Serial Experiments Lain – Episodes 1-3

So, now that the viewing club has actually moved on to a show I both haven’t seen and am very interested in watching, I suddenly realize I’ve successfully doubled the number of episodes I’ve assigned myself to commit serious thought to every week. And I was already barely hanging on in the first place. So we’ll see how this goes – I might keep this looser and more brief throughout, and then try to collect my thoughts at the end, or something. Anyway. Roll tape.

Actually, one more thing. It occurs to me, upon beginning yet another series that I’m going to talk about for likely far too long, that someone might very well ask, “Why are you wasting your time with this?” And that’s a fine question! So gimme a second here.

Brief, Optional Tangent on Media Appreciation/Analysis

First, this is how I enjoy media, and this is also how I enjoy conversation. I like the craft, power, and potential of art, and I like discussing these things with other interested people, and these writeups are the best way I’ve found to have my cake and dissect it too.

Secondly, and this is purely personal, I really like that some people seem to appreciate my doing this. It’s a lot of work, and it eats a good number of free hours, but unless I’m working on my own creative projects, one of the best ways I can think of to spend my free time is in doing something that other people find worthwhile and meaningful. So that helps a lot.

Finally, I really do think there is something to this kind of stuff. I don’t think analysis kills art, or kills enjoyment – I think it deepens and broadens it, and gives it both personal resonance and larger context. I’ll close this little prologue with a quotation I just read in Italo Calvino’s “If on a winter’s night a traveler,” which, while ostensibly about the process of translation, I think also digs pretty well at what I and hopefully other people out there get out of the process of continuous reflection and unpacking.

“Furthermore, Professor Uzzi-Tuzii had begun his oral translation as if he were not quite sure he could make his words hang together, going back over every sentence to iron out the syntactical creases, manipulating the phrases until they were not completely rumpled, smoothing them, clipping them, stopping at every word to illustrate its idiomatic uses and its connotations, accompanying himself with inclusive gestures as if inviting you to be content with approximate equivalents, breaking off to state grammatical rules, etymological derivations, quoting the classics. But just when you are convinced that for the professor philology and erudition mean more than what the story is telling, you realize the opposite is true: that academic envelope serves only to protect everything the story says and does not say, an inner afflatus always on the verge of being dispersed at contact with the air, the echo of a vanished knowledge revealed in the penumbra and in tacit illusions.”

End Tangent

Sorry. I’ll stop now. Let’s watch some cartoons.

Episode 1

0:50 – I already like this sketchy, angular, un-idealized art style.

2:00 – Wow, I know I’m in for a good ride when even the OP seems heavy with thematic weight. These images of Lain observing life going on as mediated through a variety of screens makes me think this’ll be about some extremely relevant themes; the stuff writers like Anno and Urobuchi have yet to convince their audiences to believe in

3:19 – Okay, so it seems likely this show will have a lot of scattered thematic puzzle pieces, making a play-by-play a kind of tricky proposition. But I’ll bite! First three puzzle pieces: Lain in the screens [a pretty obvious-seeming metaphor], “Why won’t you come? I wish you could come here” [here as in outside?] and “Why you should do that is something you should discover for yourself” [these messages seem like meta-comments to the reader, which means that whether they’re meant to scream the themes or mislead, they’re not part of the narrative]. The puzzle I currently see is one about guiding people trapped in mediated lives to experience the real world. Let’s see what else we got

4:34 – More hints, and a clarification. The “I don’t need to stay in a place like this” seems to represent her final whisper or final thoughts – so perhaps those block texts are actually within the narrative, at least mentally. Also, both in the OP and contrasted against her death we have the figures kissing in very un-romanticized ways. My first thought there is that “honesty/dishonesty of human connection” is also key

5:05 – “If you stay in a place like this, you might not be able to connect.” Okay, so that one’s already been made overt.

Unrelated, I really, really like this visual design. The darker scenes with neon highlights reminded me of Blade Runner, and now this incredibly high-contrast daytime creates a whole different kind of stylized dream world. Very distinctive choice, and appropriate for a show that I assume will be handling the validity of various realities

8:18 – “She killed herself last week – come on, the teacher told everybody!” Tidy bit of storytelling there, with a line that both establishes the prologue for our protagonist while also revealing more about her disconnection and lack of engagement with the world around her

9:01 – Wait, is their lesson all code in some programming language?

9:39 – “What’s it like when you die?” Ooh, so perhaps all that text represents the emails

10:00 – Those constant phone lines, connecting everyone. Also, the soundtrack being just a mechanical hum both increases the fuzziness of her worldview and simulates the hum of a computer

12:46 – “I’ve only given up my body.” Okay, now the actual plot is starting to catch up to the themes that every other element of the show is articulating. Here we go!

13:46 – “Why did you die?” “God is here.” Man, was instrumentality/singularity such a big concern in the late 90s/onset of the internet age? Does this relate to all that Bowling Alone stuff about the loss of communal societies, a concern that I think was pretty much swept away by the supremacy of internet community/culture? It’s weird to try and think about what poignancy these ideas might have had in their own moment in history

14:30 – That bearsuit’s adorable. Also, that dinner conversation kept up the Bowling Alone view of community, even within the family unit

17:04 – Her father only speaks to her from behind a wall of computers, his face always obscured from her view

18:10 – What are these visions she keeps seeing? Her classmates blurred, her fingers emitting steam, the wires dripping blood… oh, goddamnit, I was about to say “I see no connection between them,” and then I realized all three of them work as separate visual metaphors – she can’t fully interact with her classmates, her fingers will be the keys to her new reality, the wires contain the life of her dead friend.

Still don’t know if they’re meant to just mean she has an overactive imagination or something more fantastical, though

20:36 – Not sure what to make of that train vision/nightmare yet. Not enough information. The train is key, though, we’ve had too many scenes of Lain on the train, standing at the door, staring out at the wires

21:00 – Again, I’m still not sure how sane we’re supposed to believe Lain is, and whether things are actually crazy or she’s just really good at day-visions and conflating memories with reality

22:36 – Her friend smiles and disappears, leaving her alone on the street, stranded between the endless wires

And Done

Oof! Great first episode, rich in thematic imagery, riding a fun, ambiguous line between fantasy and reality, and maintaining a great, creepy mood throughout. I can’t wait till next… oh wait.

…this is gonna be a long night.

By the way, I’m sticking with my writeup structure for now purely because it’s easier for me than first noting all my thoughts, and then straightening them into a paragraph-based impression at the end. I just don’t have enough time to do the full essay routine – hopefully nobody minds too much. Anyway.

Episode 2

0:31 – So I assume there’s a dialogue to be constructed of all these prologue lines. “I want you to come out here.” “What are you scared of, I just want you to try it for a bit.”

3:25 – Well! A lot happened in that club, but I don’t think I have quite enough fragments of chaos to see where that end of the plot is going yet. But that was supposed to be Lain at the end there, right?

4:22 – And her sister looks at the ceiling when talking with her. Man, connecting is hard!

5:15 – But this man, almost merged with the telephone pole, makes direct eye contact as she passes

8:02 – Jeez, remember when characters actually had personalities, and weren’t just tired tropes? Yeah, I got a pretty distinct and separate impression of all three of these girls here, and then of course there’s a bit of “identity is something you can construct” going on, but it’s basically just a hint

8:48 – Wait, so that lecture on the drug was just the show itself telling us, the audience, about it? That’s kind of weird. I do like the idea of a drug that accelerates your perception of experience in the context of a show that’ll clearly be about the internet age, though

9:35 – Again, the storytelling is understated and great. Lain gets excited when she receives a text, which I assume is because her lack of friends makes her assume it’s from her internet friend – but it’s actually the girl who befriended her that morning, which disappoints her, so she cancels the trip so she can wait for her “real” friend instead

13:02 – Another one of those awkward kissing embraces, this time beside Lain’s new computer. Still not sure what they represent, I’m just noting them for now

14:54 – Hm. Her sister waiting at the door. Another piece… goddamnit, there’s a lot of chaos to sift through here

16:01 – Aw yeah, all dolled up for clubbin’ in my little felt hat

19:00 – “You’re that scattered god’s…” Big clue here.

And Done

What the hell? Did he imagine her saying that? Lain definitely looks like someone at the club – both he and the other girls saw that person. But he seems to think she’s some harbinger of the internet leaking into the real world, which is something foretold by Lain’s own maybe-visions, maybe-delusions. Is this other Lain only relevant in his mind? And did she actually say those things, in that voice – was that also in his mind, or is she really more than she herself realizes? I guess until I definitely know whether this show’s primarily interested in sci-fi, psychological horror, allegory, or some/all of these things, I can’t make any definitive calls here. The themes are still consistent, but what their delivery vehicle actually consists of… very ambiguous

Okay. Gah. Once more into the breach

Episode 3

0:14 – Once again starting with those same city shots. There’s actually a lot that reminds me of Aku no Hana here – the repeated visual markers, the menacing, droning soundtrack, the long periods of silence, the unreliability of the narrator, the jagged, kind of unsettling character designs, the general claustrophobic tone. It’s intriguing to see these various tangible markers of this slow-building psychological horror style of storytelling be used for such different purposes

1:00 – “I called your house, but no-one picked up.” How unreliable is this narrator?

2:05 – Lain’s such a mentally removed character that it’s hard to tell where the post-traumatic stress ends and the personality begins

2:23 – God, I’m so loving the stark color contrasts and angles of this visual design. Shades of Bakemonogatari here, and that’s a good thing for your show to be reminding me of

3:12 – Her parents sleep in separate beds, her family is completely silent at dinner, and her sister can’t make eye contact with her. If connecting with people in the real world is this hard, why bother?

6:59 – Alright, so all this “Lain is some strange bringer of a new integrated reality” stuff seems to indicate this series doesn’t entirely take place in her crazy headspace. There’s the creepy G-Men following her, her doppelganger, the drugged-up dude who “recognized” her, her own alter-ego response to that guy, her consistent visions of a world verging on her own… my current assumption is “actually a sci-fi story, but thematically relevant to our impersonal real-world order”

9:56 – “I’m saying it’s strange we can’t take his death serious- IS THAT A LOVE LETTER???”

Also, I guess they’re implying that Lain is herself becoming a receiver for signals from the internet?

13:22 – “Do you know what this is?” She extends the gift to her father, who stands distant in the doorway. He leans slightly forward, barely closing the gap between them, and then turns away

14:18 – What is with this embrace/kissing motif? I’m sure it’ll make sense eventually, but they’re really laying it on thick

15:05 – Okay, so now the associates of her doppelganger are actually referring to her as Lain. Multiple personalities? Memory issues? Versions of herself are the first net intruders into actual reality?

Goddamnit, I’m feeling really stupid here… it normally doesn’t take this long for me to figure out a plot. Let me…


Okay, if I’m going to draw any conclusions, I can’t assume everything is ambiguous. So for this conjecture, I’ll just assume that Lain’s reality is at least real according to her. Then…

Alright, she’s already under guard by the G-Men. This implies she has either always been important, has recently become important, or was important at some point in the past, and they’re making sure she doesn’t become that important person again. Her family seems incredibly distant, and barely treats her like a human being, outside of her father’s assistance in getting her Wired. She’s distant from everyone at school, though Arisa is making efforts to be her friend. We have seen no other hobbies, and she expressed no interest in technology prior to this point.

Recently, due the encouragement of a dead girl who’s apparently both real (she remembered walking home with Lain once, though that could have been observed) and alive within the internet, she has begun ingratiating herself into internet culture. Concurrently with this, she has begun seeing visions of internet wraiths, as well as hearing voices that seem to come from the internet.

Very recently, a version of her with an entirely separate persona was observed at a club, and various people at that club seem to know her by name. In fact, one man was incredibly distressed by her presence, saying she’s related to a “scattered god” – which is relevant to her dead friend, who said that “god is here” within the internet. When confronting this man, her voice changed, and she authoritatively told the man that we are all always connected, which caused him to commit suicide.

So what do we have here? Internet-based singularity story, with Lain as the fulcrum, for some reason? Seems likely. I can’t think of any clues that hint at how she’s already known, why she’s receiving these visions, or why she’s being watched. Perhaps we’re actually only seeing the second half of a story… but it’s too early to know. We’re not there yet.

19:02 – “You never saw us. We’re not here, you see.” Here’s another big clue. Now we know for sure they’re real, and also they seem to be hinting that projection from the net is already possible, which might explain alternate-Lain as well. Still not there yet.

Also, I’m not really commenting on thematic/imagery stuff any more because it’s all pretty damn consistent throughout the show (eye contact, the wires, etc), and it all seems to point towards the same themes. This mystery’s interesting, so I’ma figure it out

19:24 – “Are you listening, Mom?” Their mother is completely emotionally absent – she avoids all interaction with her daughters whenever possible, and never seems to address them directly. Again, another file for the drawer

20:15 – And now we have another new Lain saying welcome home to her sister. This is also the second time her sister has tried to connect with her – her success or failure in this will probably continue to gain relevance

And Done

Interesting stuff so far. The thematic concerns seem pretty obvious, but I’m enjoying figuring out exactly how this world works, and the aesthetics are great. This is a very entertaining show

…“Looser and more brief.” Good joke.

…damnit. That actually got so long that now I feel obligated to coherently format it. Alright, screw you all. Summary time.


I’m very much enjoying it so far, and it simultaneously feels like a very carefully and wildly written series – in that there are a lot of ideas at the same time, but the direction and visual storytelling is always very sharp.

Visually, I’m greatly enjoying it. The visual aesthetic is very distinctive; the blurred, neon cityscapes remind me of Blade Runner, and the stark, angular, high-contrast, nearly abandoned suburbs remind me of a cross between Bakemonogatari’s visual design and Aku no Hana’s mood. The constant blurring and repeated visual motifs (the telephone wires, two figures embracing in a kiss, the various repeated backgrounds of Lain’s world) all contribute to the dreamlike atmosphere and question of how much we can trust this reality – which is perfect, because this seems to be a show specifically about the validity of identities and realities.

I love the sound design, which is another of the many elements that reminds me of Aku no Hana. The droning sound sets an uncomfortable, creepy tone, further contributes to the hazy, distorted reality, and mimics the sound of a computer’s hum. All relevant things.

The writing is generally solid and the dialogue is great, though I’m not sold on the way the show seems to sometimes directly tell the viewer things without associating that knowledge with any specific character – the biggest specific example of this is when the show explained that drug to us. Maybe there’s another layer there in that our perception is more full than Lain’s, but stuff like that tends to remove me from the story as it’s happening.

Thematically, it seems pretty obviously to be about the ways our society has begun to disconnect physically, the replacement of that connection with connections of the online variety, and whether these new realities are as legitimate or “real” as the original one. It attacks this theme from a variety of angles – first, there’s all the visual stuff drawing attention to the dreamlike world, as well as Lain continuously observing the world through a variety of frames, as well as that motif of the telephone wires outlining her world. Secondly, there’s Lain’s actual relationship to the world around her; she seems disconnected even before being contacted by the dead girl, and the scenes with her family constantly emphasize the distance and lack of connection between them. Finally, there’s the central mystery of the show, wherein it seems that Lain’s own personal reality is being invaded by elements of the internet, and that this connection has also spread to the point where alternate, potentially fabricated personas of Lain are being witnessed by other people in the real world. This idea of the relative validity of realities is transposed against ideas of the subjective and potentially self-created nature of identity, or at least persona. It hasn’t been fully explored yet, but the show seems to be trending towards that idea.

…as a side note, it always bears mentioning that this show came out in freaking 1998. So, even if its themes don’t really come across as revelatory to us, I’m guessing they were pretty damn prescient at the time. No piece of art exists outside of a larger context.

Finally, the actual plot of the show is pretty interesting too. It’s been keeping things pretty ambiguous so far, though Lain’s sister’s interaction with the G-Men seems to indicate that a lot of Lain’s reality isn’t actually just in her head. Her visions and sudden, random leaps into other personas (in the club, greeting her sister) are clearly linked to the creation of online identities in some way, and her relationship to this “scattered god” is likely the reason the G-Men are so interested in her, but it’s all very ambiguous still. I think they’re spacing out hints very well so far, and I’m certainly interested in whatever happens next.

TL;DR to the TL;DR:

Bob like Lain.