Made during the sci-fi anime renaissance, Serial Experiments Lain (1998) is a hodgepodge of 90’s tropes that, even 20 years later, is still relevant. The first of Yoshitoshi ABe’s cyberpunk projects and directed by Ryūtarō Nakamura, the series revolves around Lain Iwakura, a typical middle school girl living in suburbia. Representative of most 90’s thrillers and sci-fi dystopias, Lain slowly starts to become undone as a shadow organization working for something called the “Wired”, a Matrix-esque version of the internet, that is slowly bleeding into the real world.
Visually, the anime dabbles with typography, expressionism, and all elements of the avant-garde art film. Due to the timing of its release and the material it dealt with many fans have often assumed that Chiaki J. Konaka, the writer on all 13 episodes of Lain, was influenced by Neon Genesis Evangelion or Neal Stephenson’s book Snow Crash, but Konaka, a horror writer who often injects Lovecraftian elements in his work, had no idea that these works existed until after production of the series was well on its way. Konaka’s original intention was just to write an effective horror story, and he accomplishes it. From episode to episode, the constant thematic concern is not to defeat a literal monster, but rather the fragility of sanity in the face of the incomprehensible, what literary philosophers have labeled cosmic horror.
Konaka’s Tokyo is a dangerous place, a cesspool of death and sex, lit by the glow of computer screens or the garish neon lights of a nightclub or hostess bar. Like the noirs of the past the urban environment in Lain is the manifestation of society’s disillusionment with the modern. The quirky kitsch that one sees in a typical anime is distorted into a farcical horror show where uniformed school-girls strike poses as if taking a selfie before plummeting to their death. ABe’s character design for Lain predates moe, but all the hallmarks of the typical moe character, childish facial features and an aura of purity/innocence, are present in Lain’s design. As the narrative progresses Lain’s moe traits become twisted as Lain’s identity splits into three unique personalities. The subtleties separating each doppelganger being more behavioral than physical, childlike innocence in one Lain manifesting itself as a crude sexual fantasy. Every square gets circled though before the end of the show as Lain commits herself to oblivion by wiping her existence from the world and taking her place as a deity of the “Wired”.
Without the existence of Serial Experiments Lain, works by auteurs like Satoshi Kon, the Wachowski’s, Darren Aronofsky, and Christopher Nolan would be far lesser than what they are now. The philosophical debates about the nature of reality and free will that Neo would be pontificating was cribbed from Konaka’s script, its blend of surreal/nightmare imagery with cutesy moe-ish characters was elaborated upon by Kon’s films, and Aronofsky and Nolan’s films plagiarized imagery that originated within episodes of Serial Experiments Lain. And I can’t help, but see the prescience in an anime that shows a world wherein everybody seemingly is obsessed with his or her screen, a world where shootings and suicide are a common occurrence, and where conspiracies that would have been considered ludicrous and outlandish in the nineties are now punch-lines for late night talk show hosts and fodder for 24-hour news outlets.