Can you believe that the Serial Experiments Lain anime was released 20 years ago? I certainly find it hard to believe. It’s been a constant in the anime community for as long as I can remember, and it’s constantly ranked among the best shows of the medium. It’s aesthetic has also held up well, thanks to a unique art direction. But more so than all of that, it’s hard to believe because the series has continued to be powerfully prophetic ever since its release, in fact only gaining in power the more time passes. In this aspect alone, it’s utterly unique.
Producer Yasuyuki Ueda was the mastermind behind the project, and he took great risks in hiring character designer Yoshitoshi ABe straight out of college, and writer Chiaki Konaka while still a greenhorn with several gigs writing for Ultraman. Director Ryutaro Nakamura was less of a risk since he’d worked with him before, but moving forward into production there were a lot of unknown quantities that could have led to a horrible failure.
Surprisingly then, the initial broadcast of the series on Japanese TV proved incredibly popular, and although this success may have overshadowed the release of a PlayStation game a little later, it was nevertheless quickly picked up by Western distributors for a release merely one year later, a rare occurrence at the time. Ueda himself was excited to see the series make its way Westwards, as he thought that Japanese audiences and Western audiences would have very different interpretations and therefore inspire further debate concerning the series. However, it turned out that both audiences had largely the same interpretations of the key themes and messages.
A large part of this was because of the homogenous technological environments shared at the time. These days Japan and the West differ in their use of technology, with many Japanese citizens solely using their mobile phone while laptop and computer use remains widespread in the West. But at the time, mobile phones were in their infancy and the situation with computers in both Japan and the US was largely the same: a recent phenomenon that only a handful knew how to operate and build.
The result of this was an internet in 1998 that was the great unknown. Much of the general public didn’t have much experience with it, and those who did were free to do whatever they wanted, provided that the technology enabled them to do so. This sees its reflection in the series as the Wired is presented as a portal to another world, where one is free to do whatever one wants but is full of malicious, unknown agents.
Concepts of science fiction being influenced by social conditions aren’t exactly new, and in fact, fiction often represents the conditions at the time, but science fiction is unique in that the fictional technology presented in it gives us a clear taste of that. Take the king of cyberpunk, Blade Runner, and you’ll see the blocky analog machines of 1982 reflected in the designs of Deckard’s car and his apartment. Go back merely five years to Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the design of the alien mothership which houses a metropolis of skyscrapers mirrors a time in which the metropole was seen as the pinnacle of engineering and technology.
Lain’s initial representation of the Wired is a far cry from our own connection to the internet today. Far from being unknown, use of the internet has become a known and essential part of existence. Even if you don’t use the internet in a personal capacity, you’d be hard pressed to find a job nowadays that doesn’t involve the use of a computer, if only to check some emails. In this sense, the mystery behind the internet has been stripped away, only aided by the fact that our own scope of usage has receded greatly. We no longer search for new websites and blogs beyond our own sphere of interests, but stick closely to ones that we already know that collate what would usually be on its own web space in 1998, such as Twitter and Facebook.
As a result, even though the series is still intensely relevant, there are some aspects of it that aren’t quite as pertinent as they were in 1998, particularly when it comes to the destruction of the ego. Throughout the series, Lain struggles with a multiple personality disorder that seems to come with her increasing engagement with the Wired (although it depends how you interpret it) which begs the question of how the virtual self can undermine the ‘real’ self. It’s a question that seems rather antiquated when considering that anonymity and therefore the possibility of creating a new self is limited on the modern internet, as even if you don’t share personal information online, giant corporations know exactly who you are through data collection and tracking.
But Lain’s genius and incredible foresight come from how it actually challenges the notion of wonder that many attached to the 1998 internet. Minami Eiri, the false god of the Wired, represents the notion that the internet is an ‘upper layer’ of reality, allowing us to transcend it and evolve artificially through technology. This notion is thoroughly refuted by the series as Lain represents the struggle to realize the limits of the internet, and the realization that it can only ever be a separate sphere to our existence, and not one that somehow transcends reality and becomes its own.
This reflects how the internet would evolve up until the present day. As knowledge of the internet and of technology increases, the possibility of freedom becomes limited as it becomes a ‘known’ property. Far from being an escape for many people, the internet has merely become a tool to aid in our everyday life, becoming another ‘sphere’ of our existence meant to reinforce reality, not transcend it.
In this sense, Serial Experiments Lain was decades ahead of its time. It tackled the popular notion of the internet at the time, refuted it and correctly predicted what our existence would be like today, in 2018. It also warned us of the dangers of trying to exist solely in the internet, an issue becoming more and more pressing as social isolation becomes more and more of a problem, with its harrowing ending where Lain is trapped in the Wired with only an imagined father figure as company.
Such incredible foresight could have only come from the team that Ueda gambled so much by putting together. Chiaki Konaka’s writing was dense yet intriguing, earning the show a cult-following and securing for himself a reputation for dark, surrealist works. Yoshitoshi ABe’s character designs were nothing short of iconic and made the show stand out and flourish on a technical level. And the efforts of director Ryutaro and producer Ueda cannot be understated either: they steered the ship and allowed the show to become the masterpiece it is revered as today.
But will Lain continue to be as prophetic by the time its 30th, or 50th anniversary rolls around? Will it be a relic of the past, just like so many other science fiction works? I wouldn’t know. Technology always has a habit of developing in ways we never expect, and even if the internet can’t offer us the potential of another plane of existence, then perhaps something else will. But to those of us who consumed the show at a time when it was intensely relevant, it will surely continue to resonate. Such is the power of a masterpiece.