Serial Experiments Lain (1998)
Directed by Ryutaro Nakamura

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * *

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After she receives a mysterious email from a classmate who recently committed suicide, Lain, a shy teenaged girl, has her father purchase a computer for her and quickly becomes involved in life on-line. Soon thereafter, a number of strange events transform her life and make her question the nature of reality.

Ryutaro Nakamura's thirteen part animated television program Serial Experiments Lain tells a peculiar, introspective story that, while often slow moving, is sufficiently unconventional and atmospheric to keep the viewer engaged with its melancholy protagonist.


Serial Experiments Lain is loosely structured and its narrative is frequently disjointed or opaque. Instead of relying on a coherent story to produce in the viewer feelings of concern and fearful disorientation, however, the series depends more on its evocations of a changeable, hallucinatory universe filled with various vague dangers. The haunted world in which the protagonist lives is, in fact, alive with strange images, ominously humming power lines, apparent inconsistencies, and sudden, dreamlike shifts and transformations. It is clearly not that of ordinary experience. Instead, it is an often disturbing, even frightening place that, remaining ever slippery and fluid, cannot be grasped and controlled in the ways the waking world can be. Even Lain herself remains uncertain, more like an apparition than some stable, enduring entity. By so infusing the series with a sense of illusoriness and mutability, the director both fascinates the viewer and makes him feel for Lain, who appears trapped within this liquid universe.


Oddly, although Lain remains elusive and mysterious throughout the series, so that the viewer is never really able to engage with as a person, her very intangibleness somehow intrigues the viewer and involves him in her existence. At the beginning of the program, we are introduced to a quiet, withdrawn, and somewhat sad young girl, but, as the story progresses, the character, rather than being revealed more clearly, slips away instead. The usually introverted Lain is occasionally transformed into someone who is wild, extroverted, dangerous, or simply incomprehensible so that we are made to wonder if, perhaps, she is not even an actual human being.


The mysteriousness of the series, while its greatest strength, can also be distracting. Because Serial Experiments Lain is generally vague and amorphous, it does sometimes allow the viewer's attention to waver. In fact, the program is often more than a little tedious and lethargic. It can also be frustrating to watch, as it raises a great many questions but does not soon answer them. Despite its imperfections, the series is always able to recapture the viewer's interest. While he may, from time to time, feel his attention is wandering, the skill with which the director hints at enigmatic dangers and manifests a fluid, hallucinatory reality always draws the viewer back in.


Nakamura's visual evocations of a peculiar, threatening, and uncertain world are especially well done and greatly contribute to the program's appeal. The quality of the animation used, while never exceptional, is not only always high but effective and sinister as well. The character designs are not generally particularly attractive, but they are nicely realized. Lain herself is given both an innocence and an ambiguity which simultaneously entangle the viewer in her existence and leave him with feelings of apprehensive uncertainty. The series' best visual qualities, however, are not its character designs but its backgrounds. These are consistently atmospheric and almost invariably contribute to the story's sense of eery, dreamlike unreality.


Thanks both to such visual qualities and to the director's depictions of his characters and imaginary world, Serial Experiments Lain is involving. While the program is occasionally slow and does, as a consequence, allow the viewer's interest to wane from time to time, its intriguing qualities are able to reignite his imagination and arouse in him feelings both of nervous curiosity and real sadness.


Serial Experiments Lain may not be the greatest animated series to emerge from Japan, it may even be boring at times, but it is still both unique and inventive. It is certainly worth seeing.

Review by Keith Allen

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