Serial Experiments Lain: Volumes 1-4 Review
"Present day, present time". So sets up each episode in the thirteen part series about Lain Iwakura and her (and our own) technologically obsessed world. Lain is a seemingly typical young girl who lives with her parents and older sister. She is a shy girl who is far from popular and only has three friends; Arisu, Juri and Reika, each of whom enjoy partying and try to encourage her to visit the "Cyberia" nightclub on numerous occasions.
Lain's familiar day to day life is suddenly brought to an abrupt stop when one day she receives a message from a classmate named Chisa, who had committed suicide only a week earlier. Chisa tells Lain that she has but only left her body and survives within "The Wired". While Lain's friends simply disregard the message as a sick joke she chooses to further investigate Chisa's claim by becoming involved with “The Wired” herself.
Lain becomes increasingly obsessed with “The Wired” and builds a large database from her existing Navi computer that sees her becoming an eventual problem and ultimately a target for a group calling themselves "Knights". This group's purpose is to see that information is controlled within “The Wired” but Lain's interference causes them to make themselves known to her. Failing to deter Lain from her ongoing activities they begin to witness her power growing as she becomes a much revered and respected god like figure amongst users of “The Wired”. As Lain explores the deepest parts of this virtual world she begins to discover that the information highway is merging with that of the real world, causing a series of events that are changing the lives of everyone around her, including those most dear to her.
Serial Experiments Lain is one of the most serious anime series ever produced and its content may well divide opinions or disappoint those who prefer a little more humour in their shows, personally I find the series to be a refreshing change from what I am usually accustomed to watching, which is often humour laced series. Director Ryutaro Nakamura presents a series aimed primarily at an adult audience, while it should bear some consideration from a younger generation it seems that the overall arc and content is squarely pitched at an older one.
The series depicts a society overrun by its obsession with technology and everything that is taken for granted. The dangers of the internet are made apparent with the notion that if you don't know what you're doing then you may get yourself in trouble or if you know too much then equally bad results can happen. Like it or loath it the internet has become THE big thing of the 20th century and as such it is replicated here as “The Wired”, providing the bulk of Chiaki Konaka's commentary on the alternative world and its lack of understanding for what it has created, for while those operating in the system grasp its technical marvels, others who live on the outside are only ignorant to its sheer power.
Serial Experiments Lain isn't a particularly original concept, with the advent of film features such as The Matrix (which itself borrows heavily from ideas developed in anime features like Ghost in the Shell) it seems that the general approach to technologically advanced resources and its inevitable effect on the world has almost become a tired experiment in story telling. However this 1998 series has done well to get in there and present a tale with enough conviction, factual based research and well designed technology to succeed, even if at times it may come across as being no more than a re-hash of philosophical ideas we've already seen in the past (and no doubt will see a lot more of in the future).
The all too familiar "what if you are not who you thought you were" or "what if our world is not the real world" premise might be considered a plot device that has begun to dry up already in our present time. It can be argued that it has a place in today's modern world and echoes sentiments from those who take philosophy as seriously as Serial Experiments Lain takes itself. Story wise though it does carry itself rather interestingly with sparse amounts of dialogue and a lot of suggestion during many scenes and manages to tie up many loose ends as it progresses. It's perhaps a series that warrants the viewer's own interpretation by the end, I don't doubt that it has likely sparked healthy debates over the years.
It must be said that the series presents us with some wonderfully executed character development that soon sees the moralistic tale sharing time with the main player, Lain. Throughout the course of the series Lain goes through many drastic changes that see her evolve as a person and cross borders that she never knew existed. She is the driving force of what represents a young generation with overly grandeur ideas and highlights the kind of innocence that is entailed. As Lain's character develops she learns to deal with her responsibilities, but they come with a cost, that of disrupting her usual everyday life. During the course of the series her persona changes as she struggles to grasp who she really is and which world she belongs in.
At home she lives with a dysfunctional family that is shrouded in mystery, to be later explored (but not discussed here to avoid spoilers) and at school she is alone but for her friends, though even when she is with them she still feels that she doesn't belong. And so her escape into the cyber world heals her inner feelings of rejection, from a family who do little to support her and friends who try as they might but cannot make her fit into their little group more comfortably. Her friends each have different emotions some of which are delved into deeper than others, with Arisa receiving the most attention, alongside Lain's sister, Mika. There are also the men in black who pop up throughout the series and offer an extra element of mystery.
This brings us to Cyberia - a rave club that like “The Wired” provides a means of escape for the teenagers in the real world. This underground haven for drug peddlers is more of a community that gathers an assortment of fine young minds, all eager to obtain the latest information. Cyberia is the place that holds everything together, working like a wall between the real world and that belonging to “The Wired”. Curiously things happen here that appear to be more of a phenomenon, with Lain's friends and various clubbers dumbfounded by the occasional appearance of an alternative Lain or scenes involving strangers losing their minds at the hands of drugs or apparitions.
The series features an assortment of characters that have been designed to be more firmly rooted in reality than a lot of other anime series. You'll find that the series is devoid of wacky, multi-coloured hairstyles, ridiculously large eyes and outlandish costumes, sticking with traditional appearances and muted colours that reflect Japan in a truer light.
Each episode opens up with the same recycled animation whereupon Lain presents her voice. This deliberate move proves to be a surprisingly successful one that shows with a limited use of visuals (although highly aesthetically pleasing) you can tell a good story. Further examples of repeated use include the suburb where Lain lives and the telephone poles and wires that lace the streets. The opening, neon lit shots serve as a familiar and comfortable welcome into Lain's world and yet maintain a haunted quality as we see droves of faceless people go about their daily business. More often the background characters that appear to be inconsequential have little in the way of details; they’re just beings that flesh out the world.
There is a certain amount of computer effects and real life shots that have been perfectly implemented and give a feeling of sensory overload as we're taken into Lain's world and how she perceives things within “The Wired”. The use of these effects to separate the worlds might prove to help perceive the series better but they’re cleverly constructed to seamlessly just pop up at times and cause a slight amount of confusion before you find your bearings again. Most of the series follows a fairly simple narrative approach that only demands a certain amount of concentration; overall it works nicely with the inspired choice of visual styling. At the end of each episode we have sections referred to as "Devices". Instead of offering a next episode teaser as most anime series do we have a short live-action piece that involves a girl participating in short lessons showing us different body parts and their associated sensory purpose. The girl in question is actually Lain's voice actress, Kaori Shimizu.
The series is perhaps a little drawn out, glossing over pieces that it could deal with just as effectively in a shorter amount of time. Yes it offers some intelligent observations but after the compelling first volume it begins to slow down until the fourth volume where it then rushes to its final resolution. Pacing wise there isn't a problem and I like its methodical approach, but it could have offered much more in the thirteen episodes or in turn been several episodes shorter without losing anything important. Sustaining itself with some decent characterization and wonderful visuals Lain as a series has done well to this day and ranks amongst the most popular anime of all time.
Serial Experiments Lain is available on four DVDs from MVM with details as follows. Warning! Contains some spoilers:
Volume 1 - Navi
Contains the following episodes:
Layer01 - Weird
It has been a week since Chisa committed suicide. After receiving an e-mail from her Lain begins to show interest in "The Wired" and attempts to dig deeper to find Chisa who claims to be alive in the network.
Layer02 - Girls
Lain is confronted by her friends who swear they saw her at the Cyberia nightclub the previous night. Lain insists that she was never there and agrees to go along to the club with the girls out of curiosity. The night is ruined when a man goes crazy after taking a new drug called "Accela".
Layer03 - Psyche
Lain receives a package, much to her friends' curiosity. After opening it she finds a chip that is the latest addition for her Navi system. She soon rushes home to install it.
Layer04 - Religion
As she becomes more involved with her Navi system Lain proceeds to make the most out of her newly installed chip. She enters the world of cyberspace and discovers a bizarre game that is causing people to commit suicide. Initial indications point toward a group calling themselves "The Knights".
Volume 2 - Knights
Contains the following episodes:
Layer05 - Distortion
Everybody is receiving strange messages telling them to fulfil the prophecy. When Lain's sister, Mika receives the message it throws her into a state of shock and soon her behaviour begins to change.
Layer06 - Kids
While out in the city with her friend Arisa, Lain witnesses several children staring into the sky with their hands held out. Arisa also sees the event that points to a figure in the clouds resembling Lain. Lain soon finds out that a long dead experiment to extract psychic powers from children may have been started again by “The Knights”.
Layer07 - Society
Lain is being continually watched by the men in black. After finally confronting these imposing figures she is asked to accompany them to see a man who wishes to learn more about “The Wired” and why Lain is in control of it.
Volume 3 - Deuce
Contains the following episodes:
Layer08 - Rumours
There have been rumours circulating around school that suggest Arisa has been involved in a relationship with one of her teachers. The blame is given to Lain who apparently has been spreading these rumours across the Wired.
Layer09 - Protocol
Lain receives a new chip for her Navi system but is warned by Taro that it could present certain psychological dangers. After her father sees her for the last time her family move away, leaving Lain to look after herself.
Layer10 - Love
There have been several more cases of people mysteriously dying, cases that point to their involvement with the Knights. Lain continues to explore the realms of “The Wired”, where she meets someone claiming to be God. She must come to realise her importance within this new plain.
Volume 4 - Reset
Contains the following episodes:
Layer11 - Informography
As she stays in “The Wired”, Lain begins to have a multitude of flashbacks and relives the events that led to her current situation. The more she sees the more she learns and soon she discovers how to harness her powers from inside “The Wired”.
Layer12 - Landscape
Lain has made a life changing decision and feels she is ready to leave her real world existence behind. She is visited by Arisa who angers God and subsequently becomes a victim to his rage. As Lain protects Arisa she must decide once and for all where she belongs.
Layer13 - Ego
The events have passed and the next day seems peaceful and quiet...except that Lain is nowhere to be seen.
The series uses a lot of deliberate techniques such as grain and distorted imagery to enhance the atmosphere so with that in mind it looks very good on DVD, having received fine treatment. Disappointingly however is that the DVDs seem to be an NTSC to PAL conversion. I noticed this when pausing a scene from time to time, which leaves distorted lines. The colour levels are good, though the black levels could be darker and there is plenty of detail. In all this is very easy on the eye and shouldn't cause too much concern.
There are optional English subtitles which give faithful translations. During moments when we see text being displayed we get burned in English subtitles to provide a translation which is somewhat of a disappointment.
The series comes with a choice of English 2.0 or Japanese 2.0. As usual I listened to this in its native tongue. Both tracks provide crisp and clear dialogue and a fair amount of interesting sound effects. The series has many little subtleties that are picked up well.
There is little in the way of features on these discs and to make things worse they’re repeated on each one with the exception of the "weird" segments.
This comprises of a DVD trailer for the series, an advertisement for the CD soundtrack featuring BoA, a TV spot and an advertisement for the Playstation game.
Each DVD has 18 pages of conceptual art that covers character and prop designs.
A curious little feature, these segments run for up to 10 seconds and appear to be no more than teasers.
Serial Experiments Lain has an often surrealistic nature that fits in with the tone of successful psychological thrillers such as Perfect Blue, and like said film can derive a love/hate response. Granted it isn't for everyone but I suggest that those with a good amount of patience should sit this one through. Its thematic approach toward alternative realities is an interesting one that deserves a look and the discs here presented by MVM offer a decent way to do just that.