Twenty-two years ago, an obscure anime known as Serial Experiments Lain (SEL) was released. Even to this day, in 2020, I view it as an anime masterpiece of the psychological genre. This review will be brief, examining the five qualities which determine my rating of the series. These are visuals, audio, characters, story, and personal enjoyment. In a separate post, I will offer much more detail about my thoughts on this show, using a thematic analysis. Let’s begin.
SEL was made in 1998. By today’s standards, the visuals are poor. But for that time, the art and animation were excellent. Granted, I’m not great at identifying good art, but I enjoy the appearance and style of this anime even today. I’ve always been fond of this older style, which is also seen in anime favorites like Kino’s journey and Haibane Renmei.
The character designs in SEL are colored realistically and bit muted, but this suits the darker tone of the show. There’s a lot of creativity seen in “trippy” visuals, like when mysterious smoke arises from Lain’s hands in episode one. Footage of telephone poles, trains, and Lain’s neighborhood are fascinating, with unique colors, shading, and lighting. Sometimes, everything seems dull, showing Lain’s lack of interest in the world. Other times, there are strangely colored and textured shadows, which shows the abnormalities going on. Face expressions are things I pay attention to, and the ones in SEL are good. All in all, the visuals are excellent.
SEL is a story about a girl who slowly realizes her identity, both as a human individual and as an inhuman entity with great powers. It’s a character piece, also containing social commentary and many fascinating elements of psychology and philosophy. The plot is not very structured, nor is it easy to make sense of on the first watch. The focus of the show is more on motifs and ideas. The themes explored are so good and profound that it raises my rating of the story category immensely. Also, the tone of the series is very consistent even with a meandering plot. This is another thing that raises my opinion.
One example of the awkwardness of the structure is that one episode about Lain’s sister. For an entire episode, the character focus shifts, and the meaning is not completely clear to me even after several re-watches. It would have been better to develop the sister’s arc more steadily through the episodes, and to give more hints about why she is being targeted.
Something that can be divisive is the ending of SEL. There are those who need a completely happy ending to feel satisfied after such a dark and complex story. However, I think the ending fits perfectly. It’s in keeping with what kind of person Lain is and what she learned about the value of human lives and bodies. The only fault is that it’s a bit rushed. To restate, despite some flaws, the story in SEL is magnificent because of the many themes and topics explored.
The sound aspect in SEL is quite unique. There aren’t even that many musical scores. Most of it is made up of ambient yet eerie sounds, such as slight zapping noises, electric buzzing, wind, and muted voices. The voice-acting takes the forefront over music. It’s not especially amazing, at least at first, before you know a little something about voice-acting. It sounds incredibly natural. It’s awkward sometimes in the same way natural conversation can be. It’s dramatic when needed, but not over-the-top. The voices sound like real, ordinary people, and yet somehow distinct. Perhaps they are more distinct exactly because of the lack of powerful music. I love this one-of-a-kind audio style and I would give my left kidney to see it redone in some modern anime.
The reason I rate the sound dimension as 9 rather than 8 is simply because of the amazing opening song, “Duvet.” It’s just stunning. I cannot find the words to describe how beautiful and perfect this song truly is. When I listen to it, it’s like entering an alien realm of thought and feeling. It’s astonishingly gorgeous and you should look it up on YouTube right away.
Note that SEL is mostly about one character. So most of the high score I gave for this category is due to the excellent development and close inspection of Lain. She is a subtle character, and very quiet, with unusually strong curiosity and a deep, unspoken need to connect to others. The way she changes and forms her opinions throughout the show is fantastic. As for the supporting characters, such as Arisu and Mr. Iwakura, are handled reasonably well. Insights into them are done through short scenes with limited dialogue, but the personalities and motivations of these characters still comes through.
Personal Enjoyment: 10
SEL is a highly significant anime to me personally, and it was one of the first ten or so anime that I ever watched. My enjoyment of this production runs deep. With some anime, the enjoyment category is about happiness, inspiration, and amusement. But with SEL, it’s more of a sober appreciation of how thoughtful it made me and how excellently the themes are presented. It’s also interesting to me spend time coming up with interpretations and theories of the aspects that are left to viewer imagination.
There is very little SEL could have done to make me enjoy it more. Identity is a favorite subject of mine in psychology and fiction. I’m interested in the many ideas of “god” and the supernatural that different people offer. Another thing I enjoyed was the emotional connection between Lain and Arisu, as their friendship evolves and devolves in various ways. Arisu is the unsung hero of the show, because she’s the only one who reaches out to Lain in her worst moments. I also have a great appreciation for the bittersweet ending of the show.
That’s enough example for now. Let’s look at the the overall score for SEL. It’s decided by taking the average of the five categories I discussed.
Overall Score: 9.0/10.0 (Magnificent)
This anime will always be a masterpiece to me, even without a perfect score. Thanks a ton for reading and I hope you decide to check out the weird and profound Serial Experiments Lain.
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