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 12th episode of “Lain” is called “Landscape,” which is interesting because it’s one of the few titles that’s not based on something that’s human–whether its social or psychological, the previous titles have all related to human beings. “Landscape” does not. Originally, a landscape referred to a natural environmental that human beings could encounter. In art, a landscape is the opposite of a cityscape; it is an image of nature, not necessarily with any human beings in it, as opposed to a civic skyline, which portrayed an environment that was made by human hands.
This episode seems to exploit both concepts. It opens with landscape characters, those who populate the background of “Lain” rather than its foreground, where the titular character resides. The episode opens with Alice, her head and later eye filling the screen; Lain is pictured from a distance and behind–and it’s important to remember that that Lain is not “our” Lain.
Later, we encounter again the children at the club Cyberia, the man from Tachibana Labs and even the nameless masses that cross the street at the beginning of the every episode. The Men in Black, also previously “landscape” characters, are given a significantly memorable final scene. Their deaths at the hands of an invisible enemy is one of the creepiest scenes in the series. The horror is relegated to distant landscape. We don’t see what the subjects–the squirming, screaming MIBs–can see all too well.
“People only have substance within the memories of others,” Lain tells us–perhaps us directly, since she appears front of the same blue screen that begins each episode. “That’s why there were all kinds of mes. There weren’t all kinds of mes. I was just inside all sorts of people, that’s all.” In this way of thinking, the memories of others acts as a kind of landscape, a background for the subject of identity. Taken to its Jungian extreme, part of what contributes to individual identity is the landscape of cultural memory–you are the archetypal image that everyone else sees you as.
This collective understanding is the data that is more than any one individual can acquire. Perhaps that’s the data that Lain uploaded in the last episode, or perhaps Lain herself, existing in the real world and on the Wired, is both landscape and subject. That might be why Eiri couldn’t be a deity. His vision was limited by his lack of a physical body–all landscape and no subject. A true deity would need a broader, more eternal, perspective.
The episode suggests, as does the series to a certain extent, that humans are biological machines. In this interpretation, the landscape of the collective unconscious would be the Wired, the data collected by individuals now lashed together concretely, not just abstractly. Given the rate at which the Internet has evolved, “Lain” continues to be startlingly predictive–“Protocol Seven is expected to allow the seamless sharing of information between the Wired and the real world,” a distorted news anchor announces at one point. Outside the screen, the digital has become our landscape.
Of course, the title might as easy as its literal landscape. “Lain” has always had an unusual background, with its stylized shadows and ubiquitous phone lines. In a way, it’s dully ironic. If landscape is supposed to be about the natural world, “Lain” is anything but.
Rather than allowing us to embrace a natural environment, “Lain” isolates us with a grimly unnatural one. Alice, upon entering Lain’s home, finds an environment that is filthy and poorly lit. She enters it via a classic John Ford shot–her in a doorway, backlit and surrounded by darkness. By contrast, when Alice locates Lain in the mass of wires that has become her room, she tries to connect with Lain by forcing something natural onto her–Alice touches Lain with her warm hand and place Lain’s hand on her own racing heart.
And yet, the episode’s final image–that of Eiri trying to force his digital self into a physical body–is frighteningly natural. Recalling the body horror of “Akira,” weeping eyeballs and musculature glistening with gristle twist themselves into existence. When the digital disturbs the physical, the background crashes into the foreground with horrifying results. In “Lain,” just because something’s in the background doesn’t mean it’s normal, unreal or lacking physical and psychological danger.