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.
Infornography, the title of “Lain’s” 11th episode, is an interesting word to dissect because there isn’t exactly a consensus on what it means. It seems to be a combination of “information” and “pornography,” and it refers to an addiction to information. However, here the meaning seems to be an overload of information.
The entire first half of the episode is a dump of information, which takes several forms. Sometimes it is clips from previous episodes, which are played straight or edited together and filtered through unusual effects to give them an old, distant or distorted appearance. Sometimes it is words, phrases or slogans that appear on screen or are read by disembodied voices. Information comes in less direct forms as well. An opening montage that is apparently interrupted by Lain adjusting connections to the Wired, or a jarring jazz score instead of the usual soundtrack, suggest that, once again, things will be different this episode.
An interesting question is “when” is all this going on? If it is happening in the universe of the show, then it is presumably something Lain sees after her encounter with the self-proclaimed god Eiri, who says to her later in the episode: “It’s dangerous to subject yourself to that much information all at once.” Is this what the world looks like for Lain in her quest to tear down the border between the real world and the Wired? If so, it is a confusing, disenfranchising, even identity destroying place. Given “Lain’s” interest in equating digital constructs with psychological elements of identity, the impact of this flood of information–physical and emotional exhaustion, disorientation and disassociation–appears chillingly like an abstract form of psychological assault.
However, if the episode isn’t happening any time within itself (“Present day, present time–hahaha!”), then it’s a rather extensive and self-aware recap, which would make it one of the strangest examples of breaking the fourth wall ever engaged in by a television show.
All of this is preceded by a phrase that quickly flashes on screen: “Nothing as ambiguous as memory.” Lain is ridding herself of human memory in favor of digital information.
This could be understood within the context of the show’s frequent metaphor that the body is a biological machine and the brain is software, which is brought up later in this episode. Despite the comparison, human memory is not as clean or clear as digital information. Digital information is made of unflinching zeros and ones, and human memory is plastic, influenced by distance, experience and emotion as much as the actual event being remembered, which suggests that memory is ambiguous at best.
However, this episode suggests a dump of pure information has its own problems. If anything, the structure of the recap appears to be as influenced by emotion as any kind of expectation of clarity. It begins with images of Chisa and her suicide, which you would expect if the info dump were guided by the show’s chronology, but it ends with images of Alice, suggesting that the structure is based on subjects that are dear to Lain.
Like a gun or a drug, information–knowledge–is a tool. But tools can be utilized two ways. They can either be used or withheld, and Lain has apparently decided that the best way for her to proceed is to withhold the information that she ever existed from the people she can influence. However, she cannot withhold information from Alice, who seems to remember Lain despite her efforts–Alice seems to remember the old Lain when she is completely replaced in the “real” world with the less savory version of herself. “Lain, you smiled,” Alice says, and it’s far from a good observation.
The true nature of this Lain depends on one’s interpretation of the series–whether she’s an evil technological construct, a shiftless Freudian id, a Jungian shadow self or something else altogether (presumably involving aliens). Perhaps, in the way one’s identity can run amok online, the series is challenging us to consider that the psychological interpretation is not so different from the digital one.