Serial Experiments Lain Anime, Disk 1 (English)

July 24th, 2013

lain coverIt did not come as a surprise that Yoshitoshi Abe’s series Serial Experiments Lain has never been reviewed here on Okazu before. It predated the creation of Okazu by hair.  I have not seriously considered the thing for…well, more than a decade.

So here I am watching Serial Experiments Lain for probably the first time since 2001 or so. ^_^ The new DVD/Blu-Ray combo from Funimation has graphics of high enough quality to really show off the best – and worst – of what was cutting edge animation at the time.

Back in the late 90’s, early 00s, Yoshitoshi Abe was making a big name for himself. His drawings were dream-like, his stories ambiguous and rich with symbolism. In Haibane Renmei he explored what was interpreted by most as an afterlife and in Lain, he took a look at the still-new-to-consumers world of the Internet.

Serial Experiments Lain follows middle-school student Ishikawa Lain, a girl who appears to be fairly disengaged with her own life. When her father buys her a computer, she begins to change. Or that’s what all the synopses say. But that’s not what I’m seeing. I’m watching a story about three different Lains – one out of touch with her own life, one fully engaged in a virtual existence and one making the transition between the two. One Disk 1, at least, there is little linearity or continuity between these three Lains, and they are so different that we can identify them instantly by clothes, bearing, voice and actions.

We initially meet the first Lain, a dead-eyed tween, with not-quite friends. She’s naive, slightly disrespected by the people she hangs with, with the exception of Arisu, a classmate who acts like an older sister.. Her classmates swear they saw her at a club in town, which seems impossible. Her father buys her a computer, and she’s introduced to The Wired, a sort of meta-virtual world that we haven’t quite achieved yet; that cyberpunky Second Life where we’re all club-going cool kids and the drugs are weirder and even more dangerous than they actually are. Lain is already known in this cyberscape, although she has just entered it.

Drugs, swirly colors, psychos, clubbing, techno music…we must be in a cyberpunk story! And there’s Lain, in the iconic image , where our naive little protagonist is suddenly cool, modifying her computer with all sorts of exciting features that require massive cooling systems and giant hanging pipes designed to make computer geeks of the time jealous.


But wait…suddenly an occult-horror story intrudes, and a prophecy written in blood becomes a feature of the story. And in the middle of  bizarre, distorted images of faces too close to a camera that isn’t there and words being said but not understood, Lain’s family may or not be real and Lain suddenly morphs from transitioning Lain into Lain of the Wired, the cynical, meta-Lain, denizen of the cyberworld who is being tracked by guys in black suits. The only person in all three continuities who care about Lain at all appears to be Arisu. She can see when Lain is “different” and she’s very, deeply worried for Lain, but clearly has nothing but her care and worry to give.

To say that Lain is a messy narrative is an understatement. One hardly has time to get used to the tropes of one genre before we’re thrust into another. The sidetrack into occult horror really killed the momentum of the cyberpunk stuff, and the black helicopters conspiracy seems bizarre, when it’s so layered with male gaze junkiness out of the blue that leads nowhere.

About Episode 5 (aptly named “Distortion”) my attention just began to wander. I began to note the symbolic use and non-use of color and super high-contrast light and sound in the backgrounds – which is when I came to my conclusion about the three Lains: There are three non-linear Lains, but only one of them is the protagonist.

Check back for Disk 2 and whether I’m on the right track. ^_^


Art – 4 The character art does not hold up, but the concepts of the art do
Character – 5
Story – Which one? 4-7 depending
Yuri – 2 Whether you see “more than friends” between Lain and Arisu is entirely up to personal interpretation at this point.
Service – 4 Lain is very proto-moe

Overall – 5 I don’t remember the end, and there were some bits that were not good, but overall it’s interesting, so I’ll split it down the middle for now.

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9 Responses

  1. Eric P. says:

    Never expected to see you review this title, but it’s a pleasant surprise to read your thoughts on it.

    This is one of those series where never in a million years I could really explain to anyone what this show’s about. I’ve watched this countless times, and although I’ve gotten the basic gist of it I’m still no closer to connecting all the pieces together, which lead to my conclusion a long time ago that this was styled incoherently for the heck of it.

    And yet, I love this series regardless, and it remains one of my favorites and is a true one-of-a-kind classic. Funimation really put out a deluxe snazzy Blu-ray set for this–although I wish they were able to do the same for ‘Haibane Renmei’, a masterpiece series that absolutely deserves a treatment such as this. Can’t have it all, I guess.

    • I would, I think, buy a BD release of HR. My memory of it is that the art would hold up. The backgrounds in Lain are worth some critical study, poor Lain’s face, though. The humans do not do well in this series, art-wise.

      I liked Lain the first time, but I remembered little of it. I guess I’ll see if I still like it after all. ^_^

  2. Greg Carter says:

    Oh, yikes… Lain’s face. (One of the Lains, at least, I’m sure on purpose.) She totally had troll-face. Yet again predating the actual internetz phenomenon.

    I watched it and I still don’t get it. I got more of it, but somehow cared a little less. Same thing happened the last time I watched .hack//SIGN as well. Maybe reality has passed it by. It almost felt quaint, like watching old Max Headroom episodes.

    The color and crispness of the Blu-ray remastering really show. But there is certainly some unattractive art in places. It came with Blu-rays and DVDs, plus the Art book and remastering pamphlet which made the new set purchase worthwhile. (Especially since I waited until Amazon had it for 1/2 the original price. Shhhh.)

    I bought the re-release of Haibane Renmei too. And it looks nice, but not as crisp as Lain. And I’m okay with that. HR works better a little soft around the edges.

  3. dm00 says:

    I think there are many Lains — probably almost one per episode. It’s not a plot, it’s an anthology of geeky kookery from the era that gave us the “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, John Lilly and his talking dolphins, Ted Nelson and his Xanadu (the first unrealized dream of hypertext). Oh, and don’t forget the UFO stuff.

    Lain almost seemed little like an anachronism when it came out — it was an amalgam of ideas from the 70s and 80s, which were themselves echoes of earlier technical visionaries like Douglas Engelbart, the folks at Xerox PARC, and the characters John Markoff describes in his book What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry (which brings us back to Lain’s Alice).

    I think what plot Lain has serves only as a place for Chiaki Konaka to hang his Whole Earth Software Catalog of techno-counter-culture notions and gee-gaws.

    And I love it for that.

    The main thing I continue to admire about Lain is its visual inventiveness. I had the feeling that a lot of talented artists were given a lot of expensive toys and they saw how they could adapt the new techniques made possible by those toys to the art of animation.

    PS., I think Ryutaro Nakamura (the director) deserves a little credit, too. I’ve always thought Lain and Kino’s Journey were his best works.

  4. I happen to have a copy of the deluxe set Greg mentioned above, though I previously watched it online. The oddness, cyberpunk stuff, and genre bending were as I expected, but I was surprised to see all that techno-counterculture stuff thrown in from the ’60s and ’70s in an anime from the dawn of the World Wide Web. And the UFO stuff. It’s one of my favorite anime, but then I always loved the mindscrewy stuff (yes, I spent years obsessed with both Evangelion and Utena). Some of the CGI is pretty crude by today’s standards, but then we’re talking 1998-vintage Macintosh — there’s a whole lot of references to Apple, plus NeXT and Be (as in BeOS) as well, and the computer voice is done in PlainTalk. Oh, and “Tachibana” means “mandarin orange”. Can you tell the staff are Mac nuts?

    The plot of course won’t get any less complicated, and the really weird stuff’s coming on disc 2. As for Lain and Alice…

  5. Eric P. says:

    ‘PS., I think Ryutaro Nakamura (the director) deserves a little credit, too. I’ve always thought Lain and Kino’s Journey were his best works.’

    And coincidentally it was just announced on ANN today that the man himself has died, which is a shame. I would never have guessed the director of ‘Lain’ was also the director of ‘Sakura Wars.’

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