in the Wired
July 9, 2018 8:58 AM   Subscribe

The Terrifyingly Prescient ‘Serial Experiments Lain,’ 20 Years Later

Cyberpunk in Film: “Serial Experiments: Lain”
There are no easy answers presented for the viewer. You never are sure what is real, what is the Wired leaking into our world, or what is one of Lain’s hallucinations. It’s also one of the few cyberpunk films to show how chilling losing your sense of self can be, or how deadly the cyberworld invading ours could be. Even to the end, Lain herself is an enigma. It’s also intensely philosophical, meditating on the nature of God, on human evolution and connection, and on memory and the human being as software. Even our own existence: if no one remembers we exist, and human memory can be wiped and debugged as easily as computer memory, do we really exist at all?
Thought Experiments Lain

Topologies of Identity in Serial Experiments Lain, Craig Jackson [Minnesota Scholarship Online]
the precise nature of what constitutes a human, and the form in which that humanity is manifested, remains unsettled. The potential for human–machine interface provides an additional dimension to the problem. External memories and digital avatars allow for the possibility that a human might live in a machine. Conversely, biomechanical hybridization and cybernetics imply that a machine might live in us. This human–machine interface, in all its various forms and ramifications for human identity, is the frontier that many anime and manga series navigate. One particularly intriguing series in this vein is Serial Experiments Lain (1998).
When the Machines Stop: Fantasy, Reality, and Terminal Identity in "Neon Genesis Evangelion" and "Serial Experiments Lain", Susan J. Napier, Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 29, No. 3, Japanese Science Fiction (Nov., 2002), pp. 418-435

Wired:: Ghosts in the S[hell], Kathy Nguyen, Multicultural Women’s and Gender Studies, Texas Woman’s University, Volume 17, Issue 1 (Article 2 in 2017).
The recent ghost sightings in Japan (re)produce this fundamental idea: one’s existence, perhaps, can never truly be erased. In recent years, the idea of a wandering ghost (“a ghost in the machine”) has drifted into the technological landscape. The ghost has drifted into the network; the digital network to be exact. Based on the anime narratives and visuals of Serial Experiments Lain and Ghost in the Shell, I conceptualise and contend that the network, a highly advanced, connective digital space where information is entered, (re)processed, and (re)stored, as a body drifting network.
Anomie and Isolation: The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Ghost in the Shell, Serial Experiments Lain, and Japanese Consensus Society, Elmo Gonzaga, Humanities Diliman. 2002;3(1):39-68
The essay explores how the societal effects of Japan’s economic recession during the 1990s are reflected in several cultural texts from that period: Haruki Murakami’s novel The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, the animé film Ghost in the Shell and the animé series Serial Experiments Lain.Faced with sudden job uncertainty due to the recession, Japanese individuals accustomed to the ideology of progress of a society that values uniformity and conformity have fallen into listlessness and withdrawal. Accordingly, the protagonists of these texts all experience a crisis of embodied subjectivity, or shutaisei that is tied to a loss of community and history.They work to reconstitute their shutaisei by first uncovering their personal and collective history in the form of a coherent awareness of their past. Transcending their isolation, they likewise strive to develop bonds with others through reciprocal communication.Particularly because these texts are characterized by elements of the fantastic and narratives of metamorphosis, they can also be seen as allegories of subversion against Japanese consensus society and its ideology of progress.
Serial Experiments Lain, “Listening To The Suicidal Tendencies”
I would never recommend Serial Experiments Lain to a viewer unfamiliar with anime. The show is an oppressive one: the colors are muted, the soundtrack mostly noise, the backgrounds claustrophobic, the cyberpunk aesthetic bearing none of the stylish noir sensibilities that make something like Blade Runner just cool enough to be accessible.

I also don’t think I’d recommend it to those few friends of mine who actually do like anime. The plot is so haphazardly paced and developed that most episodes barely seem to connect. They feel like they were left over from an earlier draft of the show. There seems to be a hole at the center of the story. The characters are so thin they almost don’t exist; the heroine, Lain, is a blank. Worst of all, it’s an unapologetic look at suicide that disturbed me like no other work on the subject has.

Which is probably why I loved it.
Serial Experiments Lain in the Modern Age of Social Media and the Internet
posted by the man of twists and turns (48 comments total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
 
If this is all to heavy right now, enjoy A Total Waste of 6 Min 35 Sec, a hypnotic anime music video (AMV) of Lain clips set to "At the River" by Groove Armada.

"There's a point to this, right?"
"That ... is a secret."
posted by filthy light thief at 9:17 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


This is an interesting coincidence! I recently rewatched a couple of episodes of Lain, and I was struck by how weird it was.

One of the things that I find charming is the heavy reliance on simulated degredation in an analog signal to stand in visually for the digital world: So, when you view Lain and it looks you're viewing her through a scrambled TV channel on CRT screen.

Of course, now we don't see that much. Digital artifacts (like jpg compression) look so much different and high-quality signals are everywhere. If we did Lain without that anachronistic visual trick, it would be even harder to separate the "wired" from the "real".
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:25 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


This is probably my favorite anime of all time.
posted by kyrademon at 9:26 AM on July 9 [8 favorites]


Lain is among my favorites from what my kids refer to as the "modern classics" era of anime (roughly 1988-2002), in no small part due to the weird aspects that Kutsuwamushi mentions.
posted by mystyk at 9:37 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


20 years later? That can't be true.

It's the present day, present time.
posted by RobotHero at 9:43 AM on July 9 [36 favorites]


This remains the only anime I own. I've gotta go back and rewatch it now. I don't think I've done that since college.
posted by Maaik at 10:02 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Like Evangelion, this is one of the shows my friend group watched in the summer between 8th and 9th grade. It was so different from the anime that was airing on the Toonami at the time, and the oppressive loneliness of the characters was something we never discussed with each other.

I'm sure the grittiness of Lain was improved by watching it on 480px real media files after combining each episode from a 23 part usenet download.
posted by tedious at 10:02 AM on July 9 [24 favorites]


> I'm sure the grittiness of Lain was improved by watching it on 480px real media files after combining each episode from a 23 part usenet download.

Or watching it with inscrutable subtitles. The copy I had repeatedly transcribed the 'Knights of the Eastern Calculus' as the 'NICE', something which I've been wondering about ever since.
posted by Kikujiro's Summer at 10:16 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


I don't remember much about it, except some of the visuals and the overall tone. Time to rewatch!
posted by Foosnark at 10:23 AM on July 9


If we did Lain without that anachronistic visual trick, it would be even harder to separate the "wired" from the "real".

There are plenty of digital glitches used to indicate "wired" in current media - as I understand it, it's not JPEG compression, but data loss in transmission, which has a different meaning than analog noise, to me. Where the analog noise is "signal interference," digital noise comes from "missing information" or "incomplete transmission" -- most of the parts are there, but there are gaps.

But videos do get downsampled when bandwidth is limited, resulting in the heavily compressed JPEG-type appearance, which could imply "too much information is traveling in your area" or "you lack bandwidth to send and receive more [audio-visual] information." And then there are times the moving image freezes.

In other words, it could still work. For me in a "modern" city with decent internet access, video-chats aren't 100% reliable to send and receive HD content (though I recognize that the US is not the slowest, but it's definitely not the fastest and most reliable).
posted by filthy light thief at 10:26 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


I fell out of anime watching post college, but since that was in the early part of the millenium I did see Lain.
I remember liking the feel of it (its oddness and disconnected nature) but being mostly confused by anything resembling plot; perhaps that was some rough subtitling or perhaps it was the story itself. Now it’s been more than 15 years and I can’t recall. I don’t think I’m up for a rewatch though, actual present day present time being more than haunting enough as is.
posted by nat at 10:28 AM on July 9


I remember liking the feel of it (its oddness and disconnected nature) but being mostly confused by anything resembling plot;

You don't seem to understand.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:30 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


But seriously, I saw Lain in high school and it blew me away. Not just as an amazing show, but it was chock-full of references that led me to learning about all kinds of (for me at the time) strange new things: Vannevar Bush, John C. Lilly, Timothy Leary and his eight-circuit model of consciousness, Ted Nelson, Project Xanadu, Schumann resonances, Jung's collective unconscious, Majestic 12, etc. I later learned that Lain's father even makes a Proust reference! I rewatched it just a few months ago and it holds up so well; I was blown away all over again.

Let's all love Lain!
posted by Sangermaine at 10:41 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


Lain is a terrific, underestimated show.

There's a deep Lynchian weirdness to it on all kinds of levels, from the loopy plot to the eerie settings.

There's the great dive into the digital uncanny.

And Lain(s) is(are) a fascinating character(s) for the 21st century.
posted by doctornemo at 10:45 AM on July 9


It's funny to me that in the first link the author claims that Neon Genesis Evangelion is widely thought of as the better show. Is that really the case? NGE spoke to me a lot as a depressed teenager, but I've never had a desire to revisit it. Lain and Rurouni Kenshin are the only shows from my anime days that I still go back to, and want to show to my kids one day.
posted by Alex404 at 10:54 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


OK, I somehow made it out of my peak anime-watching years (roughly 2000-2010) without ever seeing this one. I see it's streaming on Crunchyroll; I might have to throw it into my rotation the next time I swap out one of my services.
posted by Strange Interlude at 10:55 AM on July 9


NGE made more of a spectacle for western audiences, since they are more primed for the Abrahamic religious themes and all the tang. Tang was big in 1999 right?

Also it was the high budget show of its era and a big trend setter in future mecha and character tropes. How many rei-clones have there been since then?
posted by tedious at 11:07 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


A recent AskMe question was seeking creepy film recommendations, and casually mentioned that the nine year old audience was ‘too old for animation’...and I spit my coffee out thinking of Lain, Paranoia Agent, and some of my other favorite modern classics of creepy animation. I guess 20 years later Americans are still convinced animation is for babies (maybe with a few cringey, winky jokes for the parents).

I couldn’t figure out a polite way to point out how wrong the kid is, and the world they are missing, so I stayed quiet. But I do hope someone shows that kid Lain and some other good anime.
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:12 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


It's funny to me that in the first link the author claims that Neon Genesis Evangelion is widely thought of as the better show. Is that really the case?

Maybe less thought of as "better" and just more widely thought of in general and held as one of the pinnacles of anime by many. There are plenty of people who find Lain the better show, and a good number of people who don't generally care much for most genre anime who found Lain to be exceptional, which is to say, I guess, arty farty cinephile types. I side with Lain as the much better show and put Haibene Renmei right there with it. (Along with some other like Paranoia Agent, but not all that many for as much anime as I've seen.)
posted by gusottertrout at 11:33 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


"her hardware expands to turn her bedroom into a dim, electrified jejunum." [from first link]

Is-- is that the word they meant to use?
posted by colin.jaquiery at 11:38 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


...put Haibene Renmei right there with it.

Eeee, a fellow Haibane Renmei fan! I'm not sure I've ever met one! Agreed.

I'd also add a shout-out to Texhnolyze: definitely not the best anime ever, but its imagery and finality have been literally unforgettable.

Man, I miss Yoshitoshi ABe's work.
posted by dendritejungle at 11:44 AM on July 9 [6 favorites]


I needed this. I am craving cyberpunk and I probably haven't watched Lain since I was in 6th grade, doing the same sorts of things that tedious described up above, except from anime channels on DALnet (#anime_paradise represent!)
posted by gucci mane at 11:50 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


I'd also add a shout-out to Texhnolyze: definitely not the best anime ever, but its imagery and finality have been literally unforgettable.

Yeah, Texhnolyze was impressive, but somehow didn't quite build like the other two. I liked it a lot, but don't hold it in quite the same regard. I might need to see it again to see if my feelings would change on a second viewing though. One I haven't seen of ABe's is NieA_7. I gather it's much lighter than the others which sounds pretty interesting in itself.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:57 AM on July 9


I have Haibane Renmei in my external drive, but I don't know what happened to my Lain VHS tapes, and I wouldn't want to watch those anyway.

> Man, I miss Yoshitoshi ABe's work.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Despera
posted by I-Write-Essays at 12:17 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


I later learned that Lain's father even makes a Proust reference!

Or/and a Jesus joke!
posted by trig at 12:25 PM on July 9


Guess I will be watching Lain soon as I have finally been given a good reason to (other than "It's cool!", which isn't exactly a sterling recommendation from anime fans, in my experience.).
posted by Samizdata at 12:38 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


I would never recommend Serial Experiments Lain to a viewer unfamiliar with anime.

Heh. It's one of about six anime series I've ever watched, and I feel like the only thing I didn't like about it - an underwhelming denouement after all the atmosphere and conceptual stuff built up - is extremely common among the series I've watched. Maybe it just the kind of anime that sounds interesting to me, I don't know.
posted by atoxyl at 12:57 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Paranoia Agent being another one.
posted by atoxyl at 12:58 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Did someone say “Haibane Renmei fans?” *raises hand*

I feel like I should rewatch Lain. Then again I feel like watching glitchy, poorly-translated realmedia fansubs as a lonely, alienated high school student is not an experience that contemporary me could (or should) recapture...
posted by Alterscape at 1:34 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


an underwhelming denouement after all the atmosphere and conceptual stuff built up - is extremely common among the series I've watched.

For me, that experience follows in most media. It's really difficult to build a series or movie that is somehow strange/atmospheric from the start that can possibly end someplace fitting, understood, and somehow beyond that already seen since we're so limited by the known of the real world that going to far beyond that ends up being almost completely abstract or incomprehensible suggestion or will seem to disappoint due to not somehow exceeding reality as the strangeness really has no satisfying end point that could also be explained.

The alternative is to make a series or show that adheres closer to convention for much of its run, only to veer wildly into the unexpected at the end. That's kinda more the Neon Genesis Evangelion model. That isn't to say some series or movies don't find some balance that allows them to have their own strange vibe and still take it someplace unexpected in the end, just that it's really tough to do.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:12 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Oh, and I meant to add, for some series, like I think Paranoia Agent and perhaps Lain, there is also the question of whether a more outré resolution would fit the themes of the series and how they might relate back to the viewer. Paranoia Agent in particular seemed to more purposefully choose an "anti-climax" for that reason if I remember it right.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:19 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


"I would never recommend Serial Experiments Lain to a viewer unfamiliar with anime"

It's literally the first anime I ever watched and remains one of the few I've ever really been into rather than just enjoying and moving on.
posted by augustimagination at 2:30 PM on July 9 [7 favorites]


Y'all could organize an Anime Club group watch on FanFare, just sayin'
posted by ardgedee at 2:36 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


This was one of the first animes I'd ever watched and it's kind of a shame - I never really enjoyed most other series nearly as much as other people seemed to because, for me, they never lived up to Lain.
posted by thebots at 2:48 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Haibane Renmei broke me... I'm not even sure I can rewatch it... so sad and at the same time so uplifting...
posted by Pendragon at 2:51 PM on July 9


dendritejungle: Man, I miss Yoshitoshi ABe's work.

I-Write-Essays: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Despera

Wut, it's active? Oh ... "In 2018, Yoshitoshi ABe and Chiaki J. Konaka said the reason Despera is in Development hell isn't due to the lack of funds, but because of the current state of the anime industry." :(
posted by filthy light thief at 2:56 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


I referred to surfing the web or whatever as being "on the wired" with the particular friend group that I watched it with the first time. That is all.
posted by juv3nal at 2:59 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


The key to the end of Lain, in my opinion, is that the series hacked your brain. Real or not, Lain is in your head now.
posted by SPrintF at 3:43 PM on July 9 [6 favorites]


Lain was at the center of my short anime obssession that roughly ended with furicuri. I don't know if 98-2002 was a golden age but there was a lot of very weird shows at that time.
posted by SageLeVoid at 4:24 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]



"I would never recommend Serial Experiments Lain to a viewer unfamiliar with anime"

It's literally the first anime I ever watched and remains one of the few I've ever really been into rather than just enjoying and moving on.


It wasn't the first I ever watched, but it's the only one I ever watched all of, and ended up buying. I've never really found another that dragged me in like that.
posted by lumpenprole at 5:08 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Don't forget the opening song, "Duvet", by Bôa. I still have that on a couple of mixes and it's a glorious thing.

And while we're on the odd anime kick, did everyone check out Mind Game? I watched it, then read the plot summation on wiki, then watched it again, and I'm STILL not sure I completely understand wtf was going on.

Also, please, please do yourself a favor and watch Tekkon Kinkreet. So, so good. And it even has an American director! And the OST from Plaid is an ambient classic.

Yes, I probably watch too much anime. Why do you ask?
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 5:57 PM on July 9 [4 favorites]


If you're the kind of person, like me, who prefers their 20-year-old essential classic anime in archival-quality piratical torrentation, damn the file size, there is a Coalgirls fansub out there in 720 & 1080 using the stellar Blu-ray release as source.

Of course you can always just buy the Blu-ray.
posted by glonous keming at 6:47 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


SDB on 'serial project lain': "The series Serial Experiment Lain proposes the interesting idea that such a super-human hive mind might well appear, but seems to assume that there would only be one such."
posted by kliuless at 7:21 PM on July 9


My Lain artbook was already incredibly cool, and then I got it signed by ABe at Acen.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 9:05 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


In case no one else has linked it (apologies if someone did and I missed it), subbed Lain is on youtube, and from a legit source, not some sketchy halved-screen-to-dodge-content-id situation either.
posted by juv3nal at 10:58 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


And you don't seem to understaaaaaaaaaaaaand 🎶

This is maybe the only anime series I've ever watched any of, and I had totally forgotten about it until this post. Thanks for the reminder!
posted by en forme de poire at 11:49 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


like many here, Lain is on my all time best anime list. But it’s the anime that made my boyfriend lean back and ask: uh, so, you like this...? We had just finished Cowboy Bebop (he didn’t watch anime till he met me). 8 years is long enough, I’m firing up the first episode now.
posted by lemon_icing at 5:11 AM on July 10 [1 favorite]


So this post made me decide to watch Lain and I just watched the first four episodes and what the hell is going on why is this girl so completely lacking in emotions did her father sell the soul of his unborn daughter to The Online in exchange for really hot typesex with headless people what the shit

I do not expect the rest of the series to ever provide a coherent answer but I’m gonna watch the rest of it over the next few weeks anyway.
posted by egypturnash at 10:49 PM on July 14 [2 favorites]


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