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Buried Treasure
Serial Experiments Lain

by Justin Sevakis,

The creepy Engrish opening of Serial Experiments Lain declares it to be "Present day... Present time! HAHAHAHA." But when Lain came out back in 1998 it was most certainly a look at the future. It was Cyberpunk for the internet age with, coming after the birth of the Web, a clear view of where we might be headed. It was challenging, thought provoking, and disturbing. It was like nothing we'd ever seen before.

Now, ten years hence it's hard to remember just how far we've come. But to put things in perspective, in 1998 nearly everyone on the internet was connecting through dialup. The state-of-the-art PC was a Pentium II running the just-released Windows 98. Netscape Navigator was the browser of choice and MP3 was just starting to gain a foothold, but portable electronics were still restricted to CD players and analog cell phones. No iPods, no smartphones. The MMORPG had only just been invented, with Ultima Online launching a year earlier.

Of course, all that technical progress is nothing compared to how much has changed in the users themselves. In 1998 many people still didn't know how to use e-mail. The iMac, which caused a design revolution and softened the look of a computer into something approachable and compatible with every lifestyle, had not yet been released, and pretty much every computer was a monolithic beige box, intimidating and unsightly to all but the nerdy. TV news anchors talked excitedly of the forthcoming "convergence" onto the "information superhighway" that promised to deliver everything we could possibly want over one important wire. It would connect us all, and change everything. But nobody, not even the internet elite that cackled at such terminology, knew what that really meant.

Lain Iwakura, an indescribably quiet and shy middle school girl with nary a social skill to speak of, pays no attention to any of this. Resolutely technically illiterate, she keeps herself in a shell, barely even interacting with her best friend Alice, her cold family, or her catty group of not-really-friends. But when one of her classmates commits suicide, her curiosity is piqued as her various classmates start getting e-mails from the dead girl. Lain, firing up her old kids' Navi (computer), she sees that she's gotten one too. "I haven't really died," the girl says. "I've freed myself from the physical world."

Intrigued, Lain asks her tech-obsessed father for an upgrade, which he happily supplies her. Now running a state-of-the-art system, she begins her explorations. There are some very strange surprises waiting for her: another version of herself, brash and outgoing, seems to be running amok. There's a group of hackers trying to "free" the wired. There, God exists. Slowly, the rules of the world as Lain knew them begin to give way: nobody, no relationship, no society is as it seems. Lain herself isn't even who she thinks she is.

The show is incredibly atmospheric. Featuring groundbreaking sound design (emphasizing 60-cycle power hum) and some truly inventive visuals, one can feel the the intoxicating nature of The Wired as it seeps from overhead lines. Much as Lain tries to ignore it and stay oblivious to the world of The Wired, it keeps pulling her in, as if it's a place she's known all her life.

At times, the show was creepily prescient. Witness an early scene in which Lain's father comes home and immediately powers on his array of CPUs and about 8 different (giant beige CRT) monitors, immediately losing himself in the avatars and kinky exploits of his online world. This used to seem comically freaky, and now it just cuts way too close to home. Surely, after hearing the tales of Korean World of Warcraft otaku dying in their PC cafés because they've forgotten to eat and sleep for days, this scene seems downright normal.

But what really gave me chills watching Lain in 2008 is its prediction of the freedom of the online world leading to a breakdown in social order. There have been hints of what people are capable of online, hiding behind their own perceived anonymity. As with any new tool, younger generations will have a better idea of how to use them, and as they become older and more powerful the new tools will inevitably be misused.

Serial Experiments Lain is acutely aware that this technological adolescence will not be without its considerable growing pains. As hacker groups vie with the "god of the internet" for ultimate control of this new world, Lain is forced to take sides. She is, in the end, the purest being on The Wired, one who did not start from reality and cross over, but rather the other way around. What will become of her, the God of the Wired, and the world she inhabits is ultimately on her shoulders.

There's plenty of fantasy at play among the prescient science fiction. I haven't yet heard of someone offing themselves to live purely on the internet; last I heard, humans still require a keyboard and mouse to navigate online. Perhaps one day we'll all sport a USB port in the back of our necks, but even then there's the whole matter of separating our persona from our brain. The idea of the internet having a god is also one that, I think, the social order of the internet inherently precludes: few forum dwellers seem capable of agreeing on anything. The core concept of a decentralized network also generally means that even the most connected hackers can't possibly have dominion over everything.

Even on a surface level, there's a lot to like in Serial Experiments Lain. The famed opening theme "Duvet" by bôa (a British indie rock band, not the Korean pop idol) is still just as infectious as it was ten years ago, and the overarching theme of "we're all connected" remains an interesting one. I find its world intriguing, even if it wasn't exactly how ours turned out. This separation makes its disconnected conclusion a bit more palatable: I was once disappointed in how its final revelation meant that what Lain goes through is not really applicable to anyone else, or humanity in general, and this severely limited what personal meaning could be taken from the show. But as time has given us a bit more perspective on the issues it raises, somehow that limitation doesn't seem quite as dire. I'm having an easier time taking the story at face value.

Lain is the creation of anime writer Chiaki Konaka, whose dark and foreboding serious works (including Texhnolyze and Ghost Hound) evoke equal parts Lovecraft and Godard. (He also, notably, writes such yarns as Digimon Tamers and Princess Tutu.) It's quite possibly his best work, and his most evenly realized. He works frequently with director Ryutaro Nakamura, of Kino's Journey fame, but really the person who achieved the most fame from Lain was character designer Yoshitoshi ABe, who since gave us the enthralling Haibane Renmei.

The English dub of the show was decent, if unremarkable. Produced by Animaze and directed by Lia Sargent, the show relies so little on dialogue that one barely notices an occasional awkward line or strangely paced conversation. After the first episode Quint Lancaster steps aside from doing the English rewrite and Gavin Glennon takes over, but his scripts are far more reliant on the raw translation, and don't flow nearly as well. The interaction between Lain's circle of teenybopper friends seem especially strained. The difference from the Japanese language track isn't bad enough to clearly recommend one over the other.

Future predictions and dated technology aside, Lain is still the head trip it always was. It's slow-moving, quiet, and unnerving. It doesn't seem as visually inventive as it once did (and its low budget occasionally makes itself all too prominent), but the lack of visual sheen only makes its strong thematic undertones that much more permeating. After all these years, it's still a winner.

A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

How To Get It:
Geneon (then Pioneer Entertainment LDC) released the thirteen episodes across four volumes as some of their earliest DVD releases. They looked great for the time, and while today they don't look AS great (with minor macroblocking, mosquito noise and rainbowing all rearing their ugly heads here and there), they still look pretty good. It went out of print along with the rest of the Geneon catalog when they closed their doors last year. As the show is now nearly entirely forgotten, I don't expect its license to be rescued. Just the same, the release was quite successful, and so picking up used copies should be incredibly easy.

Early versions are pressed with a cool-looking etched disc label, which is something that was very common in the early days of DVD but has since disappeared entirely. Screenshots ©1998 Triangle Staff/Pioneer LDC

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