Most of what we call cyberpunk is about the gritty details, emphasis on "gritty": information warriors this, dystopian digital landscape that. Serial Experiments Lain is less about such things than it's about a state of mind — about the way it feels to discover your world is not made of atoms but information, yourself included. Assuming, that is, you had a self to begin with, and were not just also the manifestation of an information process.
Heady stuff, to be sure, and Lain is one of the headiest of all anime — one of a smattering of them produced by Geneon in a bid for late-night broadcasting slots, like Ergo Proxy and Texhnolyze. It also plays far better than it has any right to, since any "cyberpunk" work old enough to drink should be obsolete. But now we live what amounts to a dystopian post-cyberpunk lifestyle, and all the things about Lain that seemed like druggy rambling then, now seem barely ahead of the facts.
"Hello, Navi." "Hello, Lain."
The Lain of the title is Iwakura Lain, a wide-eyed, timid girl in what appears to be her first year of high school. She has friends, but most of her life is spent alone in a solitary fog. At home, she zips herself into a bear-shaped sleepwear costume and stares at the ceiling, while her father tinkers in his study with his computers and his mother and sister studiously ignore everything except themselves.
One day Lain learns a classmate, Chisa, who threw herself from a building is now apparently sending her classmates emails: "I have only given up my body," she writes. "God is here." Evidently her soul has taken up residence in what Lain's characters call "the wired" — not just the Internet, but the whole galaxy of connectivity that girds our world. All Lain knows of such things is the "Navi" (this world's version of a PC) in her room, which she doesn't know how to do much with except read her email. Including, as she discovers to her stupefaction, emails from the dead Chisa.
Lain's father is only too happy to upgrade her to something more modern. Maybe this way, he reasons, she'll make some more friends. Or maybe she can find answers to why she's now being plagued with visions of Chisa and images of horror. She finds herself drawn into the wired's underworld with remarkable and traumatizing haste, as when she visits a local c-punk-ish hangout ("Cyberia") and witnesses a digital drug-fueled freakout that ends in death. Only Alice, from her circle of friends at school, offers her something like emotional support. But Alice has problems of her own, as she's entangled in a relationship with one of her teachers and fears her life would be ruined if word got out.
As Lain goes deeper into the wired with her Navi, she changes. The amateur who could barely open her email now traverses digital back alleys in search of clandestine clues. Her room becomes a hikikomori's cave of computer towers, columns of liquid coolant bubbling like potions. And Lain herself undergoes a mutation: where before she barely moved her mouth, now she smiles freely — maybe a little too freely — and speaks in the all-knowing, confrontational tones of a grandmaster amused at all these upstarts around her. (Aren't all of us a slightly different person behind the pseudonymous safety of a keyboard?)
This cocky new self may not be enough to protect her from what she discovers. She learns of a group of digital renegades, the "Knights", who've spread clandestine information about the wired's origins and actual potential. She learns about her own potential, about how the expanding scope of her powers is giving her godhood, and how that side of her may well have been the only one that ever mattered. And she learns about the world in which she has become a god, one that is not in fact divided into the "real" world and the "digital" one, but where all has become information to be manipulated, and where she is competing now with other forces making a power play.
How all of this is related to us is at least three-fourths of the show. It's not delivered as a techno-thriller, or a dark high school drama, or even a horror story about urban legends, although it has components and flavors of all three. Its flavor is more that of a waking dream — something meant to be seen while half-asleep, the better to let it seep into your subconscious and shape things as it sees fit. I could also argue Lain is a kind of dark iyashikei ("healing") show, if only because like other such shows it isn't interested in the story as much as the cumulative flavor. (Haibane Renmei, from the same character designer, absolutely fits that label.)
They call it a show because it shows us things, and Lain would rather show than tell. Everything we learn about Lain and her universe comes principally by way of imagery. We don't need to be told about her distant relationship with her family (even with her purportedly doting father); we can see it just from the way they talk past each other at the dinner table, and at every other time besides. Her godhood, and her initial ideas about it, are made clear by the way children raise their arms to an image of her coming through the clouds, like Christ in a thrift store painting. And when the show does explain things verbally, as when Lain tracks down a scientist instrumental in creating a crucial part of the wired's behavior, those explanations are as elliptical and enigmatic as everything else.
The distant, ethereal atmosphere of the show shapes all placed in it. Ambient sound is garbled, half-heard, like the echo-chamber blur of music booming away in the background in Cyberia. Most every outdoor shot features the ominous loom of electrical wires overhead and around, with the doom-drone of a 60-cycle hum over it. Even Yoshitoshi ABe's designs seem part of that whole: Lain's look is in line with ABe's typically waifish female characters, sporting wide eyes with contracted pupils as if staring at something too fierce to fully apprehend.
Shows like this are further evidence to how television as a whole can be divided into everything pre- and post- David Lynch's Twin Peaks. That show made it easier for TV to operate more like experimental film: to focus on mood and texture, not plot, story, or character; to shatter narrative flows and disregard time if needed; and to do all that in installments, at the cumulative length of the boldest experimental filmmaking around. Lain does all of that, and without apology.
She's so unreal
If Lain works mainly by evoking a mood or a state of mind, that it's also been called a cyberpunk story makes me also think of it as being a predecessor, maybe straight-up progenitor, of the vaporwave moment. Vaporwave's aesthetic is that of a lost future hailing from the past, of nights spent in solitude in front of a glowing screen reaching out to unknown people beyond the keyboard, of nostalgia for things lost behind a veil of crude JPEG compression. Lain is far creepier and darker than any Saint Pepsi record, but many of the same core sentiments run through it. It's easy to look at the various shots of Lain at her keyboard, electric wires in the evening sunlight outside her window, and sense how the underlying feeing was something both sets of artists were tapping deep into.
The other major feeling Lain draws on is the uneasy pervasiveness, and persuasiveness, of digital technology in modern life. "Software is eating the world," Marc Andreessen wrote in 2011, a decade after Lain hit the air, and from what we can see a decade after that, software has not only eaten the world but barfed it back out again, irreversibly transmuted. "Wired" culture has become real-world culture, and what's more we didn't need to upload ourselves into the internet to do it; we invited the internet into the real world, all in the name of "connection" with others. One of the show's in-universe premises is that the wired and the real world are not, in fact, different things; they have become extensions of the same underlying phenomenon, one where reality can be erased and rewritten and programmed as seen fit. In Lain's case, her saving grace for having this power is that she is an innocent at heart, a guardian angel rather than an avenging one. If we are to have our choice of gods ...
Another wise decision made by the show, and another by-product of it being mainly about mindset and mood, is that it does not rely heavily on technical details. They would have all aged out immediately anyway. What few details we get, like the protocol used to drive the wired (and in turn take command of reality) are intended as metaphor, not rigorous story mechanics. Still, the creators — among them writer Chiaki J. Konaka, of the equally dreamy Malice@Doll and Texhnolyze — have fun winking at the audience with their awareness of suich things. At the end of every episode we see "to Be continued", with the coloring of the 2nd word reminiscent of the logo for the short-lived ex-Apple computer makers.
Where the show ultimately goes with all this is also not towards a specific plot point, but rather a revelation — itself another state of mind, that of Lain's full awakening to herself. There is also the possibility — hinted at in imagery, although never verified — that all of Lain's world, wired and not, is a self-contained digital continuum, and that Lain is the first one to awaken fully to this understanding and make the most of it. (Shades of The Matrix, again.) We are left with the sense that Lain is as uncertain of her future as an embodiment of the wired as the rest of us are uncertain with our own status as digital denizens. We haven't figured out how to live digitally with grace yet, and neither has she, but the show does not discount the possibility that her capacity for compassion and forgiveness will be key to such things. To quote the last lines of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: a space odyssey, in regard to another newly born god:
... he waited, marshaling his thoughts and brooding over his still untested powers. For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next.
But he would think of something.