Written by Richard Brown
Serial Experiments Lain is one of “those” animes. You know, one of the famed mindscrew (put politely) series. But is it any good? Read on to find out.
The Basic Plot
Lain is seemingly a normal, if socially awkward teenage girl, with little interest in technology. However, one day a classmate sends her a message over the “Wired” (read as internet), despite having committed suicide beforehand. Mystified by events, Lain asks her dad for a new computer and starts to explore the digital world.
This anime, to be blunt, isn’t playing by the rules. Every culture tells stories, often very different from those of other cultures, as each develops its own rules and traditions. This cultural baggage forms the basis of clichés, archetypes, proverbs and tropes, and anime has these aplenty. Serial Experiments Lain, like a lot of good animes, is trying hard to go against these, in pursuit of an intellectual theme. However, it goes too far in the other direction, as its narrative is so divorced from the norm, it can become unintelligible. Cliches, archetypes, proverbs and tropes, while far from original, are not inherently bad. One reason why they are so widespread is because they communicate ideas so effectively, and represent handy tools for a writer to get across their point. Lain is not necessarily any more intelligent than any other anime, it is just talking in a narrative language purposefully different and accented. Now, as a result, the anime is largely immune to my usual review approach, so I’m limiting myself to answering two important questions. Firstly, do we have, to use one of the clichés Lain is so eager to avoid, a case of “Emperor’s new clothes”? The thing about genius and pretension is that they can look the same, and there are many animes that have made this mistake, and ended up being more smug than smart. And secondly, the only question really worth asking about anything, does it actually entertain and engage?
I operate a “5 episode rule” when watching an anime. Five episodes is a good amount of time to decide whether you actually like an anime, and it’s also enough time for a show to get the important introductions out of the way. As we have to wait until episode 7 (of 13) before Serial Experiments Lain even attempts to do anything other than baffle, I have to say that the anime truly fails on the entertainment front. Its one thing to keep an audience guessing, but Lain has confused that with being obscure. The series simply presents us with information, but no context, isolated themes, but no real big picture. There is no real “little picture” either, little reward for watching the individual episodes, nothing to tide the viewer over until Lain starts to tie things together. The anime seems to be message first, all other factors second.
“On the Internet, god is a naked 13-year-old girl” – fellistowe on Lain, just as the barman comes into earshot.
So, does this anime succeed in playing the brain game? Is its message worth receiving? Not really. Lain is best described as dream-like; there is minimal causality between scenes, and no obvious way to distinguish between what is “real” (inverted commas used very deliberately), and what is imagined. There is a slightly episodic feel to things, too, as the anime touches on topics like drug culture and psychic ability. The whole “wired” concept is important to the plot, but it’s worth mentioning that this anime is not about technology per say; that is just a pretext to pose the question “who/what actually is Lain?” .The perception of reality is one of the anime’s key themes, with odd colours, sounds and purposefully reused animation used to further this, but all it succeeds in doing is creating a trippy mess. Pretension is runny rampant.
The final straw came around episode 9, when the jigsaw started to come together. For the first time, the series speaks to the viewer directly, and spells out a major, (although not the key,) plot element. What this basically amounts to is a scientist with a god complex messing with unproven technology, in an attempt to become a de facto god. Yes, after two thirds of the series, after much fractured narrative, after much symbolism, Lain trots out that anti-intellectual chestnut. This was a crushing disappointment, as the series had built up great expectations in me of an interesting reveal. Things did not improve there after, and I have to say the intellectual aspects of the show weren’t worth the effort.
Serial Experiments Lain has very nearly put me off mindscrew anime, not because it is strange, but because it is dull and pretentious to extremes. I do not feel that I can give a fair and objective analysis of this series, as it has managed to annoy me more than any other anime in existence. This is a personal failure for me as a reviewer, and the best I can say is that you try it for yourself. I personally loathed it with a kind of cold and detached frustration, but I seem to be unique in this.