When schoolgirl Chisa Yomada commits suicide, several girls from her school start to receive emails from her after her death. One of those girls is Lain, our focus character for this anime series. She is not very computer savvy, initially sceptical about computers, and has to fire up an old computer she hasn’t used for a while in order to check to see if she has a message from Chisa. Her father, in contrast, is absolutely obsessed with computers and the “Wired”, an early form of the internet, to the extent that he has become distant from his family.
To appreciate this series you have to try to put yourself into the mindset of a viewer from 1998. We’re not exactly talking about the distant past here, but we were still in the first few years of the internet being something that was available to a significant number of people, although most people even in the Western world still didn’t own a computer at this point. The internet was new and, to some people, frightening. So at least one issue this series tackles is very much a product of its time, and we now live in a world where it has either come true or not come true, depending on your perspective. We didn’t all abandon our physical bodies and become mentally connected over the internet, as Serial Experiments Lain suggests, but on the other hand harmful addiction to the internet is a very real thing.
Whether or not you consider that issue to be relevant today, there are plenty of others that definitely are. Isolation and loneliness is a strong theme, and the series questions the extent to which the internet can provide a solution to the problem of loneliness. But are those online friends really friends? The series has no easy answers for us. Serial Experiments Lain also shows how loneliness can be a problem within a traditional family unit, just as much as at school. I have mentioned Lain’s father, but in fact both of her parents are distant from her and don’t really behave as if they are her parents at all. Meanwhile, her sister is increasingly troubled as the series progresses, eventually spiralling into severe mental illness, another topic that is explored here unflinchingly.
Lain herself is a representation of somebody suffering with a split personality. She encounters different versions of herself, which vary between shyness, confidence and manipulation, and the key question is whether these are truly a part of Lain or creations of the Wired or some entity that rules it. At times this is very disturbing, as Lain starts to lose herself in the Wired, her grip on the real world loosens, and the reason for having a physical body is questioned. She has a crisis of identity, not knowing if she is the real Lain or not, or if she is some kind of a computer programme or even born to the parents she thought were hers. In the meantime, she gains enormous power via the Wired, able to observe people, learn their deepest secrets, and manipulate them. But is it really a version of Lain doing all this or not? Finding out that another Lain has done some horrible things is very frightening for her, and during the series we see her spiral into helplessness, before finding the strength to reassert herself.
Serial Experiments Lain is an extremely complex series, and makes no concessions to the viewer’s potential confusion. In fact, I’m not entirely sure that I understood half of what was going on. A second viewing is probably essential, although I’m not motivated to do that, as this all seemed like a bit too much of an effort. It’s certainly an interesting and thought-provoking series, but I would struggle to describe it as entertaining or in any way fun to watch, and I do feel like the makers of this lost sight of the need to take the viewer on a journey with them, in favour of creating an artsy enigma in animated form. It’s a bit like doing a cryptic crossword: it gets the brain going and is probably a worthwhile way to spend time, but I’m not sure I would describe it as enjoyable. I also couldn’t help getting the impression that the lack of concession to anything approaching traditional storytelling techniques was at times a way of disguising a lack of material. In one episode in particular, half of the running time is given over to what’s basically a glorified clip show of previous episodes. I almost never do this, but I had to hit the skip button at that point on the DVD player. I won’t watch recap episodes, however thorough the attempt to disguise them as something worthwhile and artistic. The penultimate episode is by far the best of the series, because it actually gets on with the business of Lain’s conflict with her very creepy enemy, while also exploring her broken relationship with the girl she considers her only friend. There is an undercurrent of attraction between them, which could have done with being developed a bit more.
This was a series that received considerable critical acclaim, but I’m a little suspicious that it falls into the category of something people praise because everyone else praises it, or perhaps because they think speaking highly of a series like this reflects well on themselves. I won’t deny that there’s plenty to engage the brain here, but ultimately as a form of entertainment I have to say it rarely succeeds. RP