Monday, April 27, 2015

Serial Experiments Lain

Googling the seemingly innocuous phrase "and you don't seem to understand" yields any of a number of videos like this one of an anime's opening theme. It's now been seventeen years since Serial Experiments Lain first aired, and people are still arguing over what the devil the show was about, but we're not going to stop talking about it anytime soon. Apparently it's even drawn some academic attention, though I think it slipped past hard-nosed would-be intellectuals' defenses simply via casually dropping a Proust reference as pass-code.

Given that the primary descriptor (even in the wikipedia article) which anyone can come up with for Lain is "weird" one has to wonder exactly how the show has gained and retained is popularity. It's become one of those artsy staples which certain segments of the population feel obligated to watch so they can nod along to conversations about it, like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Donnie Darko. What made it so captivating to begin with, though? You can take it as a conspiracy-themed adventure, but that's barely scratching the surface and other shows have done that better. It's certainly not action-packed or trendy.

If solipsism were reality, what would you make of yourself? Lain's philosophical leanings get the most attention, inordinately so, I'd say, suspiciously so. Methinks the public doth protest too much. After all, the show's writers sort of bit off more than they could chew and the several episodes of musings on the nature of reality don't come through very clearly, even by the somewhat lax standards of metaphysics. People's desire to focus on Lain as a philosophical piece I think simply masks their more taboo fascination with the title character herself.

Yet Lain is too unstable a character to sustain a realistic accusation of pure moe. Her image as a sexualized waif (embodied quite succinctly in one image during the end credits of each episode) is certainly near the core of the issue, but that alone wouldn't have carried the show so far. Anime is littered with more blatantly exploitative teenaged heroines and Lain occasionally goes out of her way to make herself unlikeable. In addressing the series in terms of transcendentalism, it may be more fruitful to apply the term not to the general assumptions of its world, but to the character herself. Lain the user transposed to embody the network, the ghost haunting static, the oft-vicious recurring demon of our individual psychological projections onto the zeitgeist, now there's a more likely explanation for her appeal. Ultimately, the vulnerable, confused ego caught in that limbo of early adolescence becomes capable of owning her various facets. We like Lain because we envy her that unassailable core of transcendent self-identity, we who cannot scream our desire for inner being loudly enough in a world of seven billion faceless carbon-copies.

Lain is the realization of individuality, the becoming of pure pattern. We project our own abandoned hopes of transcendence onto that innocent seductress pervading the static of human society, and thus remain fascinated by her.

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