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.