Production Studio: Triangle Staff
Was this provided by the publisher? Yes
More Info: Anime News Network
I’m writing to you, instead of at you, for this review. Serial Experiments Lain demands a conversation rather than an overview. You see, this complicated series succeeds in leaving a hugely positive and equally bizarre imprint on the mind. It manages to be bluntly vague (or is it vaguely blunt?) as it explores our need for a physical body along with its delights and detriments. Do we need bodies if technology’s capable of allowing us to shed our meat and live free-range in cyberspace? Lain’s weird, and wonderful, and frustrating. It’s visual and cerebral. It’s excruciating at times
It opens with a teenager serenely committing suicide. Her name is Chisa Yomoda.
Lain Iwakura, a friendless and introverted girl, gets curious about Chisa after hearing that her classmates had received a message from the dead girl. Although she’s an awkward technophobe, that curiosity drives Lain to boot up her ancient Navi (it’s a computer) and she eventually connects to the Wired (cyberspace network…the internet). That brief encounter tweaks something in the fourteen-year-old, and, urged by her father, she dives in to explore the vast digital world that awaits. The once isolated girl begins to form her first meaningful connections with other people in both physical and virtual realities.
Have you ever had a day of web browsing where you feel like you manage to stumble upon all of humanity’s bizarreness? That is to say, when you finally close your browser, have you ever been unable to sort out whether you’re delighted, disturbed, empty, or fulfilled–simultaneously having your curiosity piqued while being weirded the hell out? Lain begins to have those days every day. This only serves to draw her further into the Wired, away from the “real life” she’d barely started to build. It deepens her virtual connections and catalyzes her newlyfound addiction to hardware upgrades.
After she becomes able to do full dives, the line between physical and virtual realities blur staggeringly and her perspectives are repeatedly turned upside down. To make things worse, after encountering the Wired, she’s constantly plunged into mysterious, unsettling events. We experience the confusion with her. Ten more questions seem to come with every revelation. Are the events centered around her, or not? Are those creepy dudes in black with dot-sight VR vision goggles really stalking her, or not? We doubt alongside her everything’s identity, everything’s definition within the universe. What are identity and consciousness anyway? Is there even just one universe? Do we create the universe(s?) that we experience or do they create us? If humans are evolved enough to ask those questions, are they going to stagnate in that quandary or break through to the answer by way of practical experience? Do we need physical bodies if our technology can allow us to gain that experience freely? If we push those boundaries, is there a point of no return?
No synopsis would be complete without mentioning Alice Mizuki (spelled Arisu in the subtitles). Alice is the most reserved member of a trio of friends that Lain connects with throughout the series. Despite that fact, she remains oblivious to the girlish peer pressure of her louder friends and continuously tries to draw Lain into the group. She supports her, defends her, and coaxes her out. Lain first experiences that singular joviality of a girl’s night out thanks to Alice. In fact, Alice gives Lain so many firsts that the earnest girl quickly becomes Lain’s most beloved person. As the series progresses, Alice–although remaining oblivious to most of Lain’s chaotic turmoil–becomes an anchor for her. She becomes a symbol of physical reality and eventually, Lain’s one and only pinprick of light. You see, Alice becomes the only person whose motives and affections are “real” to Lain regardless of the reality she’s experiencing.
And I’m sorry friends, but that’s as much of a plot synopsis I can give you without revealing any spoilers. It was super vague, right? Lain’s personality and perception of reality shift quite often, and the story would be totally incoherent without the abundant and carefully placed clues we receive from the directors. They incorporated these clues into all layers of the production; a viewer who notices anything from nuances in vocal pitches to shifts in the color palette will be rewarded with some hint as to what’s going on. The dialogue is relatively sparse, and the directors rely heavily on images to tell the story. In fact, I have a sensitive eye for directing and I feel like I still probably missed many visual statements, even though I rewatched some episodes. I liked that!
One thing I noted was the highly particular episode pacing. Camera movement and scene progression are both careful and deliberate. Even though they’re joined together in such a way that there are all those clues to process, it almost feels like the scenes loitered. It was very strange, because I found myself simultaneously riveted and frustrated by the pace.
Speaking of frustration, I’m going to digress for a moment to pick at something that nagged me throughout the series. It’s true that I really enjoyed being given so many story clues to process, but only when they were subtle. Lain’s audience is adults, and as an adult watching a grownup story with grownup themes, I appreciated the detailed minutiae presented throughout the episodes. Then out of the blue would come this abrupt, heavy-handed foreshadowing! The sudden change in foreshadowing style is really jarring. For example, the first episode has fifty-three seconds or 1/20th of its runtime comprised of nothing but shots of wires. Obviously the wires have an important, multi-layered meaning. Cutting away from the plodding, somehow evanescent foreshadows to forcefully remind viewers of that fact over and over was a bit irritating–especially in the first half of the series.
Whew! I’ll get back to it. Lain’s art style, colors, and painting help to soothe any frustration experienced from the pacing or those changes in foreshadowing. I love how relevant the colors are to the story. They’re super interesting to track throughout the episodes. I’ll always remember the amazing detail put into light, reflections, and shadows–especially around the eyes and faces. It was such a treat to view, and we’re given plenty of time to admire the artists’ efforts throughout the series. Character design is simple, and while it isn’t a particularly beautiful style, it is a particularly poignant one. You’ll definitely see what I mean!
Although I could go on forever about the visual aspects of this anime, I seriously need to praise Lain Iwakura’s voice actress, Kaori Shimizu. The entire cast was skillful, but Shimizu shines brightly with her subtle and nuanced performance. She’s tasked with expressing Lain’s constant shifts in personality throughout the series, and I was delighted with how well her performance served to immerse me in those changes. The music and effects were fitting throughout the episodes, but to be honest, the visual statements were so overwhelming that I didn’t notice much else about the soundtrack; and that’s just fine.
Overall, I rate Lain as a rewarding labor of love. The thematic motifs are so complex that they can only be properly examined from a great distance. You know those large mosaic images that artists create by arranging hundreds of smaller pictures into a coherent form? That’s what Lain is, except instead of enjoying the finished image immediately, we must first watch the artist painstakingly arrange the comprising pictures one by one. It’s complicated to watch, complicated to process, and complicated to talk about! With that said, Serial Experiments Lain is definitely my all-time favorite work in the genre that tackles multilayered, philosophical examinations of the affect, the possibilities, being ‘plugged in’ presents to human beings. I genuinely, exasperatedly, love it.