In Anna’s Anime Alcove, arts journalist and unapologetic anime enthusiast Anna Gibertini recaps the darkest, most cutting-edge series in the form.
Serial Experiments Lain, abbreviated SEL hereafter, is not a typical sci-fi anime. There are no giant robots, no starship battles, no alien babes with monster tits. But it’s pretty damn creepy. Perhaps even creepier now than when it debuted in 1998.
In that Paleolithic yesteryear, the internet was just beginning to make its presence known. Eighteen years later, it permeates and dictates nearly every aspect of daily life. It’s more suspect to be invisible on the internet than in the real world. Actions taken within the digital matrix can have visceral, real-world consequences. The division between the physical and the virtual world is quickly collapsing with each new app (hello, Pokémon Go?), wearable or smartphone. SEL is a 13-episode thought experiment on how and through who, or what, the synthesis of these two realities will materialize.
Within the introductory minutes, director Ryutaro Nakamura and writer Chiaki Konaka drop a girl-shaped bomb on any preconceived notions the viewer might have about where this anime will go. Chisa Yomoda is a high school student who already seems to be existing in two places at once. Standing on a ledge of a building, stealing a knowing glance at the viewer, Chisa silently utters, “I don’t need to stay in a place like this,” seemingly in dialog with an invisible and silent Other. Then, she plummets. Her body meets the street below with a deafening smash of glass, crashing a less than tender moment between a drunken man and a protesting woman. With this opener, SEL declares itself a story dramatically and unapologetically uninterested in heterosexual romance or sexuality.
The rest of the episode focuses on the main character and the series’ namesake: Lain Iwakura. The petite brunette is subdued, reticent and more than a little out of touch with reality. In the remaining 15 minutes of the episode, Lain has four visual and auditory hallucinations. She seems to exist in the liminal space between the actual and fantastical at all times — shadows aren’t black, but rather splotched with bright red dots; she can hear the deafening whirr of electrical wires above the city’s din and ghostly vapors rise from her fingertips. The liminality that she in which she privately exists bursts into the “real world” when Lain receives an email from the deceased Chisa, asking her to “come to the Wired [the show’s word for the internet]” as soon as she can.
Even from episode one, language and communication underpin the story structure and the characters of SEL. Lain is an excellent example. Her name is the past tense of the word “to lie” — meaning both to tell an untruth and to remain in a state of concealment or obscurity. The episode’s title, “Weird,” is an anagram of “wired.” And just to make sure the viewer understands what this show is going to fixate on for the remaining 12 episodes, Lain’s father says, “You know, Lain, in this world, whether it’s here in the real world or in the Wired, people connect to each other and that’s how societies function.”
Stay tuned for next week’s write-up to delve further into the mystery of connection at the heart of Serial Experiments Lain.
You can watch “Weird” here.