Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Serial Experiments Lain
BD+DVD - Complete Series
Lain Iwakura develops an interest in the Wired—the world's vast information network—when she gets an email from a dead girl claiming that she is alive, well and hobnobbing with God in the virtual world of the Wired. Lain convinces her father to buy her a new computer, and thus begins her odyssey into the blackest depths of worlds both real and virtual, where nothing and nobody can be trusted; not reality, not even herself. Especially not herself.
Serial Experiments Lain is hardly the only golden oldie Funimation has rescued of late. But where even Yoshitoshi ABe's other works, Haibane Renmei and Texhnolyze, got bare-bones DVD releases, Lain is clearly given special treatment. For one, it gets a shiny new Blu-ray version (though there's been some complaint about video issues—none of which effected my experience, nor did I notice any glaring problems with the transfer of a show this old). It also has a beautifully adorned box, clever on-disc presentation (90s computer menus!) and a pair of booklets, one crowded with technical info and wonderful color illustrations and the other a collection of conceptual art that runs a daunting 300+ high-quality pages.
True, Funimation didn't re-dub the series; and true, Pioneer's isn't the finest dub. Neither the performances nor the script, in a new language and adjusted to accommodate lip-flap, are as natural fit a for the precise visual and auditory rhythms of the show as the original. Nor is the acting quite on par with current standards. The series is decidedly less spooky in English. But no one expects Funimation to splurge on a new dub. All told it's a great little package, clearly not a license dump as its rescued peers sometimes seem to be.
So why the special treatment? Simple. It's an acknowledged masterwork. One of the few series to legitimately lay claim to the tricky label of classic; a rare pinnacle of the anime art, as close to perfection as something so deliberately strange and messy can be.
It is very much a product of its time: 1998—post-Evangelion and Ghost in the Shell, at the height of X-Files mania, and just as the internet was beginning to transform life as we know it. ABe and writer Chiaki J. Konaka, at the height of his powers, took all of those influences and smashed them together into one thirteen-episode mess of delirious technological insanity. Before the series' last scene rolls, Lain mashes up corporate conspiracies, genetic manipulation, nanomachine drugs, lethal virtual reality games, aliens, men in black, secret societies, techno-worship, prophecies, self-deification, the collective unconscious, psychic experimentation, and the eroding barriers between the mind, information technology and the physical world, and then feeds it to its audience in one long, slow, confusing stream. It's as if every paranoid fantasy, fringe scientific theory, and technological obsession of the time were melded into one bizarre, befuddling whole and it is wonderful.
It captures a certain zeitgeist that has, perhaps, never been captured so artfully. Just as, say, Fight Club grasped some essence of the world of men in the '90s, so too does Lain embody the nascent internet culture of that time: The fear of standing on the brink of a new world, ready to tip over into a cyber-future both hopeful and terrifying. The exhilaration of unbounded cyber-possibility. The speculation—about human identities forged in a sea of information, about the potential of unlimited connectivity, of beings born in a primordial soup of binary code and human data. It is dated in some ways (floppy disks and UFO conspiracies both died somewhere around 9/11), prescient in others (smartphones in 1998?), but more importantly you can feel in it, even now in an age when IT is as commonplace as toasters and TVs, the wonder and terror of the dawning information age.
More than just a product of its era, however, the series is a product of a very specific, irreproducible confluence: a perfect storm, so to speak—an improbably perfect confluence of style and substance; of historical era, creative culture and writer, director and creator. Not only was it a time of fruitful socio-technological change, and unprecedented creative freedom (amongst anime auteurs), but also the time when ABe and writer/producer Yasuyuki Ueda's creative partnership, which would ultimately yield NieA_7, Haibane Renmei and Texhnolyze, was at its peak. Together they push their complicated ideas to radical extremes, with no care for how their audience will follow. They find their perfect complement in scriptwriter Konaka, whose obtuse monologues and dense intellectual sparring dovetail perfectly with their cold, byzantine, alienating vision.
Director Ryutaro Nakamura brings a keenly matched stylization to the tale, all paint-flecked shadows and slate skies filled with humming mazes of telephone lines and electric wire. With stark light and empty compositions he turns the dining rooms and open streets and bright classrooms of Lain's “real” life into eerily false wastelands. He favors stylized silhouettes and abstract lights over slick animation to make his points, though he does reserve some nauseating fluidity for Lain's final confrontation with God. His soundscapes are as unsettling as his landscapes, falling back only occasionally on Reiichi “Chabo” Nakaido's guitar work, preferring instead to invoke mood with meticulous sound design.
Never again would the stars—be they cosmic or human—align the same. Konaka would end up slumming it in Digimon and Air Gear, Nakamura would let his obsession with sound overpower his eye for style, and while ABe and Ueda's collaboration would produce several more fine anime, including one on par with Lain (the transcendental but diametrically opposed Haibane), it would be relatively short-lived. When the crew did attempt to recapture the magic—reuniting sans ABe and Ueda, who were replaced with GitS's Masamune Shirow—the result would be the interesting but muddled Ghost Hound, whose disquieting power is deeply undercut by fashionable cuteness and a crowd-pleasingly conventional finale.
Not so Lain. Lain is ambitious, ambiguous, and fearlessly experimental to its last frame. It is a series that spurns all conventional narrative structure. Like the best of David Lynch—whose reign as Hollywood's prince of weird coincided, not coincidentally, with Lain's creation—it is not a story so much as a fever dream; a hallucinogenic jigsaw puzzle that no matter how you assemble it always has a few pieces missing and few left over; that looks like it should mean something, but never quite means what you think it does. It leaves itself open to dozens of interpretations, each as valid as the next. Every watching yields new theories, new thoughts, new meaning. It makes a merit of confusion.
You could take it as a screed about the dangers of erasing the borders between machine and psyche. Or as a thriller about a girl caught up in a technological conspiracy of awe-inspiring ambition. Or as an existential examination of what it means to be alive, to be human, to connect. Or as an artful but intentionally insensible collage of ideas, or as a monumentally warped coming-of-age drama, or as a subjective chronicle of a program's—or possibly a world-wide-network's—awakening to self-awareness.
The latter may come closest to getting all of the puzzle pieces to fit, but why choose just one? The series is all that and more. Here's my suggestion: Stay up 24 hours. At about midnight, juice yourself to the gills with caffeine pills. Open a nearby window so that the night sounds can come in, wrap yourself in a blanket and watch the whole thing from beginning to end. You won't know what to think. Exactly as you should.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A+
Story : A+
Animation : A+
Art : A+
Music : A+
+ One of the greatest mind-games in all of anime; a perfect union of style and substance.
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