I was introduced to Lain about a decade ago by a goth kid in my high school’s anime club. It remains one of the few pieces of pop culture from my teenage years that has survived into adulthood with virtually no diminution. If it wasn’t for my watching Haibane-Renmei last year (which I am still absorbing), it would easily remain my unchallenged favourite anime.
Lain manages to be the mind-screw that anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion approximate but don’t quite achieve. It should be a pretentious mess, but somehow everything works.
Lain is a cyberpunk story set in the near future,* with the titular character getting drawn into all sorts of weird plots when she decides to investigate a mass email sent out by a classmate who recently committed suicide.
The show’s style stubbornly refuses to provide any of the normal narrative cues: it is difficult to place what is really happening and what isn’t. Information is sometimes given in sudden dumps and sometimes very subtly, with little indication as to what is salient and what isn’t. There is a constant shifting of styles and perspective, etc. It is, in short, a bit like browsing the internet itself, where there is heavy overload and minimal context. In lesser hands, this could be terrible, but it’s all artfully constructed and makes repeated viewings very rewarding.
The character of Lain herself is perplexing. There seems to be more than one Lain, or at least more than one persona she takes on, over the course of the show. For instance, within the first two episodes, it is driven home how Lain is a shy, emotionally stunted teenager, yet she is evidently also throwing crazy raves at the local night club. Right from the get-go there is a sense that the protagonist is also something of an unknown element.
To the extent that Lain even has an overarching theme, I’d probably say that it is something like a confrontation with the gnostic dangers of information technology, and the psychological, social and spiritual ramifications of them. There is a McLuhan-esque suspicion of the manner in which these things shape our lived reality.
Like The Book of the New Sun, this is another work that I wouldn’t mind picking apart in greater depth if I ever have the time and inclination. It is incidentally also the only anime that I know of to drop a Proust reference.
*This show dates from 1998, by the by