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.
The eighth episode of “Serial Experiments Lain” is called “Rumors,” and it opens with a series of questions. “Do you want to be hurt?” a female voice asks. “Do you want your heart to feel like it’s being scraped with a rasp?” It seems like an odd thing to ask someone, and yet audiences do desire those experiences. The proof is in the fact that we continue to watch a show like “Lain,” which exposes us to unusual and confusing phenomena, as well as expressions of depression and anxiety. The voice ends its questions with “If you do, don’t look away, whatever you do.”
A rumor is a kind of desire. It is a wish that is hoped to be made true by spreading it around. In this way, conspiracy can be a kind of rumor; it can be the desire for a larger mechanism to be at work. Conspiracy takes the onus off the shoulders of the individual–it’s not your fault if it’s really the fault of the government or a corporation or beings from another world. Or it can be the desire for intrigue, for a life that is not as boring or insignificant as it appears to be. The conspiracies that haunt “Lain” could fall into either category: a desire for her life to be more than a that of a forgotten school girl or a desire for her hallucinogenic experiences to be grounded in something real.
In the case of Lain’s parents not being her parents, it appears as if the rumors are true. A seed was planted in Lain’s head in the previous episode, and it starts to take root here. In a scene that is devoid of any soundtrack, Lain asks her parents if they are her parents, or rather, she asks them to deny they aren’t. As casually as she can, she mentions that someone questioned their authenticity. “It’s funny, isn’t it?” she asks. “People say the funniest things, right?” Her parents do not respond with words, instead finally acknowledging her presence with stony glares.
Tellingly, Lain and her parents are never quite pictured together until the last shot, an overhead shot that obscures their faces–the closest is a moment when Lain passes them as she walks to the kitchen, but even then it is quick and none of the characters face each other. In this case, a desire has been dashed on the rocks of rumor. Lain did not wish her parents were not her own; she feared they were not (although it’s interesting to remember that Freud would suggest some fears have their roots in unexpressed desires).
In something a bit more straightforward, and certainly something that seems prescient in an era of cyberbullying, Alice’s crush on a teacher becomes the subject of a rumor that is spread through the Wired. This is foreshadowed when Alice and the group confronts Lain about her being the origin of the rumor. Remember, a crush is, of course, another form of desire. Also, just because something is a rumor doesn’t mean it’s untrue.
Some might say the ultimate rumor is God. “It doesn’t matter if God exists to the user,” says one of Lain’s young peers at the beginning of the episode. God’s literal presence is less important than his abstract presence, as a concept perhaps, at best something to strive toward and at worst an idea that is passed from person to person.
“How do you define ‘God’?” a voice asks Lain in the Wired. It’s an interesting question, in part because the word that is being translated as “God” is “kami,” a Shinto term that refers to an entity that is worshiped by practitioners. Although it is often translated as “god” or “deity,” it is just as liable to be translated as “nature spirit.” If nothing else, this suggests the flexibility of a god concept in the world of “Lain.” Oddly enough, there is not an episode of “Lain” called “God,” despite that being a hot topic on the show.
In this episode, “God” is defined as both a creator deity and an entity that is omnipresent (but not simply something that can be worshipped). The God of the Wired admits that he did not create the realm he inhabits, but he does exist throughout it. To a degree, anyone who uses the Internet today has that divine quality, the ability to observed by everyone else on Earth who is connected.
In the world of the Wired, Lain is omnipresent–which is precisely why she is accused of being a “peeping Tom” by another round of schoolyard rumor. That is, assuming anyone other than Lain sees that rumor–there is a ghostly quality to its introduction that leaves its reality ambiguous, and it would be easy to understand Lain seeing the rumor as either cosmic forces at play or another hallucination.
Regardless, when we take the rumor at face value, it certainly seems to be true. There is nothing Lain seemingly cannot observe, from her friend masturbating in this episode to total strangers making out, something that is depicted in every episode in the credits sequence.
When Lain literally confronts herself, she is confronting the part of her that spreads the rumors–the “id” in Freudian theory, the primal part of the self that is most liable to give in to desire. Does Lain desire to be someone else–a notion manifest by the chattering Lain heads on the bodies of strangers? Does she desire to commit suicide–symbolically presented when she tries to strangle her other self? A psychological reading of the series might suggest so.
A mystical reading, however, might suggest that, as an unrealized omnipresent entity, Lain is struggling to come to grips with being One with the Wired. This notion is perhaps manifest when all of Lain’s worlds come crashing together–the wires of her ceiling becoming the omnipresent phone lines becoming the disco ball of Cyberia. In this reading, Lain is undergoing the sometimes terrifying process of enlightenment.
The episode ends with perhaps a reminder that our primal nature is an essential part of our humanity. When Lain attempts to erase her rumors from her friends’ memories, she also erases their experience of her, the Lain that calls itself Lain. Whether we like it or not, the rumors we spread–and the desires we house–are a part of us. A whiteout from the schoolyard takes us to Lain’s room, where she, alone again, asks her Navi computer if she is the real Lain. That’s a rumor that might be confirmed or denied, but until the series is over.