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.
There are anime in this world that will make you tilt your head to the side so hard you get a crick in your neck for a week. Lain is probably one of the best examples of this genre. There will be times while watching Lain where you need to stop and try to wrap your mind around what just happened. And while other anime slowly build to this point, like Evangelion or Paranoia Agent, Lain goes straight into the realm of mindf*ck in early episodes. However, as an older anime, it does suffer a bit from limited tools, but I would say it holds up to its more contemporary counterparts.
Story: The plot of Lain is actually fairly straightforward for all of it's weirdness. The perplexity of the story is not in the complex plot, but rather the way the plot unfolds. Instead of immediately stating how the world of Lain works, especially the Wired, the plot unfolds each layer like taking apart an origami crane. Once the truth is revealed, layer by layer, the plot begins to make sense. It isn't necessarily an anime that will make you question existance, in a way The Matrix might. Lain is more of a story about the potential of computers, in much the same wavelength as Ghost in the Shell. But unlike other anime, it throws strange imagery, unreliable narration, and often odd behavior at the viewer to hide the plot.
Animation: Here's the main part that Lain falls short. It's not that the animation is bad, it's just that the tools for the time period mean a lot of the animation is saturated. Many scenes are too dark to make out detail, while others are light-bleached. The animation itself is rather fluid, though there are jerky movements from time to time (a lot of it intentional). There isn't a lot of detail to the faces, especially Lain's, and much of the scenery can be fairly bland. However, the complexity of the Navi systems seems to be what took up most of the animation budget.
Sound: For the most part, the sound is great. The opening song is so 90s that it's nostalgic to my generation, even if its the first time hearing it. The voices are excellent, and the sound studio mixes a reverb or metallic sound whenever a voice is over the Wired, which I found interesting.
Characters: Here's the problem with the characters; there are a lot of them introduced, but not many are given more than a token trait. For example, Lain's family is very distant, but beyond a trait like "loves the Navi system", they don't have much going for them. Lain's friends are a bit like stock characters, except Arisu, who actually has a personality and flaws. The Knights are shown, living their daily lives, but are not given much exposition beyond their role in the Wired as a group. And the main character, Lain, isn't a reliable source of information. She's very difficult to relate to because of who/what she is. Still, I liked Lain, for all of her weirdness and flaws.
Overall, I'd recommend the anime and not just because it's for a badge. Just be prepared to suspend disbelief completely.
This review brought to you by Secret Santa 2016.
Lain is mostly remembered today for the opening song, or the creepy atmosphere, but it also stand out as a period piece by being one of the best speculative fiction series of the time period it came out. Although the way it presented the internet in its early stages can be seen as silly now that we are all using it, it still predicted how it affects the way people think or how bad guys would abuse it for achieving deification by controlling peoples’ minds. It’s an exaggerated version of what actually happens today. You know, the mass media controlling the narrative, megalomaniac sociopaths promoting their agendas, and many becoming NPCs who are supporting the current thing. The presentation in Lain is of course not that down to earth, it’s done in a metaphysical way, as was the style at the time. Because back then the end of the millennia was near, people were worried about new technologies, and Neon Genesis became a big hit by having the exact same concept with Instrumentality, so let’s copy it to get a piece of the pie.
Historical impact aside, the anime is obviously dated in terms of visuals, although it still holds up in terms of mysterious atmosphere and mindfuck special effects. The biggest issue most newer fans will have with it is how it doesn’t have the usual crap that sell, such as elaborate fight choreographies, or excessive fan service. The heroine can be seen as a waifu when she is dressed in those silly bear pajamas (and you are that fatally desperate to need one for watching an anime), but she’s mostly a surrogate for the viewer. She’s not there as a manic pixie dream girl that motivates some dull guy to participate in some hobby, as is the trend these days. Lain is not entertaining, it’s not about carefree characters in some high school and there are no silly romantic triangles.
You see, the bulk of anime are about escapism. To run away from the boredom of your dull existence and into a realm of excitement and lack of responsibility. Lain seems to be doing that at first with everyone getting hooked on their internet and videogames (with wireless joysticks I must point out, at a time when it wasn’t widespread or cheap). And then it makes the whole thing to seem horrifying by changing peoples’ perception, and by causing death and mayhem everywhere. In effect it becomes anti-escapism and a cautionary tale on what happens when you indulge too much in any hobby. That’s the prime difference with something like Sword Art Online which is the polar opposite of what Lain is going for. You know, videogames are cool, I too wanna get trapped in a virtual reality and have lots of waifus being amazed with me. That is the main difference between sci-fi shows of the late 1990s and the 2010s. Back then almost everything was serious and scary. Lain is of the same vein as something like the original Ghost in the Shell movie. Philosophical, about loss of self in a virtual sea of impersonal information. What happens if your consciousness becomes data and you get a fusion of man and machine? Do you become a God? Do you ascend into a higher dimension? It’s that shit that makes science fiction great and memorable.
With that said the show has its problems. How does a girl who doesn’t know or like computers that much changed so fast in a few episodes? It feels like a character rewrite because we don’t see the change, it happens out of screen. It’s the same thing with Kirito and Asuna in Sword Art Online loving each other when we hardly see them together. I mean, it’s done for maintaining a sense of mystery by making you ponder why does such a thing happen, but it’s still too sudden. Also why does nobody do something if videogames and The Wired are forcing people to commit suicide? What are the parents doing, the teachers, or the police? Why don’t they ban or regulate the damn thing? Because if they did we wouldn’t have a story.
Also the whole concept of technology changing your perception is resolved in a really cheap way at the end that almost makes the whole theme pointless. The answer to the mystery of what is going on and why is Lain acting like a different person at times is not her losing touch with reality because of overexposure to The Wire. She was a deity. Not because of the internet, she was all along. So, um, what kind of a moral message does that leave you with? It’s no longer about how technology changes her, because she was always different. She was another Suzumiya Haruhi, which is not helpful when she’s supposed to be a stand-in for the viewer. Oh, what a betrayal. We are mortals, we wanna view and evaluate the show with mortal standards. That’s why it was way better when in the Haruhi anime the protagonist was Kyon. A mortal, not the goddess.
As if that wasn’t enough, the mortals in Lain (and by that I mean every other character in the show) don’t achieve that much. Not only the heroine takes up most of the screentime, the others don’t affect the outcome much. There’s this really elaborate conspiracy going on that involves a dozen different things which are resolved in a hurry at the end and in a cheap way because the heroine can do a lot of weird reality warping shit. So what was the point of the show? If you are not the Special Chosen One from the very start you are fucked? Thanks every popular fighting shonen ever made! What would we do without your important moral message?
With that said, Lain is still a good watch. It’s thematically powerful and attracting as a mystery, the music and the atmosphere hold up. It’s just that it’s very impersonal (and dare say un-relatable if you are a feelfag) when you get the answers and not everything comes together in an organic way at the end. It works far better conceptually than it does in execution. Still worth recommending, but not flawless.
If you like the question of "what exactly was real here?", then look no further. This is the ultimate anime for budding philosophers who want to explore the borders between reality and imagination. Of course, the cynical outlook is that this is cereal box intellectualism aimed at stoned college students. Both are true. Yet that does not take away from the fact that this is a unique and fascinating work of art.
At the end of the series, you will have to ask the question of "was the protagonist real?", and then follow up with "what the hell happened in reality?", and finally "exactly how deep did this truly go?". There are no conclussive answers for any of these. Where The Matrix takes the easy route of saying "there is fantasy and there is reality", Serial Experiments Lain doesn't bother simplifying the issues so we can know what is right.
The complex plot is accentuated with highly stylized minimal art in animation, sound, character design and the still pictures. Recurring themes such as power lines, backgrounds that fade to white, and things lurking in the shadows are all over the place. But in the end the simplest question, and the one that is at the heart of the premise, is "if electronic communications could not be distinguished from real life, would labeling them as different have a meaning?".
This has not been executed better. It is a deep intellectual process hidden behind what seems simple. Just like the art, what seems simple at first is incredibly rich and powerful. Sometimes Serial Experiments Lain seems like a maze of metaphors with no real meanings, at others an exercise in genius. Both are right. And that is the strength of the series.
Oh god. This is complicated. When you can't be sure that the protagonist exists or not, then it really isn't an option to analyze this correctly. But, I'll give it a shot. The story here is unique, and goes deeper than Ghost in the Shell ever could. The choice of students here is not nonsensical, and themes of escapism, despair, and so on are strewn haphazardly all over the place.
This is not for everyone. Many will have headaches trying to follow it. Others will give up and say it doesn't make sense. But for a select few, those who want to put an effort and a load of brainpower into something they watch, this is a fascinating tale of the struggle inherent to consciousness. The struggle for survival takes many forms, from suicide to attempted immortality to erasing ones existence. The protagonists go through a series of trials that explores these issues, with interpersonal relationships making things infinitely more complex.
So perhaps I mistated it. This is a story about what survival actually means. Or maybe not. It is just so complicated that even upon multiple viewings each philosophical outlook you take makes the center of it all different. It is a unique story in which the viewer can't help but be involved.
Hard to judge.
It is in many ways brilliant, using minimalism and simplicity to drive points forward. It may as well be a ten from a certain perspective, or a five from another. What can be said though is that it is unique in many ways. Certain aspects of the art have been guiding lights for the more intellectual minimalist animations since. Others have been done far better with bigger budgets and better tools.
In the end, it is built to service the story, which is the centerpoint of the series. As such, it does not need to have a wow-factor. In 1998, when this was made, this would have been a nine, and due to the artistic choices it holds up far better than most.
Clever minimalism, recurring themes, you get the point. Just like everything in this anime, it is built to accentuate the story. It does a fine job of it. At the time this would possibly be a clean-cut ten out of ten, and the influence of it is felt heavily in newer works that focus on a minimalist approach to accentuate certain points. Of course, in the past decade and a half, people have taken that core approach and have done it better.
Still, like the animation, what makes this hold up is that the direction this anime takes makes it perfectly suited for the bigger picture.
They're good. Above average. But they are not the point. While not your standard ones, they are in no way special in the modern landscape of artistic anime... and that is fine. The characters are there to service the story, not the other way around. This is not a character driven anime. This is a classic "hard scifi" story, where the philosophical questions are more important than the characters themselves.
The question that I have would be a different one: if they would have stood out more, would it have detracted from the rest? I don't know. Perhaps it would be more enjoyable, perhaps not. Serial Experiments Lain is very hard to judge according to these parameters.
This is excellence. While the art and characters might have not stood the test of time perfectly, the story does, and will. This is a brilliant science fiction story, and for people who like the hard scifi genre, this is an absolute delight. The philosophical depth is astounding, and the way that so many questions are left open gives this immense rewatch potential.
Highly recommended if you are looking for something to make you think, rather than just have another exhilerating ride.
To the atmosphere, characters, symbolism, hidden messages, and Lain herself. This show is a masterpiece.