This here is one fantastic series that never lets up, and is widely enjoyed, but is hard to write about. Serial Experiments Lain, a series revolving around information technology from 1998, 23 years ago, remains so attuned to contemporary life its age is hard to find credible. It has become a part of online niches, to the extent that “lain” is the sample user ID on fediverse sites, but is less present in more entry-level culture. The plot is complex enough that on watching all 13 episodes, fans—like readers who’ve just finished the New Testament—have not just heartily disagreed about what exactly transpired, but can cite good reasons to prove each his own perspective. There are, however, a few facts on the screen that we can be certain of, all of which add up to one highly appealing show. In my interpretation of Serial Experiments Lain, following a break in the text below, I’ve tried to lean on those as heavily as possible.
To start with, Lain Iwakura is one dedicated, model student, that much is clear. No matter how crazy daily existence gets, she keeps walking out the door, and taking the train to Ouka Private Girls’ Academy to study, as well as interact with friends. On her first ride over, we notice what a gorgeous anime this is. Lain herself is very plain, rarely gets excited, and is only slightly expressive, but her character design is unmatched. In scene after scene, the way the light falls on her simple, enigmatic face is unforgettable; viewers who like to screenshot appealing moments will run their albums into the hundreds easily. We also notice one of Lain‘s latent interests: power lines, omnipresently buzzing away, fascinate and captivate her. She is reticent and can be the odd one out in her social circle, but has no difficulty when it is time for a conversation.
After that aestheticalky pleasing ride on public transportation, Lain finds the school in an uproar: students have been getting emails from Yomoda Chisa, a student who committed suicide, jumping from a building a week before. Lain doesn’t know if she’s gotten one, too, as she hasn’t booted up her old NAVI (computer) in ages. When she gets home, she dons cute bear pajamas, and checks. She starts conversing with Chisa, who explains,
”I have only abandoned the flesh. This way, I can tell you I am still alive. By sending you this mail I can show you the way. Do you understand? No need to understand now. Soon you will understand it. Everyone will.”
Chisa continues to exist on the Wired (the Internet). Lain presses on why she killed herself, and gets the answer,
”Because here, God exists.”
This is a puzzling beginning to get our mental gears running! While it’s only going to get more, and more, unclear from here, this is a concrete way to introduce some of Serial Experiments Lain’s themes: Did humans invent God? Are science and technology the way to immortality? Does life in the flesh pale before a new kind of existence to come? Lain is a questing, persistent girl, and promptly asks her father Yasuo (who happens to work for software developer Tachibana Laboratories) for a hardware upgrade, and gets it, but is not content with her new rig for long, and soon starts building a more powerful machine herself. One of the standing mysteries to the series is where she gets the increasingly advanced computer parts; while at first a fan is enough to provide cooling, after a few episodes she has a supercomputer circulating liquid carbon.
What is, and is not real quickly comes into question, as Lain’s friends remember seeing her somewhere she never went before, the nightclub Cyberia (a true dive, a seedy place where there’s even a bit of a “new drug on the street” plot going on). The suspense in Serial Experiments Lain gets to be a lot like Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (Higurashi: When They Cry) in terms of suspense, as Lain and the viewers try to sort through discrepancies, but even as we learn new details, it becomes hard to definitively say what happened. That should not distract you from the anime’s strengths, however. Lain herself, demure yet alluring like a Balthus girl, quickly becomes an influential person on the Wired, searching out rumors in chats on gaming and porn sites. She comes to resemble, years before the fact, the “Queen of /pol/” “ecelebs” who gain acclaim and acceptance as females operating in largely male corners of the web—and as such, I think a lot of people today find it easy to identify with Lain, as a relative few could have in 1998. But as mentioned above, Lain isn’t a recluse. She shines in her friendship with Arisu (Alice), the closest friend in her circle, and another strongly appealing girl, and the concern they share for one another as the drama escalates, warps, and crests, is really touching.
Given what an experience watching Serial Experiments Lain is, it is probably not possible to really spoil, as so much is lost in summary. Yet, I would fail my task as a reviewer if I didn’t try to untangle the plot: what actually happens. What follows is my interpretation of Serial Experiments Lain. Those who have not seen will just be confused, so do return to read only after seeing the classic in its brief entirety.
For me, the key revelation is when a character tells Lain that she is software. Conventionally, after Lain appears to be multiple people with multiple personalities, even inhabiting a body or not—real Lain, Wired Lain, evil Lain (to which I’d add the pierced eared, “fallen” Lain in the opening: sexy Lain)—if “Lain” was a kind of software, then she could manifest differently on different platforms, whether in a body or free-floating in the field of Schumann resonances, and “update”, evolve divergently, whether positively or in becoming distorted, deformed and against the designer’s wishes. But what, after all, is “software” in a human being? The answer is a soul. A human attempt to manufacture a soul would be blasphemy, completely hideous, unless of course the humans were simply the tools of Providence, should God in His good pleasure choose to cooperate with men in realizing His plans.
Further info dumped in the series, presumably a narrative presentation of research Lain did on the Wired, shows the work of Vannevar Bush and other computer scientists, followed by the fictional Japanese Masami Eiri, and the design they have of plugging into the Schumann resonance field directly. This is familiar transhumanism: that desire for a bodiless state, the newest permutation of gnosticism; the rejection of the body as inferior, inessential.
What the series says about how much control the “elites” have over even the ends of their own schemes, and about Who is really in charge, is pretty funny. Typically, both Masami Eiri, become the “God of the Wired”, and presumably his forebearers imagined they were striking out on their own, conspicuously positing that a deity only now exists in the Wired a few times. But later on, Lain calls into question the idea that Eiri is really an independent actor, and got his ideas, his dreams of divinization, from nowhere but within himself. The possibility that he was inspired, merely acting out the plans of a higher power, makes the “God of the Wired” fret that there really is a God! This thread appears to be dropped, but near the end Lain sits with her father at a table for a few minutes, in an abstracted setting; the man doesn’t really act like her father did before. This seems like a giveaway that she is face to face with God the Father, either projecting an image she would find fitting into her mind, or He was simply incognito and acting a part while watching the drama unfold before. Since Lain had mentioned to Eiri before that he didn’t know where his plans had come from, this implies he (and human computer science generally!) were simply used by God, an “intelligent design” fashioned to bring about Lain. The Wired God was merely a neoplatonic demiurge, his plans an instrument used by the Divine to bring about the “Daughter or God”, so to speak.
Due to her nature Lain is to an extent beyond time (I wasn’t certain whether she could go back in time, or whether God grants her power like a patriarch or saint, but it’s inessential). She is immortal, and while she may take time to continue her friendship with Arisu, she mentions at the end that she’ll be with someone forever. She must be addressing God again, now eternally His companion.
Lain seems readily explicable in terms of theology and heresies that never seem to die. After typing down my thoughts on finishing, I was as shocked as flattered to find another fan’s interpretation, now a classic, also saw Lain in terms of Christian theology. https://sdb.dotclue.org/Chizumatic/tmw/SerialExperimentsLain.shtml And Chizumatic was approaching Lain as a materialist! I have to own that, on one major point, I didn’t know what to do with Chisu, and his explanation of her appearances was much clearer than I could have achieved reasoning on my own. As a Christian though, I think Chizumatic may have lost sight of the moral inherent to the story. Were the computer scientists before Eiri part of a false prehistory, that would undermine the theme of thwarting human hubris.
I see the reset point—the downtown, nighttime traffic scene to the anime returns a few times—as not the beginning of time, but as the moment key events occurred, as a result of the Lain software becoming fully active in the Schumann resonance field. Further, I saw Lain’s seeming omnipotence as arising from control of that field, and hence control of all consciousness. Identity is a constant theme in the series, and as characters often ask whether existence is tied to the memories of others, I thought this might imply a world of philosophical Idealism where, in some sense, consciousness came before all other phenomena, and was determinative. Hence, if Lain could control the memories of every person, she could recreate reality, even seeming to travel through time, by reshaping appearances to be as they were before. But I did not believe Lain was God, at least in the same way as the Father. Anime, like fiction generally, is often infatuated with heterodox religion, so I was not surprised that Lain’s adoption as God’s daughter seemed very like the Arian view of Jesus. Thankfully, the unorthodoxy of the tale in no way hampers the apt and pious, and even heartwarming message, that is a comfort when ”limit one phony, aspiring high tech deity at a time” would be a major improvement.