[Script] Alienation, Depression, and Dysphoria – Serial Experiments Lain

It’s been said before that Serial Experiments Lain is a show that takes four watches to truly comprehend. Twenty years after its production, the show still seems in many ways prophetic in regards to the course of development that the internet would take, identifying future trends that most wouldn’t catch onto for years to come.

Having just watched it for the fourth time, I can’t exactly answer the question of whether or not it truly takes four watches to understand the show. What I can say, however, is that I have come away from the show with a markedly different interpretation on every viewing of it. Will that stop now that I’ve seen it four times, with every subsequent watch providing the same interpretation? I don’t know. And I don’t know that my current understanding of it is the correct one, the one that needs multiple watches in order to settle upon. Rather, I believe that your personal interpretation of Serial Experiments Lain will always, at all times, come down to your life situation at the time of watching it. In light of that belief, I would like to take you on a trip through my various mental states at the times in which I’ve watched Lain, showcasing how I’ve understood it each time.

It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly I first watched Lain, as is the case for so many of my earlier anime watches. But, if I had to guess, it was probably during the Fall of 2013 or the Winter of 2014, my freshman year of high school.

Adolescence was not kind to me. Certainly, it’s not a period which is easy for most people and I’m not pretending to be special in any way. But I certainly felt especially weird at the time. I was never in the deepest of depressions, but middle school was certainly the peak of any depressive feelings I’ve had in my life so far. Certainly, I was relatively happy and had a circle of friends. But I didn’t feel like I had those friends, or like I was that happy. My personality, hobbies, and identities were hidden from the world, leaving only a face that others wanted to see. My friends didn’t feel like my friends, they felt like the friends of some other person whose will I was simply carrying out.

I was disconnected from the world around me. Everything felt a bit off. My voice, which I had been quite fond of up until this point, was deepening and masculinizing against my control. Hair was appearing on my face, and that felt wrong. I just gradually looked less and less androgynous, more and more clearly ‘male’. My dysphoria wasn’t recognized as such at the time, after all, puberty is no fun for anyone and I was hardly well educated on trans issues. But my body gradually felt less and less like my own. I didn’t know why I felt this way at the time and that may have been the worst part. My psyche didn’t know how to deal with these newfound feelings. The fact that all of this coincided with middle school, the period of time with the harshest of social judgment, was not conducive to making me a happy person.

Fortunately, the internet was a place of refuge. The general alienation I felt from the physical world was not a problem there. Gender was not a concept I had to consider in any real way. People were treated based on their ability to communicate alone. Obviously, there are more to online social dynamics than that, but compared to middle school? For a depressed, lonely trans girl who didn’t know what was wrong with her, the internet was a utopian society. My interests didn’t need to be hidden. My opinions could be expressed freely. And because of the pseudo-anonymity, I could always duck out and reappear as a new person if need be.

At the time, living solely on the internet was incredibly appealing. After all, I enjoyed using it far more than I enjoyed real-world social interaction. Wouldn’t it be absolutely amazing if I could just live on the internet, free of the social standards which bound my daily life, free of the body which was increasingly uncomfortable? To my adolescent brain, there were few issues with this idea, other than the obvious fact that it’s impossible. But that’s what a fantasy is, of course, something impossible that you’d like to happen.

As time went on and I made it through middle school, these feelings did not desist. If anything, they intensified. I found a group of online friends and they became the only people I cared to spend time with. This was connected to and coincided with, my deepening interest in anime. As I said, the past feelings of wanting to escape into the internet continued. My depression slowly faded over the summer of 2013, where my friends were all online and the physical world could be ignored as much as possible. Life was pretty good. I could play games, talk to people I liked with similar interests, and I didn’t have to deal with the painful alienation of the real world. I felt as if my life was finally going according to protocol.

Of course, school had to resume eventually and when it did, I certainly wasn’t happy. Now, it wasn’t as bad as middle school. In my experience at least, high schoolers are a lot more relaxed, a lot less focused on imposing social rules on other groups. But still, I felt out of place. As always, I had friends who I could talk to, but my full interests never came out and I always felt off. Things were far better than in middle school and I was no longer depressed, but I still felt lonely and I still felt that sinking into the internet wouldn’t have been the worst of ideas.

It’s around this point where I would have watched Serial Experiments Lain. I had always been a fan of slower and more introspective shows, loving Eva when I had watched it that year as well, so Lain was right up my alley from the start.

Lain reflected so many of my thoughts and feelings at the time that it was almost scary. I felt disconnected from my body, I wanted to abandon it and live in the internet, and that’s a thing which quite literally happens in Lain. More than one person dies only to live on in the Wired. In our world, of course, that’s a fantasy. But there, it was real and in many ways, it seemed enviable. The show was moody and my aesthetic in so many ways. I adored the music, the color design, and the background art. It’s the kind of cyberpunk I loved the most at the time, the kind that is only different from our world in emphasis, not in form.

Lain herself appealed to me on a particularly interesting level. Like many anime girls I liked at the time — and to some extent, this continues — I both wanted her and wanted to be her. She was adorable in a way which was somewhat erotic to a 14 or 15-year-old me, but I also literally wanted to be like her. Not due to her status as a goddess, though I wouldn’t have passed that up. But her actual ability to live in the Wired is something I desired for myself. I wanted to be like many female characters at the time, something I would obviously realize later as connected to my gender, but this was true to a greater extent than usual for Lain. In some ways, Lain fittingly served as a goddess to me and my interest in her was akin to that of a religion.

But there was something that puzzled me about the series. The ultimate conclusions are that the body has value and that the line between the Wired and the real world should not be destroyed. I simply did not understand this perspective. Sure, I got the scene where Lain felt Arisu’s heart and saw some value in the body through that. But that was a crucial difference between me and Lain. We were both attracted to other people, specifically other girls. But Lain had Arisu, someone she loved. I had people I loved, but not romantically, not intimately, not the type of love that Lain feels for Arisu. I felt that I had nothing tying me to the real world, no reason not to blur the lines. And, as Lain says early in the show, the lines are already blurred. I still believe this today — the internet is simply a portion of the real world, not some separate entity. All that me of back then could think was “Why shouldn’t we knock down what little separates these two worlds, creating a better place for all us?”

Still, even though my own thoughts conflicted with some of the show’s conclusions, I was quite a fan of it. It simply reflected my own feelings of alienation and distortion too well to pass up. It was an important anime for coming to terms with my feelings and, if not totally understanding them, accepting them as both valid and worthy of further exploration.

My second watch would’ve been later in 2014. By this point, I had a friend or two in the real world who I felt meaningfully close to, who I could actually share things with. That feeling of alienation hadn’t totally disappeared, especially in regards to my body, which was still uncomfortable, but things were certainly improving. Still, the internet was the place I spent most of my free time, and the group of friends I had formed earlier was still a significant part of my life.

It was with them that I watched Serial Experiments Lain for the second time. Given that this was a group-watch, over Skype no less, I can’t say that I experienced it in the best of ways. A large portion of it was spent explaining the show to the others, who hadn’t yet seen it, a task which simultaneously improved my understanding while also hurting my ability to enjoy the show. Fortunately, the long stretches of little happening gave me ample time to explain, but this time I wasn’t given the chance to truly soak in the mood. We were talking about the show even during solemn scenes and basically just acting like kids. I suppose I’m lucky that this wasn’t my first watch, because otherwise, I may have never truly cared about the show.

Of course, I said at the very beginning that I’ve gotten something different out of Lain on every watch. Aside from simply understanding the ongoing events better, something which greatly helped my interpretation of the show, I came out of this watch with a few different ideas. First, I understood the show’s conclusions a bit more. I still preferred the internet at this point, of course, but I began to understand why many — and perhaps, one day, even myself — wouldn’t want to abandon the physical world and the body in order to live online.

Second, and perhaps even more importantly, I started to question the difference between the physical world and the internet even more deeply. In Lain, the Wired is literally a higher level of human understanding, the collective unconscious made conscious. The real internet is obviously not that. It’s no higher level. It’s simply the base level, the world as it is. Any ideas I’d had when I was younger, that it was a utopia, were gone. It was simply a region of the real world. A region I preferred, a region with a more beautiful landscape, certainly, but it was no more than that. At the end of the show, Lain ceases almost all interference, becoming an observer. The Wired needed no God, and it having one put it on an unnatural pedestal. And I, too, was putting the internet on a pedestal that only served to make me feel more miserable. Finally, I was able to abandon that.

My third watch would not come until the winter of 2017, my senior year of high school. As short as those three years can seem to me in retrospect, and as little of my life as they will hopefully make up, I managed to change a massive amount in that time. My relationships with those online friends slowly dwindled, to the point that I could only call them acquaintances at best, albeit ones who had changed my life a great deal. I still spent plenty of time online, but I didn’t really have friends there. I’ve always been more a lurker than a poster and I simply slipped back into that as time went on. I’d make a post here or there, watch a ton of youtube videos, but in-depth social interaction wasn’t something I searched for online.

At the same time, my life in the real world was improving drastically. I made more and more real, genuine friends who I could share a lot with, if not everything. That sense of alienation continued to dwindle and I didn’t feel uncomfortable in my social life anymore.

Similarly, the situation surrounding my body improved as well. Not that the effects of puberty magically reversed or anything. That is, unfortunately, not something that ever could’ve happened. But I finally figured out I was trans, discovering why it was that I had felt estranged from my body this whole time and firmly developing my ego identity at last. Just knowing what caused those feelings made them so much more bearable. Certainly, they still sucked, and the knowledge that it would be quite a while before I could start to transition wasn’t encouraging. But, and this is just me, not knowing what’s wrong is a hell of a lot worse than knowing.

With these thoughts, I watched Serial Experiments Lain for the third time. Once again, I saw it through a totally different lens. I have a blog post from that point which goes a bit more in-depth on my feelings at the time, though it’s worth repeating here. I now totally understand Lain and the show’s ultimate conclusion. Of course the physical world has real merit, of course it should be kept apart from, if connected to, the internet. The internet might be a region of the world, but it’s one which can be kept to itself. It’s important to understand that what happens online is very real, but that doesn’t make it a suitable replacement for the rest of the world.

It was obviously harder to connect to Lain this time. She was a bit too young for me to be attracted to her now, as well as a bit too young for me to really want to be her. Her feelings of detachment and depression didn’t resonate with me as strongly. I agreed with her final decision now, but the buildup to that decision, while still something I had felt in relatively recent memory, was not something I was actively feeling. The show simply wasn’t able to grab me on the same emotional level, because my life situation was so totally opposed to it. All my time wasn’t spent online anymore; I regularly got together with my friends and hung out. I no longer feared rumors and bullying for expressing my interests. I still saw it as a good show, certainly, and one which I held as an important part of my development, both as an otaku and as a person. But it was no longer my feelings personified. Perhaps it never could have been, given that I had finished Aria at this point, a show which had totally changed my outlook on life. Still, it was a bit of a shame, though I continued to hold the show in high regard.

And that brings me to now, my fourth watch so far. Given that it’s been less than a year since my previous viewing, it would be normal to expect that little has changed. But my life has seen massive shifts over the previous year and as I said, the key factor to one’s interpretation of Lain is their life situation when watching it.

At the beginning of 2017, I was a high school student, coasting by in the second half of senior year with the knowledge that I was past the hardest parts of school. I had a ton of friends, in multiple friend circles, and was reasonably well-liked while still being quite open about my hobbies.

Today, I rarely leave my house. I’ve moved across the country and I’m not in school right now. My current job is making these videos, and to do so I work full-time hours for part-time pay. Not that I’m complaining, of course. This is what I want to do. But things have changed a great deal. Now, all of my social interaction is online. Fortunately, the skill I gained at making friends in high school has carried over, and I now have a ton of friends online who I enjoy spending time with. I’m quite openly trans and have embraced every facet of myself. Not only do I not feel alienated anymore — I feel like I have, to some small degree, achieved self-actualization. There are challenges, certainly, but I’m quite pleased with where I’m at right now.

I still believe what I found out at the end of my third watch — that the physical world not only has value but in some ways is superior to the internet. But I’ve also realized that I was underselling the internet at that time. I was forgetting how much it had done for me, how easily it enables communication with like-minded individuals. It doesn’t need to be kept totally separate from the physical world. Instead, we merely need to accurately see it for what it is. Both worlds have their own merits and if we understand that then we can reconcile our feelings. I’ll never return to the point of wanting to abandon my body solely to live in the internet, but I think I was too hasty in going the other direction. I think Lain landed upon a similar point in the end, given that she still remains in the real world to an extent, even after erasing most traces of her existence.

On this watch, I still couldn’t fall in love with Lain as much as I was able to back on my first watch. And I peacefully accepted that. Some shows simply work the best when you watch them at a certain time. I’m happy to have seen Lain so many times, at so many different points in my life. Perhaps, in another 3 to 5 years, I’ll watch it again, and see it in a totally different light. It’ll probably never connect with me as deeply as it once did, assuming I manage to avoid that feeling of depression and alienation. But I can confidently say that yes, you do understand Lain differently on each watch. And that’s a good thing. A show which gives the exact same reaction every time wouldn’t be worth much and it definitely wouldn’t be something I think about all that often.

I think about Lain a lot, and I’ve seen it more times than any other anime, despite the fact that it’s hardly a favorite. But it’s a show which helped me to accept my feelings about my alienation, my dysphoria, and my sexuality. It’s a series which did a lot for me and to some extent I can blame it for my still-existing addiction to infornography. So the only thing I can do for it now is to pay my respects to a series which changed my life. Hopefully this piece helps to do that. It was more about me than Lain, but I think Lain is a cipher for all of us. I could never write about it any other way. Let’s all find works which help to validate us, and let’s all love Lain.

One thought on “[Script] Alienation, Depression, and Dysphoria – Serial Experiments Lain

  1. Good job on the article. Lain is such a complex and cerebral series. It may not be my favorite work involving Yoshitoshi ABe, but it’s still really good and influential. That’s one series I should give another watch to ever since I got into blogging.

    Liked by 1 person

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