“Present day. Present time.”
These words, delivered in a disconcerting tone with the accompaniment of mad laughter, serve as the introduction to the thirteen-episode television series Serial Experiments Lain, produced by Triangle Staff. A surreal science-fantasy that blends reality with a world called the “Wired”, it originally aired on TV Tokyo in the summer of 1998, nearly fifteen years ago.
Lain is named for its protagonist; a junior high school girl named Lain Iwakura. Painfully shy with few friends and emotionally distant from her own parents and older sister, she has little interest in computers (or, possibly, anything) until she hears about a mysterious incident at school. A girl that had recently committed suicide supposedly sent messages to fellow students over e-mail after she had died. Her curiosity piqued, Lain powers on the little-used Navi (the show’s term for a PC) in her room to check her dormant e-mail account and discovers that she too had received such a message.
From this point on, Lain’s interest in computers and the Wired (what the series calls its equivalent to the internet and the wider range of communication networks) grows at a rapid pace, as does her technical knowledge. After receiving a brand new Navi as a gift from her father, she soon begins modifying it, adding components, monitors, drives, and even a custom cooling system, effectively turning her bedroom into a supercomputer. And as her interest in the Wired grows, her personality begins to change as well, allowing her to come out of her shell.
Or so it might seem at first. But as the series goes on and Lain becomes more and more accustomed to the Wired and delves into its mysteries, other people begin talking about another Lain online. Or is it in the real world? Both? Is it really a different Lain? In its own way, the series raises questions about identity, on and offline, that are still worth pondering today.
In 1998, the internet was a vastly different beast than it is in the here and now of 2013. There weren’t any smart phones, and for many, high-speed internet still topped out at 56k. Social media as we know of today simply didn’t exist; there was no Twitter, no Youtube, and Live Journal wouldn’t go online until the following year, to say nothing of Facebook or even Myspace. Message boards were a great deal more simplistic, Google and Amazon weren’t yet power players, Geocities still played host to myriad poorly designed anime fan sites, and there wasn’t even Xbox Live. For many, the very idea of the internet was a dark, unknown concept that represented danger as much as it did possibility.
And that dark tone carries well into Lain. The Wired is depicted in both conventional terms (text messaging applications, e-mail), and at times as a separate world in which Lain and other users inhabit. There’s a sense of mystery about the Wired that grows as the borders between Lain’s life in the real world blurs with her life online. She begins inquiring about the Knights of Calculus, an internet hacker collective that seems to know her, or perhaps an online her, a bit too well. Strange men in black stake out her family’s home. People seem to recall her being in a club, Cyberia, that she had never visited before.
In short, Lain’s life is turned upside-down, as well as inside-out. But even before her first serious foray into the Wired, when she had little interest in anything outside of her own little world, the show’s visuals paint it as one in which the Wired is already a part. Shadows cast by characters and objects display swirling patterns and star-like lights. The world outside her house is bathed in white as she travels to and from school. These effects continue over the course of the series, becoming part of a larger visual structure that depicts the influence of the Wired on Lain’s reality.
As the story goes on, it eventually gives some focus to Lain’s best friend, Arisu (a Japanese way of writing “Alice”). Arisu is drawn into the mystery by her concern for Lain, but has her life affected in sometimes painful ways by the effects of the Wired. She serves as a focus for Lain; someone that she can rely on when her family becomes distant and the online world rears its uglier side. Arisu plays a key role as the series winds down and a tangible antagonist is revealed. Her presence helps drive Lain through some difficult decisions, and also presents an outsider’s perspective on the conflicts surrounding the Wired.
Though its concepts of the internet and worldwide communications in general are to an extent outdated, the passage of time has had no effect on the quality or impact of Serial Experiments Lain. The inventiveness of its world, its characters and its atmosphere all remain as impacting today as they were when the series was first released. It can be easy to become wrapped up in referring to the show as weird, strange, bizarre, or any number of similarly glib adjectives, but Lain has endured, and may yet remain relevant as the internet’s influence on the world continues to grow.
Serial Experiments Lain was released on DVD and Blu-ray in North America through Geneon Universal in partnership with Funimation. The series is not rated, but contains violence, implied sexual activity, adult themes and drug use.