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Serial Experiments: Lain (1998)

Serial Experiments Lain Volume 1: Navi

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 96 minutes

UK Certificate: 12


While Japanese animé tends to be vastly more imaginative than its counterpart from the West, it can still for the most part be divided into two basic types – violent heroics for the boys, and sickly sweet schoolkid drama for the girls. So the absence of rapacious demons or bubbly cuteness from 'Serial Experiments Lain', as well as its inventive oddness and high aesthetic values, make it a refreshing, unpredictable curiosity. Made for television, the series tells the story of shy, dreamy schoolgirl Lain, and her initiation into the mysteries of the on-line world known as the Wired, where the boundary between reality and fantasy is blurred – except that Lain's life off-line is just as full of unreality, whether she is at home amidst the sinister behaviour of her parents, on the subway or at school being haunted by eerie visions, or at the nightclub Cyberia being mistaken for a much wilder lookalike (who also happens to be called Lain) – and who are those men in black staking out her house?

Volume 1 features the first four of the series' thirteen episodes (or 'layers'). In 'Weird', Lain's interest in computers is sparked when a schoolmate who recently committed suicide sends her e-mails from beyond the grave (“I have only given up my body”), and even appears to Lain in ghostly hallucinations. In 'Girls', Lain is given a new top-of-the-line computer (or 'navi') by her father, and goes to a nightclub for the first time with her schoolfriends, where she has a bizarre encounter with a murderously deranged man. In 'Psyche', Lain is brought home by the police to a mysteriously empty house, and later finds an envelope in her school locker containing a performance-optimising 'psyche' chip (designed, according to rumour, by the so-called 'Knights'), which she sets about installing. In 'Religion', Lain learns that a number of youth suicides and murders are linked to a 'Doom'-like action game called 'Phantoma' which has somehow crossed wires with a tag game for kindergarteners – and she has her first run-in with the men in black, offering a hint of the unusual powers dormant within her.

This may all sound a bit routine, but in 'Serial Experiments Lain', nothing is easy to pin down, and everything is awash in spooky atmosphere. 'Lain' features breathtakingly psychedelic artwork, where the streets and cityscape are strangely inchoate and sketchy, with only the telegraph poles and wires (which convey the computer data that is so crucial to the story) ever fully visualised and realistically detailed – and the amplified sound of their electronic hum dominates the hallucinatory soundtrack. Whether it is a paranoid conspiracy theory, a parable of adolescent alienation, a drug-induced fever dream, or a messianic gospel for the new wired world, this series invests schoolgirl animé with the ghostly spirit of David Cronenberg, and the result is something deliriously dark and creepy. All this, and a willingness on the part of writer Chiaki J. Konaka to compound mystery upon mystery and to open everything to question, makes 'Serial Experiments Lain' at once engaging, disorienting, enigmatic and exquisitely crafted.

It's Got: Suicides, revenants, druglike implants, men in black, conspiracy, paranoia.

It Needs: Your attention and awe.

DVD Extras Choice of English or Japanese audio (each with optional English subtitles); elaborate episode and scene selection, plus short, eccentric interviews with Japanese girls appended to each episode; promotional trailers for the DVD, television, cd (featuring the title song duvet by Boa, who sound like Dido), and Playstation game; concept art (18 design stills); plus suitably enigmatic (and very short) trailer for Lain entitled the weird. DVD Extras Rating: 5/10


Ghost-in-the-machine series brought to eerie life by moodily mind-bending animation.