As humans living in the modern era of technology and social media, what do we fear most? Is it death? Oblivion?
The thought of losing everything you love and care for is a real fear. And this thought can lead us to delve deep into our souls and question the balance of society and reality.
Serial Experiments Lain is one of the rare shows that takes viewers on a trip through the more obscure and philosophical side of anime.
From the complexity of its plot to its beautiful yet eerie art style, Serial Experiments Lain is an experimental and avant-garde anime that continues to stand the test of time, and for good reason.
And despite airing in 1998, Serial Experiments Lain’s thematic elements are more relevant than ever before.
Warning; spoilers ahead!
The Plot behind Serial Experiments Lain
Serial Experiments Lain begins with the tragic suicide of a young girl named Chisa Yomoda. And after her tragic passing, things take a turn for the weird when some of her classmates receive a post-mortem email from her.
The email states that Chisa is not completely dead and that although she has parted from her physical body and became part of something far bigger — The Wired.
‘The Wired,’ as we discover, is another word for the digital world, or the internet.
One of the recipients of this ominous email is our protagonist, Lain Iwakura.
Lain is a shy, reserved, and soft-spoken girl who has had little to no interaction with technology. But that changes after she receives the email from her late colleague.
The email spurs Lain to explore The Wired for the purpose of decrypting the email left by her friend. And as time passes, Lain delves deeper into the digital realm and suffers an existential crisis.
From the viewer’s perspective, the plot of Serial Experiments Lain unfolds in a subtle and abstract fashion.
Instead of spoon-feeding the audience, this anime takes a more artistic approach that is reminiscent of a David Lynch film. So it’s easy to gloss over vital points if the viewer isn’t attentive.
This results in many fans re-watching the anime several times and drawing their own conclusions about the ambiguous nature of the plot. Needless to say, some may find this annoying, so this is not a show for everyone.
Due to the series being relatively short (13 episodes), the side character development for Serial Experiments Lain is quite limited. And Lain gets most, if not all, of the screentime.
While other characters do exist, their significance and contributions are often negligible. Overall, these characters mostly serve to aid the progression of Lain and help her obtain the answers she seeks.
Lain is an introverted, somewhat antisocial, and curious individual who drives the entire narrative of the show. Her lack of technical experience makes her the ideal character to learn more about the world as the plot unfolds. Which allows viewers to feel and understand the world at a similar rate.
Lain’s best friend Alice comes across as an unimportant character in the first few episodes, however, she gains more prominence in the latter half of the series.
In fact, Alice’s role becomes an integral part of the storyline. With Lain completely immersed in the Wired, Alice not only helps Lain but also helps the audience distinguish between reality and the digital world.
The anime features ambient music produced by Reichi Nakaido, who is famously known in Japan as one of the guitarists and singers of RC Succession.
In places, the show is very sparse in dialogue and relies on ambient sound effects to set the mood and tone. These sounds emphasize the visual impact of the show as you follow Lain through her story.
The animation has aged well over the years and maintains a clean and simple aesthetic.
The show was animated by Triangle Staff, the same company behind the Shinichiro Watanabe work of art, Macross Plus.
The pacing and pauses during key-frames may remind viewers of later shows such as Bakemonogatari and Mekacucity Actors. So it’s easy to see how Serial Experiments Lain was influential on these later shows.
The ambiguous plot and experimental nature leave the show open to interpretation. However, there are many themes to explore after watching the show.
The first theme correlates directly with an existential paradox — what exactly is reality? This is demonstrated when Lain questions herself and whether the people she encounters are real or virtual entities in the Wired. By bouncing back and forth between the two worlds, it’s easy to see how the lines can blur.
Serial Experiments Lain takes this notion one step further and challenges the viewers to ponder if this distinction changes anything.
The Internet is a medium for exchanging information across the globe. And with most users having the ability to express themselves freely on the internet, it is quite possible that the virtual world is more ‘real’ than the actual world.
This philosophy is further explored following the death of Chisa and the spread of her email. Because she has come to the conclusion that her physical body restricts her from being her true self.
What differentiates the virtual world from reality? And, why does this matter?
The second theme in Serial Experiments Lain tackles an even bigger concept; identity.
Serial Experiments Lain does a phenomenal job at incorporating this theme. The show illustrates how the perception of ourselves differs from the people we interact with.
As viewers, we gradually understand Lain and grow closer to her. While on the other hand, support characters have a completely different perception of Lain and her online interactions.
This leads to various depictions of Lain, even though she has acted as herself the entire time.
This theme is in line with Georg Hegel’s work, The Phenomenology of Spirit. In which he states that the existence of an individual and their identity can truly be verified only through another person.
Considering this philosophy, we may find ourselves at a crossroads. Are the virtual Lains more real than the actual Lain? Does it matter if she is the real Lain when everyone else thinks she isn’t? So would that make the “real” Lain the fake Lain?
As the anime progresses, this concept develops even further, making viewers ask even more complex questions.
Serial Experiments Lain is a perfect example of a timeless masterpiece. The fact that this anime aired during the infancy of the digital world and before the era of social media shows how ahead of the times it was.
As such, this anime continues to grow even more relevant as time passes.
Serial Experiments Lain is definitely a must-watch series for any anime fane. This is especially true for those who enjoy philosophical themed shows.
The ambiguity of the story can be frustrating for some, which means it is not a show for everyone. However, anyone who enjoys thought-provoking content should look no further.