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Serial Experiments Lain
A region 2 DVD review by CNash

I first heard of Serial Experiments Lain back a number of years ago, when I was heavily involved in the Digimon fan community. Season 3 of Digimon, entitled Digimon Tamers, was written by a man named Chiaki Konaka, and was a departure from the previous two series – it was more darkly psychological, but obviously underscored so as not to alienate the teenage audience demographic that the series was aimed at. I thought to myself, "What if Konaka was able to write an adult animé series with those same qualities?" Only recently, with the release of Lain on R2 DVD, have I been able to see. Lain was first released back in 2004 by MVM as single volumes with three or four episodes each; now, the four volumes are brought together in one full series box-set.

A quick word of caution: given the nature of this series, it is hard to explain without spoiling certain areas of the plot. I've tried to limit this as much as possible.

Lain is a series that relies heavily on viewer interpretation. It does not lay out its plotlines in an episodic fashion, instead naming each episode a "layer" and depicting various events in the life of the central protagonist – named Lain – with her hallucinations and dreams given as much importance as scenes that depict her family life and her schoolfriends. The basic concept behind the series is that the Internet, as we know it, has evolved into "the Wired", an all-encompassing communications system that at times resembles virtual reality. Lain asks if the concept of "reality" can extend to a virtual network, and if relationships and real social interaction can take place inside a computer-generated environment.

In some ways, Lain is a social commentary. The internet is used today by millions of people – most use it for work, or to study, or just as a helpful inter-office communication system. But there are others who become so involved in the social interactions possible on internet discussion forums and chatrooms that they begin to see the internet as a kind of extension of reality, and feel that online friendships are just as valid and meaningful as those developed in real life, away from the computer. In the series, Lain starts off as a shy, reticent teenage girl who knows nothing of computers and only has one to fit in with her friends. After she receives an e-mail from a classmate who had killed herself a week previously – in which the dead girl claims that her "soul" is still present in the Wired – Lain begins to learn more about computer systems and becomes more and more involved in the social aspects of the Wired. She starts to develop two distinct personalities; one is the same shy girl that she's always been in real life, and the other is how she's perceived on the Wired – as an outgoing, extroverted computer whiz. As someone who's been involved in social communities on the internet for many years, I can understand what's happened – Lain has discovered that the anonymity of a network such as the Wired gives her the power to act in a very different way than she normally would, an create a personality that's the complete opposite of her own.

At first, Lain builds up a mystery amid confusing, psychadelic imagery: strange things are happening to the Wired, and the ones responsible are a secretive group of computer hackers known as the "Knights". These Knights believe that there is a "god" in the Wired, and that the barrier between the real world and the Wired is breaking down. And, for reasons that she can't fathom, Lain plays an integral part in their plans. On top of all of this, Lain finds her computer usage going too far, and begins to forget things that she's done inside the Wired – making her two personas into genuine split personalities.

Then, about halfway through, the series eschews reality altogether, becoming a series of philosophical arguments linked by nuggets of history that are half-real and half-fictionalised, and illustrated by imagery that grows increasingly strange and incomprehensible. Most of the supporting characters introduced in the previous episodes are turned upside down and viewed only in terms of Lain's perception of them. Lain's world itself is thrown into chaos; her own worldview and her sense of self are challenged, and after a fateful meeting with the Wired's "god", she starts to doubt the nature of her own existence.

Lain is an animé of themes, not story. Almost every episode questions the nature of reality as we know it (more specifically, as Lain knows it) by subjecting the viewer to hallucinations intended to blur real life with life inside the Wired. In some places, the only clue as to whether we're viewing events in reality or in the Wired is Lain's personality, which – as the series progresses – becomes similarly blurred. The series' main idea is that reality flows from thought; the logical conclusion of "Cogito, ergo sum" ("I think, therfore I am"). In terms of characterisation, the theme of loneliness always surfaces. Lain's only friend is Alice, who at times doesn't know quite what to make of Lain's new personality, but sticks with her regardless. Lain herself is a loner who doesn't seem to recognise when people are trying to help her. Her sister Mika is disassociative and condescending; her family group as a whole is dysfunctional and apathetic.

Breaking for a moment to talk about the series' technical qualities: the art style used is very accomplished for the time it was made (1998, when fast-paced and boldly-animated series such as Cowboy Bebop arrived). Character designs are detailed and stylised; of particular note is the method used to draw eyes, especially those of Lain. The design of the computer systems and their operating software is sufficiently futuristic and works well. Soundwise, there isn't a lot of incidental music, but what little there is suits the mood of the series in general. In contrast, sound effects are used heavily and often are much louder than anything else. Viewers will be quick to note the constant hum of the overhead power lines, but even the most innocuous things are given emphasis: the teacher's chalk on the blackboard, characters' heartbeats, steps coming from behind. In terms of voice acting, the English actors do good performances, but the translated script often feels as though the points made were put across better in the original Japanese.

It's hard to deny the inspirations of the series – Ghost in the Shell, in particular, which also deals with the idea that humans can exist outside of their bodies. I can draw parallels between this series and .hack//SIGN, which explores many of the same issues in a more specific way (centered around online gaming instead of the internet in general). Fans have perceived the influence of Neon Genesis Evangelion, but Konaka denies this.

All in all, Lain is a very difficult animé series to talk about. All that I've described above constitutes only the main underlying story, and my own interpretations of events, and I don't pretend even for one second to fully understand this series. Nonetheless, I'd reccommend it to anyone who likes a series that can challenge typical perceptions of the world around them, and isn't put off by the intense psychological factors and imagery. Lain is an animé that I'll likely be revisiting in the future, perhaps to try to draw new conclusions and catch anything that I missed the first time around, and it's one of the only series that truly deserves to be re-watched.

sound and vision

The 4:3 picture displays good contrast levels, detail and colour, which is quite vivid when it is appropriate. Black levels are also strong and there are no obvious NTSC to PAL conversion issues. The slightly overexposed look in places is clearly an artistic decision that is common in modern animé series. The subtitles are very clear and high resolution, not the blocky, low res ones that can be found on some animé discs.

The Japanese and English Dolby stereo 2.0 tracks are identically well produced and clear (echo and location atmospherics are particularly effective). There is some clear separation on music and effects.

extra features

Lain provides very little in the way of extra features. On each disc, there's a concept art gallery, which I found to be more interesting than most such galleries on animé discs. Also, each disc has an extras option called "The Weird" – ten-second short animations that poke fun at some of the events of the series. I believe these were originally easter eggs for the Region 1 release, but the change in menu structure forced them to become fully selectable.

Not strictly an "extra feature", each episode is accompanied by a short Device clip, featuring Lain's Japanese voice actress displaying different parts of her body. They seem to be linked to the series' ideas of existence without physical form. What's interesting about them is the way they're "hidden": if you watch the series without skipping the credits, you'll see all of the Device shorts, but if you get bored of watching the end titles and skip, you won't see them – even if you fast-rewind back through the credits.

No trailers for other series, only for Lain itself (both TV and DVD trailers), its soundtrack album, and associated PlayStation game.  

Serial Experiments Lain Box Set

Japan 1998
325 mins
Ryutaro Nakamura

DVD details
region 2
4:3 OAR
Dolby stereo 2.0
Concept art gallery
The Weird animations
Device clips

release date
30 October 2006
review posted
29 October 2006

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