Serial Experiments Lain
Mike Toole rates it:
In terms of making genre film, anime hasn't yet nailed down a really good, hard-edged cyberpunk story-- admittedly, Ghost in the Shell had the right look and skated the peripherals, but dwelt on its navel too much, awash with theories and dialogue stolen from Dawkins and St. Paul's Letters to the Corinthians. Other outings, like Cyber City OEDO and Armitage III, only serve to give the viewer the same cracked, burned-out dystopian vision of the future that we saw (and loved) in Bladerunner. Serial Experiments Lain is a little closer to what the classic definition of cyberpunk according to Gibson and Sterling is-- a paranoid moral and psychological parable that centers around the relationships between people and their devices, their technology, and how this relationship affects their relationship with others. (The fact that the sky in Lain usually looks like the color of television tuned to a dead channel doesn't hurt.)
The main reason I've held back so much in reviewing Lain (it first started hitting stores in July, and recently wrapped up) is that every time I started to draft a review, the next volume would come in, I'd watch it, and be forced to rethink the entire series. Lain is nothing if not challenging; oftentimes the viewer is left to wonder whether the story being depicted is in the real world, or is imagined by the characters. But I think a little exposition is in order before I ruminate any further.
Lain Iwakura is not a typical, wholesome 13-year-old girl. In fact, she's almost painfully introverted, with no friends to speak of at school, a snotty, condescending sister, a strangely-apathetic mother, and a father who seems to want to care but is just too damn busy to give her much of his time. All of this changes when one of Lain's classmates, Chisa, commits suicide under mysterious circumstances. Lain's classmates are upset, and their unease is compounded when some of them start recieving email from Chisa. I just abandoned my body, the message reads, I still live here. Is it a prank, or is Chisa somehow still alive? Lain is intrigued enough by this to dust off her elderly Navi (personal computer) and look at the Wired (this story's euphamisn for the internet), and discovers an online world that she'd never knew existed.
Her father is only too happy to indulge her by buying her the latest and greatest Navi, a high-powered, ultra-customizable version of her old kiddie toy. Her new friends, who reached out to the disaffected Lain when Chisa killed herself, are surprised-- Lain's constant communication with others on the Wired is making her sociable, even downright amiable. But something is very, very wrong here-- it seems like the Wired is having an adverse affect on people, with a computer programmer having hallucinations and seizing up, an overszealous Doom fan gunning down a little girl (who, post-mortem, ends up hauntingly depicted as a shapeless form under a sheet in the pivotal scene), and the apogee comes when a Lain and her friends are visiting the trendy club Cyberia-- a clubgoer, high on the stimulant drug Accela, kills a few people. Everyone runs from him-- everyone except Lain. But he recognizes her, and holds back from shooting at her-- how is this possible?
Things get incredibly weird, but still manage to stay remarkable cohesive. Lain's best friend Arisu isn't sure she likes what Lain is becoming because of the Wired; Lain tinkers obsessively with her Navi, and seems to navigate the online world with unparalleled skill. But even she isn't immune from the wrongness in the Wired that's causing people to run amok in the real world-- a pair of honest-to-goodness Men in Black are tailing her, asking her if her family is her real family or not. The reasons for the messy convergence of the real world and that of the Wired are explained in fits and starts. Most shockingly, Lain discovers that another version of her seems to exist independently on the Wired-- and that online "ghost" of her seems to enjoy causing trouble. Is Lain's growing sense of paranoia and unreality a symptom of a botched psychological experiment, or UFO intervention, or the meddling of the hacker group called "Knights"? Is the seeming manifestation of "another Lain" that exists only in the Wired a sympton of multiple personality disorder? Anything is possible in this series.
Serial Experiments Lain takes a brave step in one direction-- it allegedly takes place in the present, not the future, though it looks as though it's a weird, alternatve version of the present, where home computers are a leap or two ahead of the PCs we use at home and work today. And that's what slammed this series home for me-- I was in Japan a few months back, and all this shit was there! It seemed as though there were nets of wires overhead clustered as thickly as the Amazon canopy, electrical transformers humming away-and every single goddamned 13-year-old girl had a cellphone! Granted, that's not as sophisticated as a mini-Navi, but it's only a matter of time...!
Lain's visual style is a knockout punch of detailed still frames, carefully-employed repetition, and minimalist animation-- there's really nothing like it out there, creator Yasuyuki Ueda and character designer Yoshitoshi ABe really get my compliments on this one. The series is moved along by a haunting OP by British popsters BOA (in English, even!) and a skin-crawlingly good, extremely discordant musical score that's powered by dissonant, reverbed-out guitars and thudding drum machines. The dub is as decent as Pioneer's best work comes, but I wasn't really captured by it-- I really have to lean towards the sub for this one, particularly because Kaori Shimizu's subdued, disaffected performance as Lain is one step beyond perfect.
Best of all, the plot of Serial Experiments Lain thickens and transforms with every episode. The first few episodes present us with a chilling sense of unreality as Lain discovers the Wired and slowly learns that there's something wrong with it. The second volume veers off unexpectedly, as Lain investigates (and is investigated by) the hacker group called Knights. Then, after a brief, puzzling rumination on the possibility of alien (specifically, the ubiquitous grey alien) involvement that invokes the name of Dr. Vannevar Bush himself, the idol of internet history geeks everywhere, Lain meets God. But is this person who claims to have invented the Wired for himself really God, or is he just putting her on? Can Lain really use the Wired to erase things from human memory?
One could argue that Lain gets lost in the details after a while-- for my money, its conclusion was really not the one I was expecting. However, Serial Experiments Lain contains some of the most unique and exciting science fiction, animated or otherwise, I've ever seen. It poses some surprisingly relevant questions (Where does the line between "real life" and online life get drawn?) and is engrossing throughout its entire 13-episode run. More than anything else, it finally represents a thoughtful, forward-looking example of cyberpunk fiction, as opposed to the robot and computer-hacker fests that currently pass for cyberpunk in anime. Serial Experiments Lain stands upright alongside the best works of authors like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. It's scintillatingly intelligent, visually engrossing, and a feather in the cap of animated science fiction.
Added: Thursday, October 16, 2003
Related Link: Pioneer Animation