Serial Experiments Lain is an anime series directed by Ryutaro Nakamura, original character design by Yoshitoshi ABe, screenplay written by Chiaki J. Konaka, and produced by Yasuyuki Ueda (credited as production 2nd) for Triangle Staff. It was broadcast on TV Tokyo from July to September 1998. A PlayStation game with the same title was released in November 1998 by Pioneer LDC.
Lain is influenced by philosophical subjects such as reality, identity, and communication. The series focuses on Lain Iwakura, an adolescent girl living in suburban Japan, and her introduction to the Wired, a global communications network similar to the Internet. Lain lives with her middle class family, which consists of her inexpressive older sister Mika, her cold mother, and her computer-obsessed father. The first ripple on the pond of Lain's lonely life appears when she learns that girls from her school have received an e-mail from Chisa Yomoda, a schoolmate who committed suicide. When Lain receives the message at home, Chisa tells her (in real time) that she is not dead, but has just "abandoned the flesh", and has found God in the Wired. From then on, Lain is bound to a quest which will take her ever deeper into both the network and her own thoughts.
The anime series is licensed in North America by Geneon (previously Pioneer Entertainment) on DVD, VHS and LaserDisc. It was also released in Singapore by Odex. The video game, which shares only the themes and protagonist with the series, was never released outside Japan.
The series shows influences from topics such as philosophy, computer history, cyberpunk literature and conspiracy theory, and it was made the subject of several academic articles. English language anime reviewers found it to be "weird" and unusual, but reviews were still generally positive. Producer Ueda said he intended Japanese and American audiences to form conflicting views on the series, but was disappointed in this regard, as the impressions turned out to be similar.
Serial Experiments Lain deals directly with the definition of reality, which makes its complex plot difficult to summarize. The story is primarily based on the assumption that everything flows from human thought, memory, and consciousness. Therefore, events on screen can be considered hallucinations of Lain, of other protagonists, or of Lain fabricating the hallucinations of others. Story misdirection is central to the plotline; even the offscreen voices or narrations' information cannot be considered truthful. The series consists of a cross-reflection of philosophical themes instead of the traditional linear events depiction: episodes are called "layers".
Serial Experiments Lain describes "the Wired" as the sum of human communication networks, created with the telegraph and telephone services, and expanded with the Internet and subsequent networks. The anime assumes that the Wired could be linked to a system that enables unconscious communication between people and machines without physical interface. The storyline introduces such a system with the Schumann resonance, a property of the Earth's magnetic field that theoretically allows for unhindered long distance communications. If such a link was created, the network would become equivalent to Reality as the general consensus of all perceptions and knowledge (see consensus reality). The thin line between what is real and what is possible would then begin to blur.
Eiri Masami is introduced as the project director on Protocol 7 (the next generation internet protocol in the series' timeframe) for major computer company Tachibana Labs. He has secretly included code of his own creation to give himself control of the Wired through the wireless system described above. He then "uploaded” his consciousness into the Wired and died in real life a few days after. These details are unveiled around the middle of the series, but this is the point where the story of Serial Experiments Lain begins.
Masami later explains that Lain is the artifact by which the wall between the virtual and material worlds is to fall, and that he needs her to get to the Wired and "abandon the flesh", as he did, to achieve his plan. The series sees him trying to convince her through interventions, using the promise of unconditional love, charm, fate, and, when all else fails, threats and force.
In the meantime, the anime follows a complex game of hide-and-seek between the "Knights of the Eastern Calculus, hackers who Masami claims are "believers that enable him to be a God in the Wired", and Tachibana Labs, who try to regain control of Protocol 7.
In the end, the viewer sees Lain realizing, after much introspection, that she has absolute power over everyone's mind and over reality itself. Her dialogue with different versions of herself show how she feels shunned from the material world, and how she is afraid to live in the Wired, where she has the possibilities and responsibilities of a goddess. The last scenes feature her erasing everything connected to herself from everyone’s memories. She is last seen unchanged - re-encountering her old friend Alice, who is now married. Lain promises herself to look after Alice.
The "Office Worker": A top executive from Tachibana Labs who has his own agenda, which he carries out through the use of the Men in Black. He looks forward to the arrival of a real God through the Wired, and is the man behind the Knights' mass assassination. He is aware of many hidden facts about Lain, but is more inclined to ask questions than to reveal anything. The office worker is voiced by Shigeru Chiba.
The Men in Black: Karl and Lin Sui-Xi work for the above "Office Worker" in tracking down and murdering all of the Knights. They are not told the true plan, but they know that Eiri Masami is involved. They say that they "don't need a Wired God". Karl is voiced by Takumi Yamazaki in the Japanese version and Jamieson Price in the English version. Lin is voiced by George Nakata in the Japanese version and Bob Buchholz in the English version.
Lain's creators have been said to be "quite well read" and to "draw upon dozens if not hundreds of real-world sources for what seem to be the most outré concepts in the story":
Vannevar Bush (and Memex), John C. Lilly, Timothy Leary and his 8-Circuit Model of Consciousness, Ted Nelson and Project Xanadu are cited as precursors to the Wired. Douglas Rushkoff and his book Cyberia were originally to be cited as such, and in Lain Cyberia became the name of a nightclub populated with hackers and techno-punk teenagers. Likewise, the series' Deus ex machina lies in the conjunction of the Schumann resonance and Jung's collective unconscious (the authors chose this term over Kabbalah and Akashic Record). Majestic 12 and the Roswell UFO incident are used as examples of how a hoax might still have an impact on history, even after having been exposed as such, by creating sub-cultures. This links again to Vannevar Bush, the alleged "brains" of MJ12. Two of the literary references in Lain are quoted through Lain's father: he first logs onto a website with the password "Think Bule Count One Tow" ("Think Blue, Count Two" is an Instrumentality of Man story featuring virtual persons projected as real ones in people's minds); and his saying that "madeleines would be good with the tea" in the last episode makes Lain "one of the only cartoons ever to allude to Proust".
Yoshitoshi ABe confesses to have never read manga as a child, as it was "off-limits" in his household. His major influences are "nature and everything around him". Specifically speaking about Lain's character, ABe was inspired by Kenji Tsuruta, Akihiro Yamada, Range Murata, and Yukinobu Hoshino. In a broader view, he has been influenced in his style and technique by Japanese artists Chinai-san and Tabuchi-san.
The character design of Lain was not ABe’s sole responsibility: her distinctive left forelock was a demand from Yasuyuki Ueda. The goal was to produce asymmetry to reflect Lain’s unstable and disconcerting nature. It was designed as a mystical symbol, as it is supposed to prevent voices and spirits from being heard by the left ear. The bear pajamas she wears were a demand from character animation director Takahiro Kishida. Though bears are a trademark of the Konaka brothers, Chiaki Konaka first opposed the idea. Director Nakamura then explained how the bear motif could be used as a shield for confrontations with her family. It is a key element of the design of the shy "real world" Lain (see "mental illness" under themes). When she first goes to the Cyberia night club, she wears a bear hat for similar reasons. The pajamas were finally considered as possible fan-service by Konaka, in the way they enhance Lain’s nymph aspect.
ABe’s original design was generally more complicated than what finally appeared on screen. As an example, the X-shaped hairclip was to be an interlocking pattern of gold links. The links would open with a snap, or rotate around an axis until the moment the " X ” became a " = ”. This was not used as there is no scene where Lain takes her hairclip off.
Mental illness in general, and specifically Dissociative identity disorder is a significant theme in Lain: she is constantly confronted with alter-egos, to the point where writer Chiaki Konaka and Lain's seiyū Kaori Shimizu had to agree on subdividing the character's dialogues between three different orthographs. The three names designate distinct "versions" of Lain: the real-world, "childish" Lain has a shy attitude and bear pajamas. The "advanced" Lain, her Wired personality, is bold and questioning. Finally, the "evil" Lain is sly and devious, and does everything she can to harm Lain or the ones close to her. As a writing convention, the authors spelled their respective names in kanji, katakana, and roman characters (see picture).
Reality never has the pretense of objectivity in Lain. Acceptations of the term are battling throughout the series, such as the "natural" reality, defined through normal dialog between individuals; the material reality; and the tyrannic reality, enforced by one person onto the minds of others. A key debate to all interpretations of the series is to decide whether matter flows from thought, or the opposite. The production staff carefully avoided "the so-called God's Eye Viewpoint" to make clear the "limited field of vision" of the world of Lain.
Theology plays its part in the development of the story too. Lain has been viewed as a questioning of the possibility of an infinite spirit in a finite body. From self-realization as a goddess to deicide, religion (the title of a layer) is an inherent part of Lain 's background.
Lain contains extensive references to Apple computers, as the brand was used at the time by most of the creative staff, such as writers, producers, and the graphical team. As an example, the title at the beginning of each episode is announced by the Apple Computer Speech synthesis program PlainTalk, using the voice "Whisper". Tachibana Industries, the company that creates the NAVI computers, is a reference to Apple computers: "tachibana" means "Mandarin orange" in Japanese. NAVI is the abbreviation of Knowledge Navigator, and the HandiNAVI is based on the Apple Newton, one of the world's first PDAs. The NAVIs are seen to run "Copland OS Enterprise" (this reference to Copland was an initiative of Konaka, a declared Apple fan), and Lain's and Alice's NAVIs closely resembles the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh and the iMac respectively.
During a series of disconnected images, an iMac and the Think Different advertising slogan appears for a short time, while the Whisper voice says it. This was an unconcerted insertion from the graphic team, also Mac-enthusiasts. Other subtle allusions can be found: "Close the world, Open the nExt" is the slogan for the Serial Experiments Lain video game. NeXT was the company that produced NeXTSTEP, which later evolved into Mac OS X after Apple bought NeXT. Another example is "To Be Continued." at the end of episodes 1–12, with a blue "B" and a red "e" on "Be": this "Be" is the original logo of Be Inc., NeXT's main competitor in its time.. A hacker is seen using Apple's HotSauce software.
Lain was subject to commentary in the literary and academic worlds. The Asian Horror Encyclopedia calls it "an outstanding psycho-horror anime about the psychic and spiritual influence of the Internet". It notes that the red spots present in all the shadows look like blood pools (see picture). It notes the death of a girl in a train accident is "a source of much ghost lore in the twentieth century", more so in Tokyo. The Anime Essentials anthology by Gilles Poitras describes it as a "complex and somehow existential" anime that "pushed the enveloppe" (sic) of anime diversity in the 1990s, alongside the much better known Neon Genesis Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop. Professor Susan J. Napier, in her reading to the American Philosophy Society called The Problem of Existence in Japanese Animation, compared Serial Experiments Lain to Ghost in the Shell and Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away. According to her, the main characters of the two other works cross barriers; they can cross back to our world, but Lain cannot. Napier asks whether there is something to which Lain should return, "between an empty 'real' and a dark 'virtual'". Mitchell Tribbett from Reed College interprets Lain as a symbol of Japan's post-war social and cultural struggles. In his essay Serial Experiments: Lain as a Reflection of Modern Japanese Anxieties in the Digital Era, Tribbett sees the Wired in Lain as representative of the westernized, non hierarchical society that co-exists with traditional Japanese culture.
Producer Ueda had to answer repeated queries about a statement made in an Animerica interview. The controversial statement said Lain was "a sort of cultural war against American culture and the American sense of values we [Japan] adopted after World War II". He later explained in numerous interviews that he created Lain with a set of values he took as distinctly Japanese; he hoped Americans would not understand the series as the Japanese would. This would lead to a "war of ideas" over the meaning of the anime, hopefully culminating in new communication between the two cultures. When he discovered that the American audience held the same views on the series as the Japanese, he was disappointed.