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Serial Experiments: Lain (1998)

Serial Experiments: Lain Volume 2: Knights

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 72 minutes

UK Certificate: PG


'Serial Experiments Lain' is an animé series made for television in thirteen parts (or 'layers'), telling the story of shy, dreamy schoolgirl Lain, and her initiation into the mysteries of the on-line world known as the Wired, where the boundaries between reality and fantasy, science and theology are blurred. Nothing in this series 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 and empowerment, a drug-induced fever dream, or a messianic gospel for the new wired world, this series invests schoolgirl animé with the ghostl y spirit of Lewis Carroll (and 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 (even the identity of the main character), makes 'Serial Experiments Lain' at once engaging, disorienting, enigmatic and exquisitely crafted.

This second volume, comprising 'layers' five to seven of Lain's lysergic adventures, takes the viewer just past the series' halfway point, and yet continues to raise far more questions than it ever answers. In 'Distortion', Lain has conversations with someone claiming to be God, with her toy doll, with a giant mask and with levitating versions of her mother and father, all about the interconnectedness of the real and the wired worlds – while her sister has visions informing her to “fulfil the prophecy” (“what prophecy? “, she asks, mirroring our own puzzlement), and is then replaced by a doppelgänger of herself. In 'Kids', Lain's schoolfriends, worried that she is withdrawing into herself again, take her out on the town, only to be confronted by a gigantic apparition of Lain in the sky, bathed in light – and later Lain goes on-line where she is escorted by a disembodied grin (“stupid Cheshire Cat wannabe”) to the dying “child-killer scientist” Professor Hodgeson, who explain s how an updated version of his experimental KID System, designed to harness children's psi energy, has emerged on the Wired in the guise of a game. Finally in 'Society', an eccentric computer geek who attempts to make contact with the Knights (a shadowy group of hackers) winds up dead, and Lain is taken by the men in black to a mysterious technocrat who asks if she and “the Lain of the Wired” are one and the same, and casts doubt on the real existence of Lain's family.

What may sound confusing, or even nonsensical, in synopsis is hardly any clearer when viewed in its entirety on screen – yet all the trippy imagery, existential enigmas and seemingly endless deferrals of meaning are precisely what make the series so mesmerising. The story is rich in incident and detail, but the key as to how everything should be connected is constantly withheld, leaving viewers bewildered, infuriated, and gagging for more, in the hope that maybe everything will come together in the end – even if it is well nigh impossible, at least at this point, to imagine how.

It's Got: Theology, freemasonry, games, doppelgängers, men in black, apparitions, and general weirdness.

It Needs: A high tolerance for deferred meaning.

DVD Extras Choice of English or Japanese audio (each with optional English subtitles); elaborate episode and scene selection; promotional trailers for the DVD, television, cd, 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


Unnerving, uncategorisable animé that might just make you lose your grip on reality.