Distortion (Serial Experiments Lain: Layer 05)
The episode opens and cryptic message plays out over the screen: ‘If you can hear it, it is speaking to you. and if you can see it, then it is your…’ This is the first step into madness and fallacious reasoning that the series really takes in full stride. Obviously those things we hear are not necessarily addressed to us personally all of the time, or even most of the time.
Next, a man’s voice begins to pontificate an odd philosophy of life alien to sane minds. The city streets are filled with moving images of static people. ‘Mankind is a creature that no longer evolves, is it not?’ (It is a creature that continues to evolve). ‘Compared to other animals, the cancer rate in man is exceedingly small’ (human cancer rates are comparable to other mammals, though elephants and whales actually have much lower rates of cancer development). ‘One theory says that man is a neoteny, and is no longer able to evolve’ (humans are not neotenous, develop normally past neoteny as infants, and do continue to evolve as do all species). ‘ If this is true [it’s not], then what an absurd creature man has evolved into’ (we may be absurd in some ways, but not through this illicit reasoning).
He continues: ‘Not knowing what it is that drives them, they satisfy their bodies merely to satisfy the desires of the flesh’ (that’s how evolution works buddy, you eat to survive to procreate. It’s all about flesh when you get down to brass tacks). ‘They’re worthless, don’t you think? That’s all mankind is. But it is no longer necessary to remain a wretched human being. Mankind has finally created an exit whereby he may escape’ (meh?).
Lain, who has been crossing the street at the Shibuya crosswalk, stops and turns and stares at the ‘camera’, at us: ‘What do you mean?’ The voice responds, ‘the network. The wired, Lain.’ Mirroring the structure and existential-artistic ambiguity of Mamoru Oshii’s classic Angel’s Egg, Lain responds: ‘Anata wa dare?’ (Who are you?). The man responds: ‘I am God.’ Lain has stopped moving completely within the crowd and looks up directly into the sky as is searching for the voice. This structure of hearing information from a mysterious source and the conversation ceasing at the moment of a great revelation will continue throughout this episode.
Lain’s sister Mika wakes up in the room of some guy she spent the night with. They don’t seem particularly close or even familiar, which leads one to believe the affair was a one-night stand or some such similar unattached transaction. She enters the Shibuya crosswalk on her way into town and a car comes barreling through the red light and past the intersection. Someone has been struck by the car, Mika turns to look, but then turns back and continues on her way, seemingly lacking any sympathy for the plight of the person just struck at high speed by a thousand pounds of metal barreling down the road.
Next, we are in Lain’s bedroom. The scene is moody, atmospheric, and electronic music plays, which is akin to the Dario Argento movie themes created by Italian prog-rock group Goblin in the seventies and eighties. A doll floats across the room from her. Lain looks overjoyed and extremely sociable as she repeatedly asks the doll to tell her a story. Eventually, the doll responds: ‘What kind of a story would you like to hear, Lain?’ Lain asks for a story that she has never heard before, but is refused as the doll asserts that Lain has heard all stories before and knows all things (a seemingly sure sign that Lain is imagining the event as a real talking doll should be able to recount an interesting, novel tale, whereas a figment of her imagination would only be able to recount a story already hidden within her psyche).
Lain looks confused and seems to demand some sort of information from the doll. The doll finally relents: ‘Well, how about this, then? For every event, there is first a prophecy. an event first comes into existence when there is a prophecy.’ Lain asks who makes the prophecies, but the doll refuses to answer any questions or to speak any further on any matter whatsoever. The notion of events is a key philosophical concept in French continental thought. The event, as traditionally theorized, does not necessarily have to be prophesied before it can occur. However, it will not be recognized as an event in the first place if it has not been prophesied. The event is more than a simple occurrence, but a moment of saturated presence that brings immediately to the fore a whole host of questions regarding ontology from the very get-go. As such, the event must be theorized beforehand for it to be more than a mere occurrence. The existence of such a thing is not paradoxical, just dialectical.
And it means here that for one to make mind control matter, data control physical reality and to turn the traditional mind-body relation on its head, one must prophecy the event whereby such a thing will occur. Lain, or The Knights, look set to be the prophets of this new moments, but the moment has not yet been verbalized or theorized. When it has, the once impossible can become truly possible for the first time.
On news, the crash Mika witnessed the prior day is described as related to cyber-terrorism as both the electronic traffic lights as well as the autopilot on self-driving cars and trucks in the vicinity malfunctioned simultaneously. Some hacker seemingly worked to break down the boundaries between the real world and the Wired through this activity.
As Lain walks about Shibuya crossing, a man puts a packet into her hand. Lain thinks that the moment holds some significance and that perhaps this man was the same one who sent her the Psyche processor in an envelope in her school locker, but she turns to see the man handing out packets to others along the crosswalk as well. Mika is also in the crosswalk and is handed one of these packets. A young boy tries to hit on her, but just ends up spilling part of his beer on her jacket as she runs him off. Mika opens the packet she received to reveal a napkin within. As she uses it to wipe off her jacket, she sees a disturbing messages written in what appears to be blood on one side of the napkin: ‘The other side is overcrowded. The dead will have no place to go.’ The message not only unsettles Mika but helps to makes the series figure more closely to Western horror films like George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (released in Europe as Zombi with a Goblin soundtrack) and its popular marketing campaign ‘When there’s no more room i hell, the dead will walk the Earth.’
Mika next hears murmuring by other walkers on the sidewalk. She turns to see Lain standing in the middle of the crosswalk as cars pass by. Lain is talking to herself with her head and is causing quite a scene. The advertising billboard screen nearby fades to static and Lain’s face is momentarily displayed on it.
Lain is back in her room once more, this time sitting across from a floating tribal mask who tells her that the prophecy is being fulfilled. She responds that it is not a prophecy if it is being fulfilled. The mask responds that is is indeed a prophecy and that ‘history is not merely a linear connection of points that we pass through on a timeline. They are connected by a line. No, perhaps it is more accurate to say that they are made to connect.’ Lain asks who connects these points, but is left unanswered. The lines are made to connect by a mind, by a will, otherwise they remain mere points just as the event remains a mere instance or happening with no greater significance than any other, at least until it is theorized and ‘discovered’.
The next day, Lain is at school with her friends who ask her how she did it. She responds that she has no clue what they mean. They explain further that they believe she pulled off some hacking stunt (the hacking of the billboard), but do not connect this rather mundane stunt with the connected stunts of the hacking of the intersection traffic lights and car autopilot features that resulted in death. After class, Alice and the two other girls (minus Lain) meet up at a local cafe and discuss the spam Alice has been receiving from The Knights. All the messages say, time and time again, is ‘Fulfill the prophecy.’
Back to Lain’s room once again. Her mother is floating across the room from Lain, but the apparition is obviously someone other than Lain’s normally aloof, somewhat Luddite mother. The apparition speaks, all the while being interrupted by Lain who asks if she is really her mother, ‘It’s reasonable to see the Wired as an upper layer of the real world. In other words, physical reality is nothing but a hologram of the information that flows through the Wired. This is because the body, the activity of the human brain, is merely a physical phenomenon caused by synapses delivering electrical impulses. The body exists only to verify one’s existence.’ Lain asks if she is really her mother one final time before the apparition ceases speaking and disappears from the room. My background can’t make much sense of this dialogue as the ground, or the bottom, is the primal state of being in continental thought. As such, if the Wired truly were the source of physical reality it should be conceptualized as the core or the ground of being and not as a layer above reality, meaning reality is below it in an ontologically superior position. If mind is the core and this is equal to data or the Wired, then why should it even need to manifest anything to prove it exists? Would a god create just to affirm its existence? Maybe.
The Iwakura family are eating dinner and they are, for once, all together. Mika asks Lain what she was doing at the Shibuya crossing, but Lain seems confused and doesn’t remember being there at all. Mika’s consciousness then warps her back to the crossing where she is now standing as the lights change and people begin to cross. But the people are more like sludge, like indiscernible figures of menacing static. As the faceless masses, as the Them approach, Mika’s surroundings dissipate and she is instead within a large clock face inscribed with the symbol of The Knights.
Next, she warps into a restaurant where she sits alone at a booth with a coffee. She tries to open the top of the cup, but struggles with it and drops the cup, spilling coffee all over the table. The coffee spreads into a message: ‘Fulfill the prophecy.’ She stands up and asks ‘what prophecy?’ Suddenly the bustling restaurant is now empty and immaculate, as if the middle of the night after being cleaned and left for the following morning. The screen fades to static and she is suddenly within a restroom where the lights turn off by themselves. Mika retreats into a stall, crying ‘what’s happening?’ The stall door closes behind her and the light in the room turns back on revealing the lines ‘Fulfill the prophecy’ written dozens of times along the back of the stall door.
One final time Lain is within her room. Her father floats across from where she is sitting. She asks if the spectre is her real father and, like previously with her mother, the spectre does not address her concerns. He begins to speak: ‘It may be that what flows through the Wired isn’t merely electrical information. If we assume that it was the development of electricity and phones that brought about the formation of the Wired, then I have to wonder if another world was created at that moment.’ If the system is sufficiently complex enough, then it may manifest consciousness, or a new system in which the data denizens of that world live in their own environment may manifest itself. So much complexity, so many physical structures might be their own world, its own reality.
He continues: ‘Here in the real world, God exists only as a concept. But in the Wired, there may be a sort of Deus-like embodiment. I don’t know whether or not it should be called a god. But at the very least I think it has the same kind of power that is written of in myths.’ Lain explains that she believes he may have talked with god already. He explains that the Deus may already have the power to affect the real world from within the Wired, but that he would do so in the form of prophecy. Lain asks for elaboration on this prophecy and is provided none. Has she been speaking with The Knights in these conversations? Have these exchanges occurred on the Wired? Was one of the figures God? Was the first speaker, the man’s voice in the street, truly the god of the Wired?
Mika finds herself back home. She breaks down crying after entering the doorway, but stops in shock as she sees a second Mika walk through the hall ahead. The two Mikas lock eyes and the Mika we have been following this whole time, the one by the door, disappears. The other Mika, the remaining Mika something akin to a mere clone, with flat affect and robotic movement. Lain enters and sees both the robot-clone Mika and the static imprint of the disappearing-ghost Mika, the Mika who was her true sister. Lain looks distressed and confused by the incident and quickly retreats back into her room, which has become something akin to a dungeon of cooling tanks and computer modems. ‘Who is it today?’ She smiles.