Weird (Serial Experiments Lain: Layer 01)
Chiaki J. Konaka’s 1998 anime masterpiece is a 13-episode self-contained work of paranoia, techno-fetishism, and philosophical psychology whose aesthetics court everything from French New Wave cinema techniques and Le Corbusierian architecture to surrealism and Dada. It is quite possibly the only animated work to ever reference Proust. It is quite certainly one of the only animes to ever provide a robust examination of and philosophical anthropology for future technological society. It is prescient and condensed to such a degree that one might even call it a saturated phenomena in celluloid form.
The first episode opens with a coda. The city streets teem with night life, with ganguro socialites, preppy school girls, and tough guys. In a word, with idiots massed in the social squares, now near-defunct, where they pressed and pushed outsiders to conform through a thousand machinations both verbal and non-verbal, expressed and hinted. The death of those spaces today is a result of the pressing, a reaction by social dwarfs who moved en masse to the digital plane. But that’s now, Lain is 1998.
A girl walks in the street, hair in a ponytail , eyes magnified by horn-rimmed curiosities. She speaks, but her voice is unheard by both those around her as well as by us, the viewers, who are only privy to her words in intercards ala silent cinema. ‘Why? Why won’t you come?’
She stands on the side of the street, breaking down in what appears to be a panic attack. ‘Why you should do that is something you should figure out for yourself.’
She stands atop a building, removes her glasses, pulls her hair out of the ponytail letting it blow and billow out freely in the night air. ‘I don’t need to stay in a place like this.’
She jumps and the blood runs free, inspiring excitation of horrified natures from the ones standing about, the ones below in the city who witnessed the impact. The coda ends. If only there were a better way. If only there were another place for her to go to, a place to escape from the real world.
Sometime in the following weeks. A neighborhood drenched in blinding white light with magnificent structures of complete simplicity and order. This is the Corbusierian neighborhood lit as if by the light of a thousand white dwarfs. Telephone poles and their wires line the streets, crisscrossing haphazardly in a maze of black lines signifying a deeper recess of more mystery, a place of grime, of dirt, of decay of the hidden subconscious darkness ready always to emerge from interiority: to exteriorize itself and engulf the light, the calm, the peaceful nature of the community. The structure is every bit as Lynchian as his Wilmington suburb concealing the sinister underground beneath 50s Americana: the ear in the field: nourishment for ants and for the paranoia of citizens.
And then, an unheard voice: ‘If you stay in a place like this you might not be able to connect.’ From out of a seemingly white expanse of nothingness, a door opens and a young girl, Lain, emerges from the total darkness within. Emerges from the subconscious of that city into the light that means to efface all individuality. The light that seems to denote something akin to the superego, to the collective conscious we all don when entering public space meant to homogenize, make palatable, and control idinal forces and the primal hominid whose existence is the kernel that remains despite otherwise successful attempts at domestication.
As Lain leaves this stronghold, she travels to the inner city on the local train. But the cacophony of voices and noises is a racket she detests and she finds closer identification with the telephone poles and wires she passes. She reaches her school and her vision begins to blur as everything is enveloped in white. ‘Everybody, hurry…’
Once in class, we find one of her peers is crying as other girls try and console her. The girl who killed herself in the episode’s coda, Yomoda Chisa, has supposedly been sending e-mails to her classmates from beyond the grave. Lain is asked if she too has received these messages, but not being very computer-savvy or interested she hasn’t even checked her inbox. As class begins, Lain’s vision blurs once more and the chalk-board dissolves into a fragmented indecipherable mess of code. A spectral sort of steam-like material emits from Lain’s fingertips- unbeknownst to her classmates- and circles about the room above their heads. ‘What’s it like when you die?’ ‘It really hurts :)’
Lain returns home at the end of the day to an empty house barely populated with sparse pieces of furniture. The sanitation of the outside world even reaches into the confines of this space, which is free when devoid of fellow travelers, but constricting when used as the way-station for sleep between days of monotonous work and schooling. Lain’s room is empty except for a small desk, a chair, a futon, and window lined with a row of stuffed animals. She has an old computer (which is quite modern by our own 2018 standards) that has a limited operating power, but functions through voice activation. Lain turns it on manually, then logs in through voice recognition software.
She has a message from Yomoda Chisa: ‘Hello, how are you?’ Lain answers and initiates an instantaneous conversation with Chisa who responds automatically through the computer’s voice software. She explains that she and Lain walked home together just once in their lives, that she has only given up her body to explain to others that she is really alive, and that she believes everyone will come to understand her more fully soon enough. Lain asks Chisa why she died, but receives no answer, only more cryptic messages. Chisa claims that she is not a prankster and that she is indeed the Chisa who Lain once knew. ‘God is here.’ ~Chisa. The conversation ends as Lain is visibly shaken from the dialogue.
At dinner that night with her family, everyone is relatively silent. Lain’s older sister leaves early and Lain tells her mother that she spoke to the dead girl online. Her mother doesn’t respond to this verbally or even with a minor physical tick. Lain eats and removes herself, returning back into her spacious den and donning her bear kigurumi. When her father returns home, she asks him if he will buy her a new Navi (the term for the advanced computers in Lain’s world). He pontificates about how the real world and the Wired are both domains in which people connect in powerful ways. Just as society functioned for millenia through connections in the real world, so too will society function through the Wired.
He stops here, but we can go further using his assumptions. The real world and the social world are truly demarcated by millions of structures existing in the one but not in the other. A grain of sand has significance to the real world but is no part of the social order just as logical axioms build the social realities assisted by language but are no part of the real order of things. Other elements like subways assist the social orders but are real phenomena made of concrete and mortar, while political units like States are illusory elements of social reality that have strong, sometimes catastrophic effects upon the real domain. The Wired is a new form of social reality created from the constituent elements of physical materials in the real world and symbolic orders associated with the social world. As such, it too can change reality one day in fundamental ways, just as social realities like laws, like gods, like nationalities change the world, mostly for the worst.
But in Lain’s world, mind is so great that it can generate non-mind. The hive mind and super-minds of the Wired one day have the creative potential to use their latent abilities, which have been magnified, to restructure the world. This will call into question the mind-body division and potentially stand things on their heads as mind dominates the division and George Berkeley is validated.
Lain’s father is totally obsessed with the Wired and barely registers his daughters words at all as he logs in and explores that new domain. His screens project images of numerous people, all headless as their real identities are obscured by their Wired alter-egos and digital signatures. As Lain tries to reach him from beyond the divide, her words lose sound. neither we, nor her father hear those words and we are given no intercards for elaboration. She is being neglected, and is shy and awkward. These problems will mount and eventually develop into full-blown psychiatric disorders.
The next day, as Lain ventures toward school, the train stops for an accident ahead on the tracks. The telephone wires in the distance are bleeding. She arrives at school by foot, admiring the telephone poles and wires along the way: a visual metaphor and instantiation of the Wired breaking out of the darkness and slowly creeping into the real world. A dense fog grows and settles around Lain as she approaches a train crossing. A young girl is standing near the tracks and moves out onto them as they begin to signal the approaching monstrosity of steel. Lain tries to yell out to the girl, but is again unheard.
Lain awakens in class, her head is down and she has been crying onto her notepad. The chalkboard blurs once more as her vision distorts itself and the message is revealed: ‘Come to the Wired as soon as you can.’ The exact same message that she will later find has been sent to her e-mail by Yomoda Chisa during the school day.
Finally, on Lain’s way back home, the apparition of Yomoda appears, passes Lain, and disappears behind her. Lain turns to see the girl, but finds nothing there. Then, she reappears. As Lain inquires as to where Yomoda is, and seems thereby to know she is speaking with an unusual being, the color fades from the apparition, leaving only a pure white outline, which subsequently dissolves into ribbons ala Salvador Dali. For this. I have no explanation.
[Continued: Layer 02]