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Serial Experiments Lain: A More Optimistic Analysis

14th of March, 2021

The anime television show Serial Experiments Lain is seen now by many as enormous prophetic. Ostensibly, the show is about a lonely young girl who increasingly immerses herself in the online world and transforms herself. The story itself is notoriously confusing—perhaps largely down to some unhelpful mythologising from an audience not known for their media literacy—but this is due at least in part to that fact that Lain intentionally withholds information from its viewers about the titular character. In the beginning, the extent that Lain the girl is sympathetic as a human is largely down to our own empathetic tendency to see images of people as people in themselves. In the absence of any visible personhood, we ascribe to her—by Kuleshov effect—a personality that is produced in fact by her surroundings within the show and by our own expectations and mythologies in life. Events unfold around Lain, a neutral epicentre, and her blankness reifies her environment. Rewatched after experiencing the entire show, the classroom scene in episode one, in which classmates relay information to Lain, is painfully prosaic. Everything happens not only in slow motion, but exactly as we know it will. In a show notorious for its miserly offerings of exposition, here two classmates of Lain's explain with a tortuous slowness and redundancy something we already know. Lain, in this scene, is less than human. She is a hopelessly stupid and unthinking creature without any defining characteristics except for her own flatness. The scene is agonising.

As the series progresses we get more and more insight into Lain as a person, giving her an inward depth, at the expense of reliable images of the worlds she inhabits. The show begins to contradict itself the more it has to contend with Lain as an actor capable of interacting with its worlds. When Lain realises her capacity to change the world in which she inhabits, the world she inhabits is no longer reflected in her, and instead a volatile series of connections springs up around Lain. The advancement of understanding in one contributes to a loss in the other. Our sources of information about the two contradict one another, but they each take on the form of the other in a process of dialectical metabolism. Given the subject matter, there is a lot of flirtation with digital image processing: colours and shadows are adjusted in post and feel cold and unreal. Textural experimentation with stretching still images and layering film grains produce a dour cyberpunk grunge which sits alongside the warmth of the physical animation cels. As Lain is folded over by clumsy drop shadows and the ice cold bath of monitor glow the world is no longer reified by her blankness, but instead falls into her. The narrative explicitly suggests that the bifurcation in Lain’s life is driven by her inability to communicate, which makes the increasing commensurability of the worlds important. It is by the synthesis of her two media of communication—a synthesis that results in a radical connectivity and psychological nakedness—that she is able to achieve the agency denied to her in the beginning. Whenever she appears on screen she is a puncture through which all the stasis of her surroundings slip away, leaving instead a volatile and confusing dream world.

The volatility and confusion produce a sort of superficial body horror, in the end. But, for better or for worse, some level of puncture is needed for human beings to realise themselves.