With a lot of series, I would point to the writers or directors and put in brackets their most famous work, but Serial Experiments Lain IS the most famous work of writer Chiaki J. Konaka, character designer Yoshitoshi ABe and, arguably, director Ryutaro Nakamura. This is one of those rare “perfect storm” projects that made a name for all involved that they weren’t ever really able to top, at least not in the eyes of the majority. With that said, does Serial Experiments Lain, an unusual anime made in 1998 based around the idea of what a future where the internet is easily accessible would be like, still work in 2017?
It has to be first noted that Lain is written in a rather abstract and sometimes non-linear way, and in general it’s hard to talk about an overall plot when it has so many turns. The bare bones is that school girl Lain Iwakura, normally disinterested in “The Wire” (an advanced form of the internet… well, of the internet as it was in ’98) and other technology, suddenly receives an e-mail from a fellow schoolgirl after they had committed suicide, telling her that now she’s left her body behind and became part of The Wire, and everything is great. The mystery surrounding this leads Lain to get a new and more powerful computer, and slowly she begins to lose herself in the virtual reality, losing touch with what is real and what isn’t, and even who she really is and what it means to be alive.
That’s about the best synopsis for the series I could come up with, because be warned, it does get hard to follow sometimes. I watch a lot of sci-fi, both anime and the kind with the real people in it (gasp!), and even I scratched my head a few times. That being said, due to how beautifully shot, animated and scored the whole show is, I never got annoyed, and was certainly never tempted to turn off. The voices are low key (in both languages, for the record), the shading switches from overemphasized black to swirling colours and shapes, written messages appear on screen like an old silent movie, and more often than not, no music plays in the background, instead often replaced with an eerie hum from power lines, almost hinting at The Wire being a living thing. When some background music does kick in, it’s often tense or has that synth-filled cyber-punk feel to it, though, like I said, these moments are few and far between.
I think the most interesting thing about watching Serial Experiments Lain in 2017 is how close we are to living in the cyber-punk-esque world presented in the show. People have what closely resemble smart phones and some of the what-if horrors of the “increasing internet craze” include shadowy groups of people joining up without having ever met each other, and the idea of having personal information stolen and released to other people’s amusement. The whole idea of losing yourself in a virtual world while sitting in front of a monitor was even ahead of its time, really. Throw in some very nostalgic late-90s UFO conspiracy stuff on top, and you have a fun setting very much written in the past, but unsettlingly bang-on in terms of a potential future, which makes for an odd, but enjoyable, viewing experience.
All that being said I personally couldn’t give Lain the perfect score because I do feel that there were a few points in the show where it might have gone a bit too abstract or confusing, and rather than being brilliant and paying off, it was clearly there just to be a bit weird or odd. These moments are very rare though; it just sometimes feels they were being artsy for the sake of keeping up the offbeat tempo, rather than it serving a purpose.
The opening is “Duvet” by Jasmine Rodgers and Boa (the whole song is in English, which is odd, but it fits the weird imagery that accompanies it), while the ending is “Distant Scream” by Reichi Nakaido. The extras are the original adverts for the show, along with the standard clean opening, ending and some trailers. The shot of back of the box shown on the website and official MVM website itself currently list the show as 16:9, but it is very much 4:3, which should be obvious given the time it was created.
Do I recommend Serial Experiments Lain? Yes, I do, though if you watch it and say, ‘I didn’t get it and I turned it off’ I wouldn’t blame you, though I think if you stick with it to the end you’ll either find yourself satisfied or going over the series in your head for a few days before watching it over again to “make sure” of things. It is very much an anime that you could point to as a “classic” or a “work of art” within its genre, one that someone could watch and write a whole essay on. At 13 episodes, I say give yourself a couple of nights, possibly watch it alongside a friend or family member so you can discuss it for a long, long time.