Serial Experiments Lain occupies an odd niche in anime – it debuted on 6 July 1998, running until September of that year, during the formative years of the increasingly social nature of the Internet (prior to the advent of popular sites such as Youtube, with Google founded the same year as the series’ initial broadcast). The emergence of the Internet as a social phenomenon in the early 1990s occurred after the globalization of the TCP/IP protocol suite during the previous decade – the 1980s marked the first forays into Web socialization, with bulletin boards popping up throughout the decade, and the 1990s saw further developments with the likes of the first true websites (such as the very first, operated by CERN, which they announced back in 1991). These elements are important, because Lain focuses on the far-reaching nature of the Internet and the World Wide Web and their effects on human society – by 1998, the practical applicability of both concepts became apparent, as major companies such as Warner Bros. (who set up websites promoting films during the decade) opted to incorporate the technology into their marketing, and a handful of anime at the time (such as Lain and .hack//Sign) began exploring the social implications of the technology.
Yoshitoshi ABe provided the character designs while Ryūtarō Nakamura directed; ABe later went on to produce Niea 7 and Haibane Renmei, the latter of which examines a mysterious, dreamlike work inhabited by angelic beings known as the Haibane. Lain incorporates numerous themes into its framework, mostly from literature and computing technology; as such, it can be quite complex to understand, and it is quite serious in tone. In fact, the show begins with the suicide of Chisa Yomoda, who attended the same school as Lain, the protagonist – this somber moment ultimately brings us to the core of the anime, that of the social connectivity and ramifications of the Internet. When the show depicts the suicide, it frames it through the imagery of people going about their day, unaware of what’s around them – the world seems a cold, indifferent place, surrounded by numerous reminders of the sort of technological advancement that came to define not only Japanese society, but the world at large. We, as a species, have become more connected than ever before, but paradoxically, people do not seem to capitalize on that ability to connect; much of the first episode, in fact, places Lain in a clearly delineated space separate from those around her. When Chisa jumps from the building, she is framed as alone in the world; her reason for committing suicide is unclear, but individually-framed fragments of what appear to be a text message inform the audience of her emotions – she’s despondent, as one would be in that situation, and she feels like she has no real recourse but to take her own life.
The lingering feeling from these opening shots seems to be one of lost connections, trying to cope with a world increasingly become disconnected with life in general; the world around Chisa either pays her no mind or (in one case, with the women who laugh) doesn’t seem to understand what she’s going through. Chisa cannot rely on the strangers around her to reach out; her suicide becomes more tragic when one realizes those near her could have intervened, but didn’t. This element is reflected in a later scene, but for now, Chisa dies alone, with no one nearby to assist her in her most tragic moment; with her final message spread across the screen, she apparently already decided she doesn’t wish to remain in “a place like this,” indicating a deep bitterness of the world around her. Upon her death, the world seems to absorb her energy; the scenery turns black, with a saturated light emanating from an unknown source, splotches of red (seemingly representing blood) dotting the landscape. One statement is shown, “if you stay in a place like this, you might not be able to connect” – an ironic statement, in that the world now offers a far greater opportunity to connect to others via the Internet, but Chisa could not find any connections in the world.
The entire world seems connected in Serial Experiments Lain – Lain herself observes the power lines found throughout her neighborhood, offering electricity to everyone, and the train she rides connects her to school and everywhere in between. The streets of Shibuya (where the opening is set) further cement the theme of connectivity; humans are more intertwined than ever before, thanks to advancements in culture and technology, but one girl is dead because the potential for social connections didn’t materialize. Lain, the protagonist of the series, seems fairly aware of this fact – one scene, involving her taking the train to school, shows her listening to indistinct, incomprehensible noises that mimic distant conversations, and it bothers her. The world seems ethereal, confusing, as if spirits inhabiting the world are trying to communicate; this ties into the underlying sentiment of the spirit world, where humans can occasionally come into contact with beings who otherwise would not converse with the average person. The emergence of the Internet brought with it a new frontier in communication – shows like .hack and Serial Experiments Lain observe how social organizations such as gaming (in .hack‘s case) and even religion (with Lain‘s case – more on that later) can capitalize on the new platform to facilitate intrapersonal communication, and sometimes people can be corrupting.
At school, fellow students trying to console a grieving colleague (who apparently received a text message from Chisa after her death) inform her that the message she received is some sort of prank – said message spread throughout the school in the week following Chisa’s suicide, but only one person can be seen crying about her loss, which indicates that Chisa didn’t have that many friends or acquaintances in life. Those students who speak in this scene are more interested in the message than the girl whose name is attached to them; Chisa’s legacy appears to be an unusual piece of digital mail, an unusual (and rather tragic) legacy, to be certain. Even Lain is unfamiliar with Chisa – thus Chisa now exist more as a mysterious girl, someone whose memory may not be shared amongst her colleagues. However, her presence is not completely gone – Lain discovers that the world around her warps and distorts, as if reality itself were coming undone as a result of some unknown force exerting itself. This, along with other indications (such as various shadows), informs the audience that the world may not be what it seems, that an external force can influence how it operates; either someone (or something) can alter the senses to make hallucinations appear, or Lain caught a glimpse into a more complex reality that allows for such strange occurrences to happen.
The Wired, Lain‘s analogue to the Internet we see in real life, may hold the answers – Lain’s forma introduction to the Wired comes at home, when she brings home a computer capable of connecting to the Internet. When she boots it up, it asks “who are you?” – a philosophically complex question that likely helps understand the world of the show. Chisa is somehow able to make herself known through the Wired and communicate with Lain, indicating that her spirit (or essence) has extricated itself of her physical body and exists in a liminal space between realities; she is no longer the person she used to be, as she may no longer have a physical body to identify with. Her mention of a “god” immediately brings us into the world of the spiritual – does the Wired exist as a means of finding a spiritual existence beyond what is known in the mortal realm, and has Chisa discovered it? What’s unusual is that Chisa has a means of connecting with others seemingly in the afterlife – through her message, she insists that she is still alive, even without a physical body, and that a god is present. Her cryptic statements may show that she got involved with some religious/spiritual society – who is this “god” she refers to, and did she discover something that encouraged her to commit suicide? This ties back to connections; Chisa likely had no deep connections in life, and Lain herself struggles with her family. Lain’s mother is silent at the dinner table – she shows no interest when Lain tries to engage her in conversation. As for the father, he seems wrapped up in computers himself, more so than speaking with his daughter; we see him surrounded by monitors and other computer equipment, smiling as the glow of the computer screen but not looking at Lain as she expresses mild interest in computing. His explanation of how society functions through connections is ironic, as he shows little interest in Lain; the images of headless people on the computer screens shows how he doesn’t truly make connections through his technology, while Lain has a greater connection to it because of Chisa.
The final scenes of the first episode follow Lain as she is followed by the specter of Chisa, whose presence is still felt in the real world – this is predicated on an accident involving the train, where someone else seemingly took her life by running in front of it, the second death in the series. Everything seems unusual and disturbing now, as Lain is now seeing the consequences of lost connections through visions of girls who have unfortunately claimed their own lives; these two girls now have a means of “communicating” with a world that they left behind, and Lain is attempting to understand these events. The Wired now exists as a space for which she can figure out the details of Chisa’s death – Chisa herself seems to be imploring Lain to help, as her ghost’s presence at the end of the episode suggests she wants someone to find her. After all, she suggested outright that she is not truly gone, in her message to Lain; she anticipated that people would consider her message a hoax, and reached out to the one person she felt would understand her situation.