A critical analysis of “Serial Experiments Lain” – Episode 10 “Love”

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.


A critical analysis of “Serial Experiments Lain” – Episode nine “Protocol”

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 ninth episode of “Lain” is entitled “Protocol,” a word that usually brings to mind a set of rules, especially those that govern data in an electronic communication system, which seems wholly appropriate given Lain’s electronic leanings. And yet, after the narration, this episode breaks protocol. This is the infamous info dump episode, where all characters are seemingly tossed out the door in favor of documentary style explanations of conspiracy theories.

Beginning with some grainy footage of a desert, a new narrator casually starts detailing the Roswell, N.M., UFO landing. The identity of the UFO has never been proven, the narrator assures us: “Conjecture has become fact, and rumor has become history.” Another definition for rumor, perhaps, but also perhaps a suggestion for caution when considering “Lain.”

Those images cut to the ubiquitous phone lines, then to Lain herself depressed and in her room, alone yet surrounded by the Max Fleischer-esque steaming and green tubed machines that keep her connected to the Wired. The association with the previous images might suggest that Lain is a kind of alien invader–a point further reinforced when Lain sees an alien at her door, the same alien that has been seen earlier in the series and the same alien that might very well be Lain herself.

This all before we return to the narrative of Lain in the Wired, grilling a group of beings who seem to be purely sensual–their bodies are static, television white noise, except for a pair of eyes on one, a pair of ears on another, an arm on a third–which stand in stark contrast to the purely informational dump we are shuffled back into a moment later.

This breaking of narrative rank is not senseless. The entire episode is not a study of protocol, of rules, but rather, it’s a subversion of it. Note that, as fascinating as these sudden dumps of random information are, they are conspiracy theories at best. Theorizing on conspiracy is a breaking of protocol–it’s a breaking down of the rules of society, the background that keeps us all culturally in check. Conspiracy theorists, for better or for worse, are societal rebels.

The episode continues to break its narrative protocol, bouncing back and forth between Lain’s experiences in her room, in the Wired and the disconnected realm of conspiracy documentary. And yet, the conspiracy dump seems to tie to the main narrative–alien technology, courtesy of Vannevar Bush, along with John C. Lily and his sensory deprivation tanks, leads us toward the creation of the Wired. Even the narrative order is skewed. Mystically speaking, we’ve been here before.

Taro, Lain’s child informer from the club Cyberia, gets his date with Lain in what is certainly a break from the protocol of romantic norms. Taro says he doesn’t want to go out with her; he wants the other, wilder, Lain. “We’re the same,” Lain responds. “I’m me. I’m the only me.” And yet, as she says it, the top of her head is cut off and we see her huge, black eyes. The kids in Cyberia recoil in response. This is an unsettling start to a date.

Ultimately, the date is an opportunity for Lain to grill Taro about microchips and for Taro to see Lain’s hacker lair and comment on truth. The Knights, he assures her, are only interested in ultimate truth, the truth that has power because it is true and just. Then, he kisses her. “Hey, this is a date, you know?” he tells her. “I’m a guy. I had to do that.” In other words, he’s just following the rules.

Next, the rules of time and memory are broken. Lain suddenly remembers being shoved into her house, her family being no more than actors standing out from an overbearing white background. Even the rules of individual identity are in question, as she sees this happen to herself and quizzes herself about it.

At the end of the episode, we finally see the psychic form of Masami Eiri, the Tachibana labs employee who killed himself and assumed godhead in the Wired. Before Eiri appears, Lain suggests that there is only one truth: God. This bookends the narration from the beginning of the episode: “If you want to be free of suffering, you should believe in God. Whether or not you believe in Him, God is always by your side.” Perhaps the definition of God in “Lain” is the one who follows the rules even when you don’t.

There is another definition for the word protocol, an older definition than digitized regulations: the first draft of a document. When Lain encounters the sensual beings on the Wired, creatures that are obsessed with record, one states: “Since the moment of the Wired’s creation, you have always been here.” Is Lain the first draft of the Wired? If so, she is the first draft of an effort to link all of humanity into a communicative whole. The information dumps of this episode, if nothing else, indicate how that could be a conscious raising experience or an oppressive, confusing weapon.

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.

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.