(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)

For a couple of months now, I’ve shared with you some recent anime and a couple of older ones to both showcase the state of anime today and help those of you who unfamiliar with the medium to familiarize yourself with some genres and tropes. But since Halloween never ends in my house, and because being on the Internet feels like an endless horror movie, it’s time to revisit one classic anime that didn’t get the attention it deserved Stateside. A lot of people know about Cowboy Bebop and Neon Genesis Evangelion, but not nearly as many people are familiar with the tale of Serial Experiments Lain. Before some of you sharpen your pitchforks, I’m not saying that it’s a completely unknown anime, just that it wasn’t as influential or talked about.

Do you like mind-bending tales of psychological horror that will hit way too close to home in this internet-age? What about a sci-fi anime with non-linear storytelling and one of the darkest depictions of the internet and social media? Well, you’ll love Serial Experiments Lain. The show opens with a teenage girl committing suicide by jumping off a rooftop. Then we meet our protagonist, soft-spoken 14-year-old Lain Iwakura, whose life is turned upside down when she receives an e-mail from the girl who committed suicide earlier in the episode, claiming she has ascended to a new form within the “Wired” – the show’s version of the Internet. 

The show then deals with Lain entering the Wired, and experiencing some of the darkest corners of 1998 internet that look surprisingly like today’s internet. At the same time, she has horrifying realizations about her identity and reality itself. It’s a mind-twisting avant-garde, cyberpunk mystery about identity and what it means to be able to reinvent yourself in a place that isn’t technically tangible.

What Makes It Great

Part Ghost in the Shell and part Twin Peaks, this 13-episode series combines teenage and household drama by showing us Lain’s struggles to belong with her teenage classmates, with big philosophical ideas about existentialism and identity, all through very dense storytelling that can be difficult to follow at some points, but offers huge rewards to those that stick with it. Indeed, producer Yasuyuki Ueda said in an interview that he hoped American audiences wouldn’t understand the series as the Japanese audiences would, but make their own interpretations of the show so an exchange of ideas would happen.

There’s a reason people consider Serial Experiments Lain to be psychological horror. After all, the series’ writer, Chiaki J. Konaka was primarily a horror movies writer, and has stated that he was heavily influenced by The Exorcist, Hell House and House of Dark Shadows. Visually, the show follows suit, using technology and the internet as sinister beings lurking in the corner. Whenever Lain enters the Wired (she literally enters the internet, physically, it’s a thing), she sees people as incomplete bodies, or just body parts surrounded by static in the shape of a body, to show how the version of ourselves we present online is just a partial version of ourselves. Likewise, telephone lines are always in the background of every scene, loudly buzzing and casting large shadows on the utterly white ground. Each morning as Lain walks to school, she is nearly blinded by the bright world that’s outside the comfort and safety of her room.

What It Brings to the Conversation

The most fascinating aspect of Serial Experiment Lain is how eerily relevant and timely it is. Despite coming out in 1998, both the ideas and even some of the technology look more similar to our world than that of 20 years ago. As Lain starts to get interested in computers, her bedroom quickly becomes a desktop fortress full of black tubes, bulkheads and wires everywhere, with cooling fans and liquid cooling setups filling up every inch of her bedroom. Though computers don’t cover entire rooms today, using cooling systems is common with a variety of computer users today. 

More than visuals, the ideas of identity and anonymity are more relevant today than they’ve ever been. This is a show that came out way before the term NEET started drawing media and government attention in Japan, and the world of the Wired is one where identity and being are as fluid as the data going though the computers. Lain starts the show as a painfully introverted girl with no friends and a family that is strangely apathetic. Her classmates make fun of how boring she is and find it impossible to believe she is the girl they saw at a club one night because the real Lain can’t do anything fun. But when she’s connected to the Wired, Lain becomes an entirely different person, full of life and confident, glued to a proto-smartphone and even able to cultivate a fan base – but also a violent bully. The second half of the show then deals with Lain struggling to comprehend where her online personality ends and her offline one begins, knowing which one is her real self.

Serial Experiments Lain even deals with topics very familiar to viewers, that of online bullying, online games, and violence. Not only does the show get in deep with conspiracy theories, even involving real names and ideas like Schumann resonances, but on the idea of violence in videogames and on the internet, before those debates really began. One episode deals with numerous students committing suicide, with the only connection being their addiction to an online action game, and the series explores how easy it is to manipulate easily suggestible people to do acta of violence, or scare them to death (in this case via a secret hacker society).

Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out

If you want to start diving into some of the more mature and cerebral shows anime has to offer, but aren’t quite ready yet for the emotional devastation that is Neon Genesis Evangelion, then Serial Experiments Lain is for you. It has enough existential questions to make you question your reality and your identity, and a plot that benefits from multiple viewings to fully appreciate while still being comprehensible enough to be enjoyed. More than anything, Lain offers a dark and intriguing look at our current Internet-obsessed era that feels quite timely despite being made 20 years ago. 

Watch This If You Like: Neon Genesis Evangelion, Westworld, The Matrix, Ghost In The Shell

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Serial Experiments Lain is streaming on Funimation’s YouTube channel.

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