A critical analysis of “Serial Experiments Lain” – Episode 1 “Weird”

We’re trying something a little different at Idols and Realities this summer. Today marks the 20th anniversary of the airing of the first episode of “Serial Experiments Lain,” a cult anime that is still boggling minds decades later. Famous for its abstract narrative and obscure references, the oddly influential series has been given technological readings, psychological readings, existentialist readings and conspiratorial readings. In fact, the only reason there probably haven’t been more analyses of the series is that it’s too small and strange for most critics to have bothered looking.

Well, I think that time has proven I’m not most critics. Each episode of “Lain”–technically they’re called “layers,” which is pretentious as get out, but if anything deserves to take that approach it’s this show–sports a one-word title. Each title provides a handy entry point for analysis. So, we’ll be posting an analysis of each episode using its title as a kind of guide to the series as a whole. Don’t worry if this isn’t quite your cup of tea–there will still be other reviews folded in as well. Probably.

The first episode of “Serial Experiments Lain” is called “Weird,” which is as fitting a description for the entire series as ever there was. The word “weird” was used in multiple contemporary reviews of the show. And yet, to call “Lain” weird and leave it at that fails to open up the depths of the series.

Weird itself is more than a weird word. Although it has come to be a synonym for strange, the word originally meant “fate,” as in Shakespeare’s weird sisters who gave Macbeth his damning fortune. From there, the word picked up its supernatural and otherworldly connotation, eventually becoming the word H. P. Lovecraft used in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” to describe things that were unexplainable or unknowable, things that made ordinary humans question their perceptions or realities.

The show is weird in every sense of the word from the start. Its name has seemingly little connection to its narrative, and neither does its opening animation, which doesn’t display anything that’s in the series. Instead, it depicts its main character in unusual situations, like trapped inside television sets, ascending escalators or surrounded by flocks of frozen pigeons, images which are backed by a British alt rock song instead of the expected J-pop selection. Also, the phrase that opens each episode–“Present day, present time”–is followed by such a mocking laugh as to make you question whether any of the show happens contemporarily at all.

There are visual oddities as well, introduced in the first episode that will appear throughout the series. The shadows of buildings and the ever present telephone wires are harshly black, and they stand in stark contrast to the minimalistic white of the illuminated outdoors. Combined with splatters of deep red in the shadows–which “The Asian Horror Encyclopedia” compared to blood pools–the environment is given an otherworldly spin.

This other world isn’t a classically supernatural world, however. It is the ubiquitous Wired, the Internet of “Lain’s” reality, itself an anagram of “weird.” However, while modernity was supposed to sweep away the fears of the primitive world, “Lain” suggests otherwise. The old concerns of identity, purpose and connection are not gone, they have simply changed from issues relating to a supernatural reality to a technological one.

Lain herself is weird because she exists outside of her society. She stands out from her peers at school visually, with her asymmetrical hair and her size-changing eyes, but she also stands out socially because she doesn’t hang out with girls in her class or check her email regularly. The animation backs this up: in class, Lain is the only student without a monochrome palate. Given how important the themes of communication and connection are to the series, it’s telling that what distinguishes Lain is what separates her from the group.

Lain also seems separated from her family at home. She tells her mother about an email she received from a dead girl, and her mother does not react at all. Later, Lain’s father says lectures her about how connections create society. Lain opens her mouth to answer, but no sound comes out. Whether that’s symbolic of a deeper failure to connect or simply more awkwardness at home, it’s weird either way.

But Lain’s world would be weird enough without her social awkwardness. She has visions of smoke coming out her fingers or pouring through streets, ghostly figures wandering through the halls of the school or the subway, and a woman struck by a train whose head is caught between two faces. These visions, often rapidly edited together like a film school montage, are something that puts her outside of the everyday world and into the realm of mystics–or mental patients, if that’s your interpretation.

At the end of the day, something that’s strange has the added benefit of being memorable. The weirdness of “Lain” is part of what makes it an intriguing series. “Come to the Wired as soon as you can,” Lain spots on a chalkboard. It’s an invitation for Lain to enter a new reality, but she–and the audience with her–is already there.

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