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.

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