things do come to a head at the end, but I have to wonder if it's worth the hours of waiting.
Meanwhile, the other characters fit into Lain’s story a bit like incorrect puzzle pieces. Some of them, like Lain’s sister and father, are good ideas that lack the punch to make an impact. Others, like her friend Alice and the mysterious men who spy on Lain outside her house, appear again and again, meant to be manifestations of Lain's internal struggles but instead flickering out as uninspired motifs that the viewer would likely deem not important enough to figure out.
The beginning of the last episode opens with Lain saying, “I’m confused again.” I agree. To me Serial Experiments Lain resembles those books one reads in high school English class that are supposed to be eye-opening but actually just sweep past the brain and go out the other ear. There is no denying that the anime is a groundbreaking and creative work, but it seems to have remained in anime history not so much for what it says as for what it represents. While the ideas are there, it has stumbled a little over its convoluted wording.
"I have only abandoned my body, I still live here" - are the words emailed to friends of Chisa, several days after her death by suicide. As Lain delves deeper into the world of the "Wired" (also known as the internet), the line between it and reality becomes more and more unclear. Close the world, open the nExt.
When I first stumbled upon the anime scene, I demanded only slice-of-life high school romance and Naruto (Weird combination!). I've opened up a little bit since then, but I suppose the high school shoujo type will always be my "comfort zone."