It 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.