Anime review: Serial Experiments Lain

As with many of the anime that emerged in the mid to late 1990s, Serial Experiments Lain combines elements of grunge and industrial culture with experimental sci-fi subject matter. An existentialist work, the anime focuses on high school student Lain and her interactions with people in both the real world and a variation on the World Wide Web known as the Wired. The story opens up with Lain's friends informing her that one of their classmates committed suicide. When Lain gets home from school that day, she finds an email on her Navi computer from said classmate. As time passes, Lain finds herself confused and paranoid as strange men appear to be observing her from outside of her house and people claim to have seen Lain at a club when she is certain that she was home at the time. Determined to find out what exactly is going on around her, Lain convinces her father to buy her a new, top of the line Navi, which she then proceeds to hack, upgrade, and modify in the hopes of drawing some conclusions through the community within the Wired.

Serial Experiments Lain is an incredibly complex and multi-layered show, despite the fact that every episode remains centered around Lain. The early episodes continue to pile on questions, and the big, important answers don't begin to surface until past the halfway mark. The animation is phenomenal for a 1998 release, combining traditional hand-drawn backgrounds with digitally-colored character models. On a few occasions, the visuals change entirely to slowly-fading still shots (almost like a slideshow), and a few live-action scenes where real people and locations in Tokyo are layered over with a colorful, grainy filter. Much of the music leans more toward eerie ambience than actual instrumental composition, but when the guitar riffs begin humming along and the techno rhythms blare, they are in keeping with the grunge and industrial thematic. Similar to Neon Genesis Evangelion, Serial Experiments Lain conveys a significant amount of information as perceived by Lain, which brings into question just what is reality and what is fiction.

Lain does interact with a number of characters over the course of the series, nearly all of them within close proximity to her. The most fleshed out and important individuals include her best friend and model student Arisu, Lain's odd family, the aforementioned men who seem to be keeping tabs on her, and scientist Masami Eiri, whose intimate familiarity with the Wired does not come into play until late in the series but proves a major turning point in the plot nonetheless. Lain herself behaves differently when presented with different scenarios, and the Lain of the real world is very quiet and reserved in contrast to the confident, determined, and sometimes impatient Lain of the Wired. As Lain eventually comes to recognize these two personalities as separate, she is simultaneously faced with the possibility of there being even more Lains within the recesses of her psyche.

As with many sci-fi anime of the day, Serial Experiments Lain begs the question of where man ends and machine begins, though not in the sense that machines might be capable of the same things man is. Rather, the prospect of the Wired taking on an identity as a world parallel to reality is presented very early on. Lain uses her heavily modified Navi to scour the Wired for information on the cult group known as Knights, an experiment called Kids that was meant to unlock a greater potential of the human mind but resulted in tragedy, and articles pertaining to the death of Masami Eiri. The more time that Lain spends exploring the Wired, the less aware she seems to be of how much time is passing in the real world. Another key topic brought into play is that of how humans perceive a God-like figure and how this newfound medium of information exchange could alter such perceptions or even bring them to realization.

There are so many bold and groundbreaking anime series that emerged in the mid to late 1990s, Serial Experiments Lain being among them. It's a crazy mind trip from start to finish, though the finale episode admittedly leaves something to be desired. While the story is clearly set in an alternate version of a 1998 Earth, the Wired is both a believable and curiously entertaining parallel to the World Wide Web, with its focus being almost entirely on the exchange of information. There are rare instances where the show tries to draw parallels that are simply too far-fetched and irrelevant to what is going on in a given episode, such as an attempt to draw some very loose metaphors from the Roswell alien conspiracy. But as a whole, the show does a magnificent job of presenting a new spin on the sci-fi and existentialist genres by combining the two. It's difficult to mention everything the series is about without spoiling important plot points, and patience is key for a fulfilling viewing experience. Serial Experiments Lain is equal parts eerie, strange, and creative, but it is thoroughly thought-provoking, something that is frequently lacking from its contemporaries.

My rating: 9 (out of 10)

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