Serial Experiments Lain is a psychological horror, sci-fi, cyberpunk drama anime written by Konaka Chiaki and developed by Triangle Staff. On one hand, I’ve seen enough things claim to be psychological with virtually no psychological content that I’m a bit skeptical. However, I’ve also seen plenty of anime with legitimate psychological horror elements foremost among them being the absolutely stellar Perfect Blue. This will be the only anime produced by Triangle Staff that I’ve seen so I can’t provide an educated hypothesis based on that. I will say that I’ve seen some other anime that Konaka Chiaki was involved with, though not the head writer for most of them, and he does have a promising track record.
Our tale opens with a young girl jumping off of a tall building. Naturally, she does not survive. Things get strange when other students at her school start receiving e-mail from her. Our protagonist, Lain receives such an e-mail. That’s when she starts noticing other strange things around her and starts becoming obsessed with technology. Even though she barely knew how to work a computer before.
Now, I will give the series credit on several counts. First off, it’s very good at keeping the viewer’s attention. It continually gives you hints about what exactly is going on but it keeps them really vague. When it outright reveals the answer, you’ll probably have a good idea of what some elements of that are going to be and be surprised by others. The series is also good at mixing its surreal elements with the more realistic elements, giving the narrative a feel that’s unique in a way that works.
Now, let’s look at where the series falls short. The ending is the big one. I don’t want to give any details away, but it’s a deus ex ending. There are also some elements that are introduced, but never handled in a meaningful or sensical way. The biggest example is that there’s a teacher, having an affair with an 8th grade student. In spite of the student body knowing what he’s up to and rumours running rampant, he is allowed to keep his job and, somehow, doesn’t get arrested or even investigated as far as you see. Yeah, I’m almost certain that would never happen. The worst part is that this nasty little sub-plot, along with being very poorly handled, ultimately has very little impact on the actual narrative. It could have been easily cut and another story device could have served the same purpose without any problems. You might wonder why I’m talking about it so much if it’s pretty meaningless. Well, when I see a “psychological” series set in the “present day, present time” I expect to have that psychology grounded in reality, even if the series itself does feature surreal and sci-fi elements. A story element like this just brings you out of the story and makes you notice that this does not happen. The horror elements are another issue. They’re largely just kind of weird, but not frightening or scary in any way.
The characters in this do have complexity and depth, for the most part. There are exceptions like the teachers, both their classroom teacher and the one fooling around with a student, who are basically non-entities. They, mostly, react realistically to the strange things happening around them. Except for a few notable cases where they react in reality-defiant ways that make no sense. They also have some interesting interactions and their relationships change in ways that make sense. That being said, there is one very significant issue with the characters. There are conversations where a character will make a statement and contradict it in the very next sentence. The person they’re talking to will not respond to this sudden shift at all or will respond by contradicting the last thing they said in order to still be disagreeing with the person they were talking to. Which makes no sense.
The background art in this is really good. It’s got a lot of nice details and the surreal elements do look very nice. There are a couple issues with it, however. The first is that some of the surreal elements, though impressive looking, don’t actually tie into the narrative. To give an example, there’s a scene where they show a faceless androgynous figure dancing in fishnets. It’s a strange image, but you could replace it with anything else and the scene would work just as well and the imagery really should be reflective of the narrative in some way. The second issue is the way they draw the actual characters. They’re kind of generic and the default facial expression for them is dull surprise. Regardless of what emotion the actor is actually conveying.
The actors are decent in this. You get some strong performances, but also some weaker ones. Shimizu Kaori delivers a very strong performance as our young heroine. Asada Yoko also gives a good performance. Igarashi Rei plays one of those characters without much complexity or depth and it does show in a rather mediocre performance. Hayami Show plays an antagonist who is really too over the top for a series that’s trying to employ subtle psychological elements. The music is good. It doesn’t really stand out much, but it’s primarily used as a part of the atmosphere and it works in that capacity.
The ho-yay factor is a 3/10. There are some moments between Lain and Arisu that strongly indicate that Lain has feelings for her.
Serial Experiments Lain definitely has some things to recommend it. The setup is good. The narrative is compelling. The major characters are complex. The backgrounds look great. Unfortunately, it’s held back by several significant problems. The deus ex ending. The story elements where the execution just renders them nonsensical. The scenes where characters contradict themselves and consequently come across as being poorly characterised. The surreal images with no relevance that are just thrown in for the sake of looking surreal. In the end, I would say that the positive factors do outweigh the negative ones, but not by a whole lot. My final rating is going to be a 6/10. It’s a decent series, but not quite good. Next week, Rainbow: Nisha Rokubo no Shichinin.