This summer marks the 20th anniversary of “Serial Experiments Lain,” a cult anime that is still boggling minds decades later. Famous for its abstract narrative and obscure references, each episode (or “layer”) of “Lain” sports a one-word title, which provides a handy entry point for analysis. So, each week this summer, we’ll post an analysis of each episode using its title as a kind of guide to the series as a whole.
First some background. In popular parlance, ego simply refers to the self, if not selfishness itself. In psychoanalytic theory, “ego” is a bit different. Sigmund Freud used the word to refer to a component of the human psyche that evolved as the id–the original, instinctual self–grew to comprehend the outside world. The ego is inextricably bound to the id, but it seeks to distinguish itself from its instinctual counterpart, all while allowing the individual to deal with the real world, which is not interested in the individual’s immediate, instinctual desires.
In case you hadn’t guessed, the Freudian concept of “ego” is complex. However, “Lain” is nothing if not willing to embrace the complex. What are the odds it wants us to take the Freudian definition over the pop psychological one? In fact, one troper suggested that “Lain” is possibly the only TV show that actually got the Freudian definition correct. Considering that part of the ego’s function is to mediate between the individual and reality, it’s not a bad observation.
The first word of the 13th episode is “I.” Said by Lain, it kicks off a small monologue about the scattered nature of her identity. For the monologue’s duration, all we see is Lain, her head filling the screen. Even her environment is the same blue burst of background that begins every episode.
“Am I here? Or am I there? Over there, I’m everywhere. I know that,” she says. “But where is the real me? Oh right. There is no real me. I only exist inside those people who are aware of my existence. But this is me that’s talking right now. It’s me, isn’t it?” Both the concept of the ego as integral to identity and being one part of a greater identity are introduced here–and have been suggested repeatedly throughout the series.
Perhaps this episode, as the series has before, tries to examine what something is by observing what it is not. It begins where the last one left off, with Lain and Alice seemingly caught in the clutches of the grotesquely embodied Eiri. Lain observes Alice’s eyes in an extreme close up–a shot usually reserved for Lain–and finds them to be wide open and red rimmed with terror. The eye close up is repeated for Lain, only hers are downcast. “I mess up everything I try to do for you, huh Alice?” Lain sadly asks in one of the most emotionally taxing moments in the series.
A wider angle reveals Eiri is gone and Lain alone is gripping Alice. Whether that suggests Lain-as-deity has erased Eiri or it was all a hallucination is up to the viewer; either way, Lain realizes that her existence is the problem, and she resets reality. This action is more in line with the Freudian superego, the portion of the psyche that contains a sense of right and wrong connected to guilt and obligation. In fact, it is the ego, meditating on behalf of the identity, that stops the superego from directing the individual to kill itself. Lain’s suicide, whether individual or cosmic, represents the superego taking control. The world is better off without Lain, she decides, so her sense of duty prompts her to remove herself.
This idea of showing by showing what is not is perhaps alluded to when, following the reset, the familiar scene of Lain leaving her house and going to school is replayed–except Lain herself is absent from the shots. Her family eats breakfast; the train goes by; even the telephone wires still hum overhead, but Lain is not there. We are reminded of her not by her presence but by her absence.
At school, Alice–seeming to sense something is off–says to her peers, “If you aren’t remembered, you never existed.” And yet, she might mean an ego rather than an entire individual. An ego only exists with an outside world to reflect it; an individual, one that’s more than an id, exists with other people, with society, and relates to it. Since the ego is a reaction to society, it needs it to exist. Here, it is true to say that, without others to observe it, there would be no ego.
Another possible identity for the ego of the series is the Wired itself. Lain, echoing her father, says that the Wired is not an upper layer to reality; she also says that the Wired is merely a reflection of an older, deeper way that humanity used to be connected. In that way, the Wired itself is a kind of ego. It’s a way for the jabbeirng id of humanity–represented by the endless chatter about risqué topics in previous episodes–to interact with a social reality.
But perhaps Lain is the ego after all. In a final climax, Lain and her shadow self crawl through the various locations of the series. “It’d be so much easier if you became God,” the other Lain says in the spot where Chisa first threw herself off the building. “Let’s start everything over again from the beginning!”
This suggestion–which the other Lain ties to the desire to not be hated, which, for the isolated Lain, must be tempting indeed–comes from her id. Our Lain rejects it, and is rewarded by having tea with her father. There has been debate about the identity of the father at the end of the series; recall that, for Freud, the superego was the father figure internalized.
One final thought. In its conclusion, “Lain” has a moment that possibly wraps up its various themes–identity, memory and contentedness. Lain suggests that memory can work both ways–we can recall the past as well as “right now, even tomorrow.” This is followed by a cryptic scene of an adult Alice encountering a still childlike Lain, resulting in a ghost of recognition.
If we exist because others observe and remember us, and our interactions with reality are determined in part by our past experiences and expectations of the future, then memory is a component of ego, something that helps us articulate with reality by remembering the past, informing the present and expecting the future. But memory is also a part of the collective unconscious, the cultural and human web that binds us to each other. Memory is what allows us to connect to others at any moment by simply remembering them. Lain herself is linked to the collective unconscious in the final moments of the series, telling us, “I’m here, so I’ll be with you forever,” and leaving us, not with an image of her, but of the ubiquitous humming wires.
Human identity, like an ego that is distinct from an id and superego, that interacts with an external reality, is a more complex thing than any one part of our psyche. Perhaps that’s one of the final takeaways from “Lain.” Humanity is bigger than it can even comprehend.