Technology has allowed human civilization to accomplish so much. Extensive worldwide networks allow one person to log on and communicate with another on the opposite side of the planet in real time. Continuous development of graphics cards, processors, and memory has allowed video games, once made up of quaint sprites, to look increasingly photorealistic. Although these advances may be exciting, they come at a cost. In a world where technology changes daily and information and communication are available twenty-four hours a day, it becomes easier for people to lose themselves in virtual worlds. In extreme cases, online video games have been connected with the deaths of young men and women who grow so enamored that they neglect their basic needs.

Concern about the danger of overwhelming access to online worlds is befitting of the cyberpunk genre, which features stories about individuals whose lives are changed by the manipulation of online networks and hyperadvanced technology. By that broad definition, Serial Experiments Lain most certainly fits within the cyberpunk framework. The Japan depicted in the series is home to a powerful virtual online network called the Wired. People, notably teens and young children, have grown so enamored with the Wired that many find difficulty in discerning reality from virtual reality. Lain Iwakura is introduced in the series as a quiet, technologically disconnected and socially awkward junior high student who experiences an evolution in personality after the suicide of a classmate. After Lain hears a rumor that the dead student is still sending e-mails, she receives a message delivered to her in real time, revealing that the student’s consciousness lives on in the Wired. Given an updated computer system by her enthusiast father, Lain’s life begins to unravel as she develops her own obsession with the network and ultimately takes center stage in a battle between technological and philosophical ideologies.

Lain doesn’t follow typical television show conventions; a moody psychological thriller, it delights in being a deliciously confusing and ambiguous avant-garde piece. Each episode goes out of its way to preserve the mystery of the plot, depicting characters in situations where their voices are deliberately obscured or muted. Various red herrings are dispatched to distort any sense of comprehension. Events and scenes are often repeated in each episode, set to narration that is designed to establish tone. By the final third of the series, pieces eventually fall into place to present a clearer portrait of what has happened, but enough room is left for interpretation.

Adding to the story’s general ambiguity is an interesting visual design style that meshes well with an equally strange and often uncomfortable aural experience. Many of the environments in which the characters find themselves feature an odd blend of normal city design with abstract and contrasting shadow patterns. This visual conflict encourages the viewer to question the reality of everything they see on screen. An unsettling sound design accompanies the animation; characters speak with computerized distortion, and a low, throbbing feedback hum permeates the show’s quieter moments.

Serial Experiments Lain originally debuted on television in 1998 and was later licensed by FUNimation to be localized for Western audiences. This Blu-Ray set offers a complete remastering of the original DVD and includes a treat for fans: a 320-page artbook containing a wealth of layouts, character sheets, and sketches. A secondary booklet supplies information about the remastering process and episode commentaries.

Serial Experiments Lain focuses on humanity’s place in a world dominated by technology that oftentimes advances faster than we can manage. By the end of the thirteen episode series, it provides an extensive contemplation of the concept of identity and the self in the face of rapidly increasing virtual technology, as well as the effect this has on our ability to socialize. A narratively complex take on its subject, Lain is a dark and thrilling cyberpunk adventure full of intelligent and mind-bending entertainment.

Serial Experiments Lain: The Complete Collection
FUNimation, 2012
directed by Ryutaro Nakamura
325 minutes, Number of Discs: 4, DVD/Blu-Ray Combo Set
Company Age Rating: 14+
Related to: The Nightmare of Fabrication by Yoshitoshi ABe

  • Allen

    | He/Him Past Reviewer

    Allen Kesinger is a Reference Librarian at the Newport Beach Public Library in California. He maintains the graphic novel collections at the library, having established an Adult collection to compliment the YA materials. When not reading graphic novels, he fills his time with other nerdy pursuits including video games, Legos and steampunk.

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