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 problem with trying that approach with this episode is that it’s called “love,” and human beings have been trying to define love for the last 14,000 years or so. How is “Lain,” let alone this blog, going to handle that in 24 minutes? Perhaps that’s the statement being made by this episode, since the opening sequence contains no narration whatsoever. It’s as if there’s nothing it can say about the subject–at least not in a literal, vulgar way.
Accordingly, love seems to inhabit the episode in small, odd ways rather than simply or blatantly be defined by it. The characters of Lain and Eiri read each other’s dialogue in their first conversation, which has the effect of unsettling viewers. It also associates Lain rather drastically with Eiri, which associates her with (self-proclaimed) divinity and with an identity that is measured in multiples rather than in an individual. But it’s also perhaps a grotesque parody of lovers who are so in tune they can finish each other’s sentences.
Further, when Lain begins to see the results of erasing herself from the memory of her peers–and thereby ceasing to exist–she experiences the reverse of the old adage: “if you love something, set it free.” Rather than freeing something else, Lain freed herself from those she loved. And yet, when she does not feel love in return, she responds like a betrayed lover. “Why is this happening?” she asks a classroom that no longer feels her presence. “Was it something I did? I always tried to keep something like this from happening.”
Lain returns to her house and finds it empty, in a state of disarray, and yet some things are the same. She feels the presence of her sister, but she cannot reach her. She casts the same bloody shadow–the one she cast when she had a physical body. If Lain was always in the Wired, then she was always connected. Her “father” posits that if Lain connects to the Wired, she will be loved. But being loved is more than being connected to someone–it’s being with someone.
Her father might be closer to a definition of love when he says: “I wasn’t given permission to say goodbye, but I loved you.” Love is, to paraphrase John le Carre, whatever you can still say goodbye to. If you can risk the pain of goodbye but still find it worthwhile, and if you can say goodbye and hear it in return, then you’ve made more than a mere connection with someone else.
In one of the “Lain’s” most jarring sequences, a montage of members of the conspiratorial cult the Knights, having been exposed to the real world by Lain, are killed or commit suicide. A devotion unto death is not the worst definition of love; the Gospel of John reports that Jesus, who it is not unfair to call an expert on love, said: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
It goes both ways. The men in black are just as devoted to their cause, and they’re willing to kill for it (from Jesus to Alfred Hitchcock, this perhaps recalls Pat Hitchcock’s line from “Strangers on a Train”: “I still think it would be wonderful to have a man love you so much he’d kill for you”).
The show takes one more stab at a definition. After informing Lain about the situation with the Knights, one of the Men in Black turns and faces her, even removing his eyepiece, suggesting he is entering a state of nakedness or vulnerability. “We still haven’t figured out what you are,” he says to Lain. “But I love you.” If Lain really is a god, then this might be the show’s most daring definition of divinity: God is what you cannot help but love.
After offering so many definitions, or at least locations, of love, “Lain” has one final thought for us. “Love sure is a strange emotion, isn’t it?” the same MIB asks before turning away and leaving. Again, it’s as if the show is admitting there is no easy definition, leaving it up to us to figure out.