“People only have substance within the memories of others. That’s why there were all kinds of me’s. There weren’t a lot of me’s. It was just inside all sorts of people, that’s all.” —Lain
Chisa, a uniformed high school student, commits suicide by jumping off a building in the middle of a busy night. The next day, students of her class receive e-mails from their now deceased classmate. The cyber-ghost explains to protagonist, Lain:
Chisa: “I have only given up my body. By doing this I can explain to you that I am still alive. I wanted to let you know this, Lain, so I sent this mail to you. Do you understand? It’s okay if you can’t right now. You will understand soon. Everyone will.”
Lain: “Why? Why did you die?”
Chisa: “God is here.”
So begins the haunting, surreal SERIAL EXPERIMENTS LAIN featuring character design by Yoshitoshi ABe and directed by Ryūtarō Nakamura. Set in Japan, the anime follows a young, shy, introspective Lain Iwakura who, after receiving the aforementioned strange email, attempts to unravel the mystery of Chisa by immersing herself in her computer, called a Navi, and more importantly, the greater Wired—a virtual reality world. Through Lain we learn that the Wired, modeled after the Internet and Web, is more than a network or social-space, but rather something far more powerful.
Due to secret government and corporate influence as well as shadowy figures and mysteries, the Wired is in the throes of blurring the real and the virtual with sometimes disastrous and chaotic results. Lain’s own life unravels as she begins to question her identity. Is she even real, herself, she begins to wonder after encountering what appears to be her more confident doppelgänger wreaking havoc (trolling) both in and out of the Wired. Lain’s investigation and struggle leads to a web of fascinating connections and intrigue, with references to the conspiracy theory of the Majestic 12, to corporate engineering, espionage and hackers. Perhaps more deeply, the series is an inquiry into networked life, the hive mind, and a human-machine interface, and… singularity. The question of existence and God/gods is made explicit. In the end, Lain learns that she herself is more than she knows.
During the 1990s, the cyber-punk-as-fashion film caricatures (see previous Techno-Terrors on BRAINSCAN and THE LAWNMOWER MAN series) of the nascent World Wide Web culture capitalized largely on the flash, the graphics, alarmism, virtual reality and mythical hacker culture of what could-be without much reference to the realities of the then-present technology and its capabilities. The grand finale of this excitement is THE MATRIX, released in 1999. THE MATRIX’s vision of a post-apocalyptic Earth where humans unknowingly live their lives in a computer simulation after being conquered (and used as an efficient form of energy) by artificial intelligence served well the consumerist zeitgeist of the new millennium and its related superstitions and eschatological concerns—the rebirth of a greater “man” and the kingdom of Heaven. As we know with THE MATRIX, some humans wake up; some humans fight back, or as Jeff Goldblum’s character in JURASSIC PARK retorts, “Life, uh.. finds a way.” And, with “The One” (Neo), we find an awakened, enhanced human (hacker), or anomaly, capable of crossing both real and virtual borders in an effort to balance man and machine.
Beyond the somewhat interesting (but very minimal) blend of mysticism and science fiction, even today, the simulated world of the Matrix and the technology that built it seem unimaginable or unrecognizable, save for a few cliché references (viruses and binary logic seen on millions of screensavers post-MATRIX). Although the film’s implicit warning of over-reliance on technology and simulationism is well taken, overall, it still fails to carry into our present situation in a practical, visual sense (see: kung-fu fighting cyber-goth-punks while we’re still waiting for flying cars).
With LAIN, we wonder if the protagonist is more than human, or not human at all. Rather than human enlightenment, or cyber-evolution resulting in a new, all-powerful man, we instead witness the awakening of sentient computer program. The answer to the mystery comes slowly, and still in the end one is left wondering exactly what power Lain has, and what exactly are its origins, and what are the results of destroying the boundary between Wired and Real.
The power of LAIN is its poeticism; it’s visual and aural space, and thoughtful, well-paced storytelling. Viewers are unknowingly on the side of the artificial intelligence—which is the power of the new generation of HBO’s WESTWORLD that in some ways subverts the typical anthropocentric view of AI. Much time is spent, quietly, and minimally with Lain as she commutes to school, or sits in class. There isn’t loud accompanying music, or visual explosions (save for one powerful, horrific moment when Lain must battle a wonderfully grotesque, fleshy, positively Cronenbergian VR demi-god).
Instead the animators craft an elegant, restrained, yet dynamic animation. Clever recurring visual tropes, like the interconnected power lines, with their constant buzz, crisscrossing the landscape, to the twinkling, dark, long and deep shadows, and washed out, abstracted details means each frame is something to appreciate and consider. With not much dialog, Lain remains a powerful, psychological meditation on being and technology.
Unlike THE MATRIX’s fantastical, unknowable technology, LAIN’s is extremely recognizable and prescient, perhaps like no other story of the VR/Internet genre. In fact, the technology used must seem ubiquitous and banal to today’s viewers. Early on Lain and her friends are seen communicating via what appear to be smart phones well before the ubiquity of their usage. They text message and email one another through them and they remain connected to the Wired. Friends are trolled and feelings are hurt, kids play dungeon games, and the space between online and offline is foggy and rarely questioned.
In many ways, LAIN is the science fiction of today, written yesterday. Either networked culture is ready and willing to take the next step towards ending the boundary or it is unconsciously in the midst of an uncontrollable leap (compelled by corporate overlords). Just like it is for Lain, the pain of recognizing one’s own existence (and therefore personal power and responsibility) within the ecstasy of communication may be the greatest of them all.