Serial Experiment: Lain; it’s been hailed both as a revolutionary comment on the nature of reality and a pretentious brew of technobabble. After watching it for the first time I found myself unable to reach a conclusion beyond “Well, this sure was unique” but after a second watch I’ve returned to make a (hopefully) fair assessment of its merits.
The first episode (or layer) is titled “Weird” and for good reason. We’re introduced to a world where your internet connection can provide a much more intense and interactive experience in the network known as ‘The Wired’. An alienated girl named Lain embarks on a journey throughout this vast realm of information after receiving an e-mail from a dead classmate claiming that one’s body is of virtually no importance when you can exist without a form and its physical boundaries inside of The Wired.
You might notice rather quickly that this show suffers (or benefits depending on personal preference) from extremely slow pacing. Rather than adapting the Evangelion method of descending into philosophical territory unexpectedly in the later half, the entire show ponders questions related to a vast number of subjects as the protagonist tries to uncover the secret of her own identity and origin. Furthermore, neither fans nor those who despise the show will deny that everything follows a very repetitive formula with lots of admittedly atmospheric but drawn out sequences of staring and almost fascinatingly slow dialogue. In the end, however, the show delivers where it matters; the questions it asks as well as a mix of answers and loose threads. Unlike Ergo Proxy who tried to master too many subjects at once, Lain knows how to prioritize and covers topics ranging from collective sentience, evolution and alien conspiracy theories. Some of it is clearly unnecessary, yet enhances the mysterious atmosphere; certain sequences are overly explanatory for few logical reasons other than increased mindfuck value but when it comes to writing and some of the core questions (nature of reality, nature of self, memories, connectedness etc.) Lain never fails to be intriguing.
The show is starting to feel its age but is able to deliver a satisfying visual experience despite a not-very-ideal budget leaving its traces here and there. In the beginning, Lain’s father states that along with the growth of her online social interactions, her computer system must develop as well and it seems like she took it quite seriously; the image of her room covered completely in wires, devices and screens is one of those haunting images you won’t be forgetting anytime soon. Character designs are well made and the sloppy movement is no real problem at all; after all, this is a show that rarely moves.
I never thought I’d say this about anything but Lain has a very limited soundtrack and it’s nothing but suitable. It’s mainly comprised of creepy noises and tones that raise the already sky-high atmospheric value even further. Voice acting is fine as far as I can judge a language I don’t speak with Lain herself managing to sound apathetic, desperate, confused and just about any emotion you’d expect from a girl who doesn’t really know who she is.
In a sense, the entire story is basically about a girl who uncovers the secrets of her own identity, origin and environment along with her struggle to decide how to differentiate between the virtual and actual (?) reality. The characterization is subtle but is never really focused on development in the usual sense but rather to determine who a character is to begin with. Lain herself has several alternate personalities that are hard to keep track of and some revelations later on arrive absolutely unexpectedly to change everything we thought we had already established. As such, this is a very hard category to rate but with all the fascinating revelations that are character-related and some of the uncovered secrets in mind I cannot with good conscience give Lain a bad character score just because almost all of the characters are designed to be either generic or just kind of… mysteriously empty.
Along with stuff like Kino’s Journey and Haibane Renmei, this is one of those shows you show to people who question animation’s ability to deal with adult themes. Even though I’ve been repeatedly comparing the show to other titles there is nothing quite like it even if Boogiepop Phantom is somewhat close in terms of atmosphere. There is no such thing as a full understanding of the story, but nor did the creators use “Think of your own theory” to disguise their own inability to connect the incoherent plot threads. The major revelations are easy to follow as long as you pay attention and repeated viewings will only grant you the opportunity to uncover more details. If it had skipped some of its unnecessary side plots and worked to make the show less repetitive I would raise the score but as it is I feel like a 7.5 is the most appropriate. This is one of the most fascinating series I’ve seen and its virtues far outweigh some of its cons.