A critical analysis of “Serial Experiments Lain”- Episode eight “Rumors”

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.

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Marginalia of the mind: A critical analysis of “The Ninth Gate” (1999)

I know we did a Polanski movie not too long ago, but “The Ninth Gate” is a film that deserves more examination. I just went on a horror bender–who woulda thunkit?–and despite “Ninth” being the longest film of the lot, it sped by like a 90-minute feature, and I mean that as a compliment.

The film is unquestionably a horror film, and while it has been called a thriller, it has never been comfortably critiqued as a psychological horror film, at least as far as I know. This is strange to me. Not the thriller thing–that keeps it out of the mystery-science gutter–but the psychological horror aspects of the film are not only very apparent, they open up the movie to intriguing interpretations.

It is not a stretch to say that the horror onscreen is mostly natural: drowning, strangulation, immolation. There is no question that much of havoc wreaked is the result of human hands. What does appear to be supernatural is usually linked to one character: a young woman, played by Emmanuelle Seigner, whose history is never explained.

More than once, her eyes appear to change color; another time, she descends down a flight of stairs faster and smoother than is humanly possible, and she bears an uncanny resemblance to a character in one of the engravings Johnny Depp’s Dean Corso is investigating. However, there is decent filmic fodder to suggest that the more unusual events onscreen are happening in Corso’s mind.

First, the film itself is Lovecraftian in structure. Not many reviewers have called the film “Lovecraftian” (although there have been more than one), and I’m sure that’s mostly due to the its use of medieval Christian folklore to build its mythology. However, if the book Corso pursued was penned by Abdul Alhazred and AZTH instead of Aristide Torchai and LCF, there wouldn’t be any question. As well as an ancient tome as its macguffin, the film features a bookish loner for its hero and a centuries old cult trying to conjure cosmic entities as part of its intrigue.

At the very least, the film is Lovecraft sensitive. With those associations, “Ninth” invokes H. P. Lovecraft’s history of psychological horror. His narrators might not be as unreliable as Edgar Allan Poe’s, but they certainly doubt their own sanity throughout the course of their paranormal adventures.

There is another thing that puts Corso in line with the average Lovecraftian hero. He is a man with no romantic attachments and no social circle to speak of. Early in the film, medievalist Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) bluntly asks Corso, “You don’t like me very much, do you?” Corso assures him that he does not.

Later, Corso tells Baroness Kessler (Barbara Jefford) that he does not expect people to say good things about him, which is fine with him because being spoken of well can be harmful in his profession. As beneficial as Corso might think his behavior is for his job, it does him no favors psychologically. As he observes increasingly dangerous and strange phenomena, he has no shoulders to cry on, and he has no one to either confirm or deny his reality. We, as an audience, are actually in the same predicament.

At one point in the film, Corso is sapped on the back of the head while studying one of the copies of the book. For the sequence, the camera initially views him framed alone, then it switches to a POV shot so the audience can experience the blackout with him. This functions as a visual reminder that the narrative of the film, at least from our vantage point, occurs entirely from Corso’s perspective. Few shots do not feature him, and there are no scenes without him. But how unclouded his perspective is is up to debate.

Corso drinks a lot, about as much as a private detective in an average Raymond Chandler novel. We see Corso drink, and we see him drink often. We rarely see him eat. Corso drinks most of his meals. Perhaps it is his means of dealing with the oddities he encounters, but for us in the audience, it’s a suggestion that his experience of things might not be sober.

Viewers should at least consider the possibility that Corso, far from home and possessing a psychological support about the width of a bottleneck, might be a victim of paranoia as much as the paranormal. Which is not to undermine supernatural readings of the film. Far from it, a psychological reading simply enriches the horror onscreen. Besides, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean you’re wrong.

A critical analysis of “Serial Experiments Lain” – Episode seven “Society”

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 seventh episode is called “Society,” so perhaps it’s fitting, for a show that likes its Freud and Jung, to start out with a Freudian sort of definition for the word. Freud might say that society is any two people, because as soon as you have two people, you have to start creating rules so they don’t start killing each other–the rules of social etiquette that can run against individual desire, and the potential clash between those pulls is what results in psychological illness. Right on cue, in the opening narration, a female voice says, “I’ll tell you, but it’s just between you and me.” Two people and conditions–that’s a society formed between the viewer and the speaker.

And yet, Lain herself does not appear to be any closer to anyone else. In the first scene, despite her increased connection to the Wired, when she speaks, no one answers–no one the audience can hear. Lain’s sister appears at the door. Her lips move, but we can’t hear what she’s saying. As if to reiterate her isolation, the camera pulls back, Lain a small pale blob in the middle of the dark tangle of wires that is her room.

Lain and her family are far from the only society on display in this episode. We are rapidly introduced to a diverse group of people: a man wanders the streets of Tokyo wearing a suit of gadgets and umbrellas, and people cautiously avoid him; a businessman checks his email from a penthouse office and plans a rendezvous with a female coworker; a shut in proclaims his digital dominance from a mattress surrounded by food wrappers; a young but streetwise mother who works at home gets a package.

These characters are nothing alike, and yet they are all implied to be connected to the Knights, a secret society that exists online. If nothing else, they are all part of the society of the Wired. Again, part of “Lain’s” appeal after two decades is its predictive nature. The society of the Internet includes online communities and armies of trolls, and the Knights appears to be both.

Part of what bonds any society together is a shared set of beliefs. The Knights also function as a kind of religious society, one that believes transcendence can be found by tearing down the barrier between the real world and the Wired. “Is God really in the Wired?” asks the man wearing the suit of devices. “I’m not ready to believe that yet, but if you let me join you, I’ll be able to learn more. Then I’ll believe!”

This is contrasted by Tachibana General Laboratories, the organization that appears to employ the Men in Black. That society believes that it’s dangerous to remove the separation between the Wired and the real world. It’s a truth only revealed to Lain after she, like a holy child prodigy, amazes her elders by solving a riddle–in this case fixing an old computer–after which she is rewarded with knowledge about her own identity and her family’s identities.

And yet, like the blurring between the real world and the Wired, the Knights and Tachibana Labs do not appear all that different from the outside. Shadowy and dangerous, they both toy with Lain and her sanity. Whether that’s because Lain is at the center of a conspiracy or is mentally ill is up to debate, but part of what seems to be “Lain’s” mission is to force us to reexamine familiar structures: peer groups, family, government authorities, religions, scientific communities, as well as identity, humanity and reality. Reality is, after all, the biggest society of them all. It’s the list of things that we’ve agreed exist.

It’s important to remember Lain’s society at school as well, her peers, who humanize her amidst all this intrigue and philosophy. In perhaps the most touching scene in the episode, Alice finds Lain on the school’s roof and say her friends are worried she’s slipping into her old, disconnected habits. “We wanted to make you happy, so we’ve been taking you out with us,” Alice says. “But if you weren’t happy, I apologize.”

It’s one of the few optimistic scenes in the episode. It opens with Lain, appearing behind the bars of a railing, commenting to herself on the unreality of the real world, but it ends with her smiling and thanking Alice for checking on her. Sometimes societies lead to inner clashes and psychological illness, but other times they uphold us and make us whole.

A critical analysis of “Serial Experiments Lain” – Episode Six “Kids”

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 sixth episode of “Serial Experiments Lain” is called “Kids,” and it’s a topic that should be a bit familiar to viewers. We have already noted the odd juxtaposition of ages that occurs throughout the show, which is sometimes unsettling, and it is certainly unusual. The uncanny effect of seeing children in a nightclub contributes to the odd atmosphere of the show.

There is a cultural angle to this as well. A noticeable amount of anime–at least, the anime that seems to find its way to the West–is about middle and high school. Other people have gotten into this, and it makes for enlightening background, but we’re interested in why “Lain” is interested kids. It might be as simple as the show utilizing the trope that already existed. Populating “Lain” with middle and high schoolers is natural because it’s what other anime do.

The trope is played pretty straight, except that many shows–even other sci fi or horror shows–that have middle schoolers for protagonists don’t psychoanalyze them so violently or dispatch them so easily. Remember, “Lain” begins with the suicide of a female student, and there will be more deaths and dead children before it is over.

In fact, some have argued that its atmosphere and lack of concern for children, coupled with its philosophical leanings, pairs “Lain” quite nicely with the thoughtful body horror of let’s-put-adolescents-into-giant-robots show “Neon Genesis Evangelion.” “Lain,” in part due to the conspiracy involving children and experimentation introduced in this episode, has also drawn comparisons to the bloody cyberpunk classic “Akira.”

Finally, perhaps it is notable that “Lain’s” head writer, Chiaki J. Konaka, would go on to work on a series of the kids-capture-monsters Digimon franchise that was known for its mature, even Lovecraftian, themes.

This episode sees Lain free and bodily on the Wired. If anything, it’s where she’s the least childish. Lain, who is repeatedly isolated at school and comes off as too young among her peers, is finally in command of her body and her mind. Her movements are more fluid, and her voice is steadier. The Wired that she travels through is rainbow bright and presented in soft focus, a far cry from the swirling blacks and harsh whites of the “real world.”

Tellingly, when Lain’s friends get her dressed up and take her out, she seems like a child pretending at maturity. Her clothes and makeup seem to disguise rather than enhance her character. For contrast, during her outing, a giant nude Lain–looking youthfully androgynous and, shockingly, not a hallucination–appears from the clouds, a “pure” Lain to contrast with the clothed one below. When Lain swiftly returns to her room, and her gateway to the Wired, she removes her hat and wipes away her lipstick.

“Kids” also refers to KIDS, an old experiment conducted by a Prof. Hodgeson, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Sigmund Freud. It was specifically the Kensington Experiment, where children were hooked up to a computer–called (mockingly?) KIDS–to exploit their innate psychic power. The experiment went bad, as often happens in these types of shows, and children’s lives were lost.

Hodgeson is an interesting character because he mirrors Lain in a couple of ways. First, Hodgeson and Lain are the only other characters so far who can manifest themselves bodily in the Wired. Second, his Kensington Experiment was conducted not for a specific result but simply to see what would happen (:Science isn’t merely proving a hypothesis,” he tells Lain). Like Lain, Hodgeson wants to see–to see more or to see more clearly what is. When he dies–passing from both the real world and the Wired–he seems stoic about the experiment. “No matter how much I punish myself, the children will never return to the real world,” he notes, recalling Lain’s casual attitude toward the suicide at the end of episode two.

For kids, anything can be a game, and Lain hypotheses that the Knights, like children, are treating the KIDS blueprints bumping around the Wired like a game, as well as the resulting exploitation of children that results from recreating the experiment. This is echoed in a later episode when a man from a rival faction to the Knights asks rhetorically what game they are up to.

The Knights’ goal is far more serious than a game, and their apparent sabotage of Lain’s computerized room indicates the gravity of the situation. Like Phantoma, these games disguise harsh realities. As it is with children–as it is with both “Lain” the show and Lain herself–great and terrible truths are sometimes locked at the bottom of seemingly childish things.

The final reason that “Lain” might be interested in kids is right at the beginning of this episode. The opening narration alludes to the concept that, if our lives were to be connected, we would live longer. If this is added to Lain’s epiphany that we exist in the minds of others, the implication is that our longevity–our continued existence–depends on how connected we are to other people. If so, individuals who have not embraced that mindset are children by comparison to those who have.

A critical analysis of “Serial Experiments Lain”: Episode five “Distortion”

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 fifth episode of “Serial Experiments Lain” is called “Distortion,” and again, the episode challenges us to reconsider what its title genuinely means. Distortion refers to the act of twisting something out its original shape. These days, it is easy to think of distortion as a function of media: distorted images have a fuzzy or fractured look, which gives them an artsy or offbeat feel; distorted sound is played with in music or special effects to give it them a commanding or unsettling quality. And certainly a show as media savvy as “Lain” plays with its sound and images, which is part of what gives it its singular feel. But distortion creeps into the show’s concepts as well.

The episode begins with a small lecture on evolution, apparently directed at Lain herself and ultimately (“If you can hear it, it’s speaking to you,” Lain tells us in the opening–mystical thinking for sure). The notion of human evolution, which is toyed with throughout the series, is first breached in this episode, and it’s a fitting place for it. Evolution is, in an abstract sense, a kind of distortion. As species evolve, they are twisted out of their original shapes into new forms chosen by natural selection. The images behind the speech are also distorted, fuzzed out like an old photograph, which perhaps is meant to give the speech a timeless feel.

The visual transition of Mika, Lain’s sister, leaving her lover’s apartment to her walking through the city–a blast of static–is pure distortion. She witnesses a car plowing into pedestrians; an accident like that is an example of a car both twisting out of its socially ordained place, the road, and distorting a crowd of people in a rather gruesome fashion. The accident is a result of the Knights distorting traffic signals–twisting them out of their original purpose, to keep traffic safely flowing, and bending them into a gory game of chicken.

That scene is interrupted by a scene of Lain in her bedroom being told a story–ultimately a prophecy–by one of her dolls. Distortions continue to pile up: The narrative becomes distorted by this nonlinear plot branch; a talking doll distorts our understanding of reality, of what can and cannot speak; prophecy distorts our understanding of the physical timeline by giving us a glimpse into the future (or into the mind of God), something which happens periodically throughout the series when future events and dialogue are teased in earlier episodes.

Lest one doubts that the doll’s lecture on prophecy is a nonlinear element of the plot, we cut back to the crowded street and see Lain. Either she’s present in both places or they’re happening at different times. The prophecy lecture will continue to cut into the linear narrative of the episode, and the doll will pass its explanatory duties off to ghostly versions of Lain’s parents. Time and space in the narrative, just like in prophecy, have been bent out of shape.

One reason for all these distortions is fairly obvious. “Lain” is, among other things, a psychological horror story, and these distortions are firmly in that genre’s territory. Like talking objects and animals in folklore, or spectral figures and unreliable narrators in Gothic literature, these unreal elements are meant to transport us to a place where are uncomfortable and edgy, afraid and aware. In “Lain,” we are in uncharted territory, and we should not forget that.

But there might be another reason. Perhaps the purpose of so many distortions in a single place is to make us accustomed to the unaccustomed–recall that a synonym for “weird” is “uncanny,” the familiar made unfamiliar. This is the uncanny distorted. Like evolution or prophecy, it is bent out of shape to advance something to a new form.

If Lain is indeed a mystic, she can view reality–space and time–as a whole. This vantage point, although transcendent and holistic, is twisted compared to the way humans normally encounter reality. By the end of the episode, Mika’s reality has been distorted beyond her ability to psychologically cope. Time, space, the faces of the people around her, all distort into unfamiliar and frightening images. The final straw is when she encounters herself in the hallway of her home, and she vanishes completely; the “her” that remains will ultimately be a babbling zombie. Perhaps it is important to remember that the vision of gods is also often the vision of the mad.

A critical analysis of “Serial Experiments Lain” – Episode four “Religion”

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 fourth episode of “Serial Experiments Lain” is called “Religion,” which is a tricky word on a variety of levels. Setting aside the fact that religion is–along with politics and health–one of the topics you’re not supposed to bring up at dinner, a concrete definition of religion is something that has plagued scholars for years. Even the etymology of the word is somewhat dispute. However, we are less interested here in what religion means academically and more interested in what it means to “Lain.”

For Lain herself, it is important to remember that religion can refer to one’s private spiritual life. As we have seen, Lain is frequently isolated, both in the script and in the shot framing. This episode is no different. It opens with Lain noting that she does not “need parents,” suggesting a breakdown of family structure, which is associated with some organized religions. This further puts her in line–spiritually speaking–with mystics and hermits, those who perceive an abstract truth that is not shared with their spiritual communities.

The opening scene sees Lain silent and by herself working on her computer. Her father watches, isolated from Lain through editing. Later, her sister informs her parents that “Lain’s acting funny,” also in an isolated scene. It would seem that Lain has found religion in the form of an individual ritual designed to put her in touch with transcendence–transcendence here being the Wired rather than a Christian Godhead or a Buddhist Nirvana.

Like any transcendent experience, it brings about changes in Lain, something her friend Alice comments on when Lain returns to school. She smiles more, stands closer to her friends, but she does not hang out with them for long: the Wired calls.

Intriguingly, Lain’s solo quest is contrasted by that of the Knights–a covert and cult-like group that expresses the communal side of religion in their efforts to relate to, and possibly achieve transcendence via, the Wired.

That the Wired is a transcendent experience with its own rules is suggested in a scene in which a young man is pursued by a little girl. The event is framed and edited like a tense thriller sequence–quick cuts, close ups, POV shots, high contrast lighting–right down to the distant scream that ends it. The sequence is repeated with another boy who seemingly kills his young pursuer. They are all mired in a game called Phantoma, itself a word loaded with spiritual or supernatural significance, which has bled from the Wired into the physical world.

These are people who encountered the Wired–the transcendent–and got burned. It is important to remember that altered states of consciousness, where the transcendent is experienced, are frequently uncharted territory; it’s telling that John C. Lilly, the sensory deprivation tank pioneer who had a near death experience during his consciousness expanding research, is referred to later in the series.

At the end of this episode, when Lain and her father discuss the dual nature of the Wired and the real world, it seems clear with whom we’re meant to sympathize. Lain’s father, his head floating in the blackness of the room and his eyes hidden behind reflective glasses, suggests the Wired is “just a medium for communication,” adding, “you mustn’t confuse it with the real world.”

Lain, who is bathed in the light of her computer, smiles confidently. “You’re wrong. The border between the two isn’t that clear,” she says. “I’ll be able to enter it soon.”

Part of the mystical experience of many religions is the perception of the oneness of reality–both Baruch Spinoza’s monism and Buddhist immanence spring to mind. If Lain is indeed a mystic, she sees that the separation between the Wired and the “real world” is far thinner than anyone cares to admit, at least at the time. Part of the fascination of “Lain” is its farsightedness when it comes to applications of the Internet.

One reason why the etymology of “religion” is so hard to trace is because the ancients did not see a split between the spiritual world and the secular world the way that moderns do. As the Internet grows more synchronized with the day to day world of “Lain’s” audience, it is easier to think of Lain herself as a kind of oracle of a new religious movement that tightly meshes the abstractly digital with the concretely physical.