Long before there was Mawaru Penguindrum, or Kaiba, roughly contemporary with Evangelion and Utena, there was Serial Experiments Lain, an ambitious exploration of the impact of networks on the way we live and think and interact, steeped in hacker lore, UFO crankery, Timothy Leary/John Lilly expansions of consciousness, disorientation, future shock, and dreams of IP Version 7.
The series begins with a schoolgirl jumping from the roof of a tall building (you’ll note that she has her shoes on — she hasn’t removed them, as is traditional for suicides, perhaps because this is not a suicide). A week later her schoolmates start to receive email from her, email explaining that she’s moved to “the Wired”, and that “God is here”.
Lain is a quiet, withdrawn middle-school student. At the beginning of the series she’s “not very good with computers”, and seems largely unaware of things happening around her. News of these emails makes her curious, though, so she digs out her old “childrens’ PC” to see if she has mail. This act begins to connect her to the world, and she begins to come out of her shell.
The second episode takes us to Club Cyberia — an all-ages rave where Lain’s classmates see Lain’s doppelganger — the complete opposite of the shy, retiring Lain. Intrigued, they persuade Lain to join them at the club. She joins them, dressed in dowdy little-kid clothes, only to find herself in the middle of a shooting incident involving a deranged gunman — a gunman who is terrified of Lain.
Later, Lain becomes more deeply involved in “the Wired”, ultimately becoming a central figure to the networked world. Omo suggested that Lain can be viewed as a good example of chuunibyou, and I think that will be an interesting perspective from which to approach the series. These early bits are establishing Lain’s alienation (even though “everything is connected”). Lain has not yet come into her power.
Funimation has released the recently remastered series in a BluRay/DVD combo pack, along with a book of production art and an episode guide. I put the first disk in and was immediately sucked into the series again. The only thing that looks dated is the fact that everyone uses big honking CRTs instead of flat-panels.
This is a dual BR/DVD release. I don’t have a BluRay player, so I can’t say anything about the remastered image on the BR (though I suspect the square image from old TV aspect ratios looks odd on a typical BR setup). The DVD doesn’t look substantially better than I remember, at least not on the first couple of episodes (but it does look great). But gosh, the sound design in this series is fantastic, and that really comes through on these disks (that said, I’m not sure I’ve ever watched the series with headphones, but that’s the way to get the full effect).
The production-art book is roughly 200 pages of settei — black-and-white reference drawings of characters, devices, and interiors used by animators during production (these are not storyboards). No color imagery — for that you’ll have to see if you can find a copy of Visual Experiments Lain published back when the series was new.
Visually, this series was far ahead of its time. It would fit right in with Bakemonogatari, sharing a spare, bold visual design (I think Ryutaro Nakamura does the screen-of-text inserts in a way that works better than Shinbo’s use of the same in his animonogatari). It’s funny that this work which pioneered the use of computer-generated imagery (all the character art uses traditional cel animation, but many of the backgrounds were CGI) made better use of CGI than pretty much anything else for the next decade.
I’m not sure that Lain’s Wired looks that dated, either, as a visual metaphor for today’s social networking. That aspect of the Wired remains the same, even if the superficial form has changed.
Update: A friend pointed out this excellent, if somewhat spoilerific review by Justin Sevakis.