And you don’t seem to understand…
I get the need for explanation and for answers, but for some things I can’t help but feel it’s a self-defeating pursuit. There is a certain joy in having the mechanics unfurled in front of you, to see the way the gears and the cogs interweave, but it’s a cold inspection rather than a full blooded fondness. Arguments have been made that if something requires explanation to admire, it’s not worth the time to begin with. I don’t quite adhere to that, but there is a vein of truth to it. If the only joy in a piece of opaque and abstract art is in attempting to make it unambiguous then it can often reveal itself to be merely self-satisfied.
Serial Experiments Lain is deeply opaque and abstract, but also deeply self-dissatisfied. It’s a show buzzing with anxieties and dissociation, a world in which existential dread is a pervasive normality. It’s not interested in pandering a philosophical worldview or a moral imperative, though it evokes several of them. Serial Experiments Lain is more about a state and a sense of perception, one that wilfully disconnects from its narrative structure to better communicate a sense of disconsolate tone and claustrophobic emotion.
Serial Experiments Lain centres around, well, Lain, a shy and reserved school girl who finds herself enraptured by and (perhaps literally) drawn into the Wired. From the very first frame the show appears to operate on technological dream logic. Suburban streets sprawl and cascade into spreads of consuming white, black and red. Lain is surrounded by a pervasive electrical hum, as telephone wires wrap and twist themselves around her entire town. In its opening episode, the show captures a sense of anxious isolation like a soft and hypnotic drone. It’s a state of awareness where everything seems intense and immediate but we and Lain are unable to give any of it focus or life. The world around us is constant and overbearing, but we can’t discern its individual elements.
Lain’s distant perception of the world runs in contrast to her view of the Wired. In reality, she is shy, soft and scared. In the Wired, she is articulate, confident and brave. The duality of identity is an omnipresent theme in Serial Experiments Lain, particularly in terms of the self-perceived identity. The entire world the show inhabits is one constructed by Lain’s perceptions, contorting and twisting to fit the vision she has of it.
Lain’s central concern becomes her vision of her as a God. The Wired gives her the capability to be fully in control of her identity, to construct a version of herself that isn’t subject to the perception of others. In reality she finds suffocating ambiguity, but in the Wired she can find comfort in the observable nature of raw data. Lain’s ‘real’ world is depicted as numbing in its expanse and terrifying in its nebulousness. While the Wired is all text, the simplicity and comprehensibility of it, to Lain, makes it palatable. And eventually, effervescent.
The identity split that forms within Lain is one that could stem from many different issues, from autism to depression to deeper issues of psychosis, but diagnosis of her character is irrelevant. The crux of the show is not to explain or demystify the complications that expand within Lain, but to take her identities to their logical conclusion. The Wired is safety to her, but immersing herself in it only leads to a different sense of disillusionment and a further stripping of who she is. The central melancholy of Lain is that even though her identities seem to grow powerful and ubiquitous, there is no ‘her’, no central entity from whom it all flows By absorbing herself deeper into the Wired and fracturing herself further and further, she loses the sense of self she was attempting to gain from this world.
Lain is mirrored by Masami Eiri, creator of the Wired. To him, his hand in its inception guarantees him the right to a Godlike status. But his existence is solitary and meaningless without others and when he emerges back into reality, he is nothing but grotesquery and flesh without a mind of his own. But while Eiri lacks a human desire and reason to exist in the corporeal world, Lain retains her best friend Alice. However, Lain’s ascent (or descent) into Wired Godhood destroys their friendship, with Alice traumatised and unable to relate or comprehend Lain. Lain feels her only option is a full reset, to remove herself from everyone’s lives and save Alice ever having known her.
For a show that spends much of its time tangling itself up in narrative and philosophical cables, the most honest moments come from Lain’s final decision. For me, the only reading that feels correct is one of cowardice, one of a scared girl who sacrificed a singular identity for a breadth of shapes and forms. Yet none of them are her, and she attempts to justify it as expansive Godhood. Her inability to deal with her friendship compromised it, and though her feelings for Alice remain relatively ambiguous, there is certainly a trace of repressed sexuality in Lain. For Lain, seemingly everyone in the Wired loves her, yet the one person she herself loved won’t or can’t return those feelings. It ends up as too much to be bear, and so she hits reset.
At the end of the show, Lain seems content to merely be a shape of her former self who watches the lives of those she cares about from afar. She resigns herself to that of a a small, fond, distant memory, rather than face that rejection again. For Lain, that pain of being pushed away is too much, so she pushes back until nothing of her remains.
While all this might seem heady and pretentious, Serial Experiments Lain actually carries itself with a brash and unforgiving harshness. Aesthetically the show emphasises the punk in cyberpunk, with a mix of Godard, Tsukamoto, Lynch and Nicolas Roeg. The musical score IS part techno-club dance beat and part shrieking, scraping rock guitar. The zeitgeist like approach to conspiracy laden imagery suggests a self-awareness that embraces the notion that Lain’s perception of herself is a falsity, and we are merely seeing her own obsessions come to life.
However, what’s truly special about a show like Serial Experiments Lain is that you could read all of this and think we watched something entirely different. The density of the show allows for everyone to engage with in different ways and to different levels, and it’s certainly not because of a reliance on cheap ambiguity and wide open interpretations. You could read Lain as a show entirely about tone and atmosphere, or as an actual sci-fi opus, or as many other things as you desire. But that’s not what I read it as.
For me, Serial Experiments Lain is a personal, affecting experience about our disassociated identities and how they clash with those close to us. It’s about hiding and fleeing from those you love and care about because you’re scared that how you present yourself doesn’t sync up with who you truly you are. It’s not a show about the anxiety of technology, it’s a show about the anxiety of ourselves, with our brittle, easily broken forms. We spend so much of our time craving admiration, acknowledgement and affection in any form so we wear any face to get it. And we ignore that the only people worth being loved by are those we sometimes try so desperately to push away, because there is fear in being open and honest and singular. It’s a commitment to letting someone know you and giving them the opportunity to hurt you, or even to hate you one day.
But what Serial Experiments Lain tells us is this: “If you aren’t remembered, then you never existed.” Even Lain, with her seeming omnipotence, doesn’t exist. Because she has no one who thinks of her.