Reconfiguring Mental Illness & Identity in Serial Experiments Lain 

CW: Suicide.

I don’t need to stay in a place like this. 

If you stay in a place like this… 

you might not be able to connect.

Serial Experiments Lain (1998) explores the interpersonal connections we have with ourselves, one another, and how this experience varies when struggling with mental illness that is made up of affective or neurobehavioral disorders — where reality is based on our individual perception and our connection(s) to those around us. In an effort to contribute to the de-stigmatization of mental illness, to me Serial Experiments Lain offers a sobering reality of what it feels like to experience the (often ruinous) effects of depression and the consequences it has both on the body and mind. While attempts have been made to empathize and understand those who battle mental illness(es), the stigma attached to such individuals predominantly overtakes the identity of their character or individuality within media representation. The illness itself comes to reductively represent the individual within the media landscape, and in turn affects reality. By thinking about mental illness through technological machinic processes (in other words, software and hardware systems working in tandem with one another to sustain the internal and external aspects of the organism or machine), Serial Experiments Lain creates space for discourse between mental illness and digital technology to coexist. 

Serial Experiments Lain follows the mundane junior high school life of Iwakura Lain, who upon arriving at school one day, hears about her classmates receiving emails from a deceased student, Yomoda Chisa, who died of suicide the previous week. After school, Lain investigates and finds a disturbing email on her outdated Navi (computer) from Chisa, who tells her that she is not dead, but has merely given up her body and exists inside of The Wired. The Wired is a virtual world of technological communication networks similar to the Internet that has the capability to project and translate the human psyche into the virtual landscape. It is from this point of processing trauma — the suicide of her classmate and a suicide on the train line — where Lain dissociates from people and surroundings, tuning their frequencies in and out as she performs the same routines day in and day out, appearing to trigger these episodic blips in time that betrays her sense of reality. 

This is exemplified with the beginning of each episode starting exactly the same: a montage of the fading-in of a blurred intersection, with a crowd of people and vehicles lining the dark, bustling Tokyo streets. The pedestrian crossing signal flashes red, traffic lights mar the screen alongside the cluttered buildings and neon signs coming in and out of focus. The noise of traffic, disembodied voices carrying on passing conversations, and electricity constantly hum in the background through looming power lines. As bodies and cars flow in different directions, they appear in the same patterns day in and day out, though clouded visions obscure the peripheries. The distortions just barely caught within sight, lulled into a trance.

When experiencing derealization episodes, I have often felt like my surroundings flatten and I don’t perceive much of the details surrounding me, only their abstracted forms. They feel less material as the memories or routines themselves flatten into meaningless signs. Days are shortened to compressed clips with no trace of their defining qualities, just their projections across flitting thoughts — meshing days together or skipping them altogether to end up somewhere else with no memory of having gotten there. It feels as though I have rehearsed and performed actions and reactions on autopilot and exist outside of those interactions, somewhere else. Not here, not there, or really anywhere. But I know that I’m still here. Whereas Lain continues to encounter more alien disruptions in her perception, or rather, begins to notice the haunting distortions that warps her perception of life and existence, it becomes increasingly clear that the Wired and reality are beginning to tangibly affect one another. 

One day, Lain’s friends confront her about a girl who looks exactly like her, who made a big scene in a techno nightclub for young people (minitheque) called Cyberia the night before. Lain’s closest friend in the group, Arisu, defends Lain when Lain’s presence and identity are passively and mockingly questioned. But when Lain innocently offers no knowledge of herself being at Cyberia the night before, they drop the topic so as not to appear malicious, but insist that she go out with them that same night. Just as it seems that Lain couldn’t have possibly been there the night before, she is recognized by others in the minitheque. Without anyone’s knowledge, someone in the club begins firing a gun, high on a robotic bug-shaped drug called Accela, who locks onto Lain referring to her as the “Scattered God of the Wire.” Lain, steadily approaching the shooter point blank after being frozen in shock for some time, says, “No matter where you go, everyone’s connected.” The shooter, exclaiming that, “the Wired can’t be allowed to interfere in the  Real-world” and that he, “won’t be part of it,” shoots himself in front of Lain’s face (the result of a double-homicide suicide), serves to foreground the bleak relationship between making (meaningful or genuine) connections with others and being confronted with others’ projected perceptions of you. In this case, the different selves you project (online or in real life), and that are projected onto you by other people’s perceptions or opinions of you, is what confuses Lain’s relationship with herself and her deepening understanding of her identity(ies) as they begin to proliferate and manifest in multiple, mysterious ways. 

From this point, Lain’s encounters with digital remnants — or ghosts in the machine that haunt the liminal space between the Wired and reality — are fueled by her investigation to find the truth of Chisa’s existence in the Wired; her father’s deranged encouragement of connecting with friends through technologies; and the identity of Lain’s look-a-like. As the series progresses, Lain becomes fixated on reconfiguring and reprogramming her Navi to the most up to date, with custom modifications and attachments for her set up. In order to collect more clues for her investigation, she pushes the limits of technology that reach the highest potential of what the software and hardware can do, to find the truth. Lain’s introverted personality becomes more disconnected, to the point where her family and classmates even start to notice her erratic behaviour. As Lain gains popularity as an online entity and an urban legend in Cyberia, her name becomes known widespread through underground and mainstream groups. She is eventually recognized as a kind of Internet deity. The more advanced modifications Lain makes to her software programming and hardware, the more she becomes part of the machinery itself. The real Lain and Wired Lain begin to materially affect each other’s beings. And as more time goes on, Lain begins to become more like a machine herself. Her small, childish frame becomes enveloped with wires, her face blank and expressionless. She is entirely engulfed by technological modifications and hooked up to industrial apparati that beep, blink, buzz, and breathe alongside her.

In Serial Experiments Lain, the cyborg represents what it means to perceive the body as a series of connections functioning together to keep the whole (organism) alive or sentient. It also represents what it means to be able to connect to one another across these virtual spaces and how this translates physically, as well as to the molecular level within the human body. Episodes 5&7 explore how the body is not so different from the technology we already use (electric pulses in the brain formulating the reaction to make the synapse fire between neurons), and how information is stored and passed down from body to body that spans across generations (on an evolutionary scale). These philosophical musings on consciousness, identity, and memory are also introduced by Lain’s father in the first episode when he tells Lain to remember that, “technology is only a source for communication and the transfer of information.” However, Lain realizes that the Wired is more than a place for communication and information exchange. In order to connect, we must also be able to feel. This is exemplified through a translation of the senses that the body gathers from the nerves and reinterprets at a molecular level so that your brain can interpret the information it receives to form a bodily or emotional reaction or response. The body is broken down to the machinic level, where each minute function performed informs the next, and results in the wellbeing or malfunction of the organism (or thing) at imperceptible levels of consciousness and being. This is why, later in the series, people who are killed within the Wired also die in real life — because in humans, the body and the psyche depends on one another in order to function. In order to truly connect to one another, we need both. 

The more Lain begins to encounter other identities of herself in the Wired, she becomes disillusioned with the mobs of online identities made up of trolls, opportunists, and wannabe’s that seek to exploit her identity in one way or another. These semi-formless intrusive voices materialize as floating, smiling mouths, like the Cheshire cat, with shifty eyes and throbbing ears, who taunt Lain as she searches for answers in the void of the Wired. As Lain appears to be surrounded by disembodied, fleshy forms and imposters, she comes face to face with her look-a-like in the midst of it all, who continues to cause mayhem and sabotages the last of Lain’s meaningful relationships around her. As real Lain tries to kill Wired Lain, she realizes in the process that each identity is just as real as the other. Though she says that she knows herself — “I am me” (Watashi wa watashidesu// 私は私です) — she is still haunted by the Wired Lain and these anonymous spectres leading her to the God of the Wired. This God, Masami Eiri, was the engineer for the seventh generation software update (Protocol 7) for the Navi that ostensibly allowed for both realities to overlap and affect one another. Here, the disembodiment of both self and other in the Wired and reality leads to the unravelling of Lain’s perception of existence, causing her to speculate that she, like Eiri, is actually part of the Wired itself. And as Eiri tells Lain that she is merely a product of his creation and that he is more powerful than anything in reality and the Wired, he is proven entirely wrong. This is the climactic point of the series, where Lain ultimately is able to destroy the Masami Eiri because she is able to move between both reality and the Wired. That she is not just a software programme but embodies both worlds fully, to the point of transcending all kinds of existence. She repeats to herself over and over again, “Watashi wa watashidesu” to validate her wholeness of being to herself instead of searching for it in others. Because Lain knows she exists and knows that having a body is essential for experiencing the world in a myriad of ways, she is able to completely free herself. Becoming existence itself with the help of Chisa, Arisu, and her father figure (though the anime leaves you wondering who is real, a machine, a hallucination, or an extraterrestrial being), a kind of enlightenment is achieved. As Lain ascends to a higher level of being, she erases herself from everyone’s life while leaving Arisu her memories of their friendship and Lain’s love confession in the aftermath of Eiri’s defeat. Though Lain may not corporeally exist anywhere, she exists in a liminal space where she can intervene anywhere at any time, but has no tangible connection to anyone. The anime asks the question: Is it better to have connected at all or to have never known what it feels like? 

In our greatest times of crisis, we are sometimes fortunate enough to have at least one person, one connection that grounds us when reality falls out from beneath us, someone who we can rely on to keep us going when nothing else can. When Arisu and Lain’s relationship is tested time and time again — when one betrayal leads to the almost complete destruction of Lain’s last, sincere connection that previously stopped her from abandoning her body (contemplating suicide) — it’s ultimately the power of their connection to one another that saves both of them while also overcoming Masami in the process.

There’s much to be said about how Serial Experiments Lain fills daily life with so much existential dread that illuminates how, within control societies, our behaviours and interactions with one another are regulated and mediated by social expectations, values, and ideologies that e/affect us from individual (to larger collective) scales, psychically and physically. By using narrative themes such as ijime (referred to as extreme bullying culture in Japan), cyberbullying, depression, and affective disorders, the dysphoric unreality of things you must come to face every day, every hour, and every tenth of a second, can feel absolutely inescapable and debilitating over time. The allegories drawn to the thought processes and feelings behind suicidal individuals is one that Lain challenges through its representation of mental illness and how we connect to one another, whether online or in real life. However, Lain offers the possibility of other spaces of belonging, where existence is negotiated through coming to terms with and accepting a new reality — one in which mental illness is only part of the wholeness of your identity. 

Categories: Tags: , , , ,