The Call of Lain: Serial Experiments Lain Part 1

As I explained in the previous article, in this series I’ve decided to take a slightly unorthodox approach- instead of a strict frame-by-frame reading of the episodes themselves, I’ll approach the series by tackling the ideas presented in the show, whether those ideas are metatextual in nature or simply influential. My hope is that this will prove more interesting and useful to readers. 

The Call of Lain: H. P. Lovecraft and Existential Horror

Ok, I know I said that the author is dead last time, and to be fair I do get the impression that SEL is meant to be experienced firsthand devoid of preconceptions in the manner of other postmodernist work- with the text acting as a cipher for the viewer experience, as opposed to arbitrating it. Still, I’m from the school of film criticism that calls for holistic assessments- ultimately, the viewer experience might be an important (perhaps even the most important) aspect of review, but first-hand accounts of authorial intent can be immensely helpful in framing the work in a proper context.

As such, I do think it would be useful to go over the influences on Chiaki J. Konaka, the scriptwriter for SEL, and how that in turn influenced the show.

So, one of the first things that jumps out to viewers in the first few episodes is that SEL drips with atmosphere. The direction, shot framing, sound design, character design and even the low budget minimalistic animation all combine together to create an atmosphere of dread and suspense. Lain isn’t shot like a cyberpunk techno-thriller like Akira or Ghost in the Shell, despite similar subject matter- if anything, Lain shares more in common cinematographically with Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue. The reason why SEL looks a lot like a psychological horror movie is simply because scriptwriter Chiaki J. Konaka wrote horror stories, and co-opted the aesthetic to suit his own purposes for the show.

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In particular, he wrote horror stories directly inspired by the works of one Howard Phillips Lovecraft– considered by many to be the father of modern horror.

(Konaka also openly admits that he’s a fan of Lovecraft, and coincidentally that is also why Digimon Tamers, which Konaka worked on, is widely considered one of the best entries in that franchise- it heavily played on Lovecraftian themes. Source)

Now, the debt modern pop-culture owes Lovecraft can’t be understated: without Lovecraft we wouldn’t have Stephen King or Ridley Scott’s Alien or Mike Mignola’s Hellboy or True Detective Season 1 (the good season). And, well, no Serial Experiments Lain either. A cursory examination of some of the characteristics of Lovecraft’s work reveals his influence.

(As an aside, I’m making these points strictly in relation to SEL- while it might be informative to highlight the intense xenophobia in some of Lovecraft’s works, by-and-large I do not deem his anti-miscegenation stance relevant to any discussion of Lain- the show doesn’t seem to make any commentary about race at all, and Konaka does not seem to draw on those themes.)

1) Information as a Vehicle for Horror

Horror, by necessity, needs to be atmospheric- it is relatively easy to create a scary story about a monster in a dark castle at night, rather than about one good-naturedly gamboling about in the daytime: in the light of day the monster is rendered mundane, but the shadows of night cloak the creature in potential menace. (See? Even my vocabulary adjusts for the difference in tone.) The great Gothic Horror writers (Stoker, Shelley, Poe, et al) all understood this, which is why the fog shrouded moor and the decrepit mansion feature as recurring motifs from the stories of that style.

Lovecraft understood this, too- in fact, many of his early works could be considered extremely derivative of Edgar Allen Poe. But Lovecraft had the benefit of being born later in history, at a time where it was soon becoming clear that the promises that industrialization made to bring the light of reason to all the dark corners of the earth might, in fact, do more harm than good.

Where Lovecraft innovates is in his application of some age old techniques to Gothic Horror: the unreliable narrator, the heavy emphasis on description, the focus on the weird or macabre- with some thoroughly modern ideas such as, most notably, the use of fictional “found text” embedded within the narrative. You can see a notable example of his style of writing here, in The Call of Cthulhu, perhaps his most famous work.

What results from this shift in style- from the Gothic to the Modern- is that Lovecraft’s stories become uniquely obsessed with information. Information is withheld or dispensed to the reader when it makes the most dramatic sense; and it is the small details, small packets of information- a strange change in someone’s voice, a misplaced fossil, an errant newspaper report- that is used to build dread. These small packets- bits, if you were- are assembled by the reader into a picture that might not add up; or worse still, reveal things that are not as they should be.

What’s more, this obsession with information is not a good thing- while Van Helsing hunted Dracula by scientifically pursuing knowledge to better fight his enemy, Lovecraft’s hapless protagonists stumble upon information they are powerless to act upon, and only bring ruin and disaster upon themselves when they try to pursue the truth. In Lovecraft’s stories, the light of reason often reveals dangerous things better left in the dark- information is power, yes, but it is power so far beyond human control that it drives to madness all who gain it.

As a show that deals with information technology, I don’t think it should come as any surprise that Konaka chose this Lovecraftian ethos as a manner of discourse; by framing information technology as a Promethean fire that can burn its user- as something that is at best neutral to human endeavour, it allows him to chart a path between the blind faith in technology of Astroboy and the utter post-apocalyptic cynicism of Akira.

What it comes down to is that information can be an inherently terrifying thing- knowing something might mean learning some unsettling truth about the world, but not knowing something could be even worse, and the unparalleled speed and spread of information in the modern world might be something we just should be as equally cautious about as celebratory.

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This focus on the horror of information has an interesting side effect; it means that even as the show later deals with information technology by drawing on the imagery and ideas of Gibsonian Cyberpunk, it is still tonally consistent. There’s no dissonance between receiving the spooky emails from a dead girl to the sinister corporate backed hacker conspiracies, and when the show tackles more existentialist questions it is all transitions very naturally around this central idea of information.

2) The Internalisation of Horror

In the Gothic tradition, the antagonist is usually a malevolent otherworldly horror- Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster (a tragic figure for sure, but definitely an other), Poe’s bedsheet Ghost- these are all others that have designs upon humans. The horror is external to the reader: the monstrosity and terror of these figures stems from what they represent (their symbology; or semiotics), rather than from what they actually are- Dracula is scary because he represents a sexual predator, rather than because he’s a walking corpse that drinks blood.

In the 1920s, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud were pioneering the then nascent science of psychology and psychoanalysis (these two guys are really important- well, to the show, in particular. SEL heavily utilises modern psychological theory, that they pretty much single-handedly built. I’ll probably come back to them later in this series).

You might say that Lovecraft took an interest in psychology, and the work of Jung and Freud- he saw both his parents committed to the same asylum (he lost his father to syphilis and his mother to hysteria). The fate of his parents affected him greatly, and is reflected in his writings. Madness and hysteria are primary concerns of his protagonists- so much so that the stereotypical Lovecraftian tale is one of a descent into madness, as the protagonist accrues more and more information that should have been left well enough alone.

Yes, monsters exist in Lovecraft’s stories- but they are indifferent, uncaring things, hostile perhaps but not actively malevolent. Rather, it’s the implications of the monster’s existence that is horrific- the creatures are so powerful that they defy the laws of physics and warp the very fabric of reality; and that render human endeavour entirely meaningless in the face of such power. Combat is entirely out of the question, and in the face of such nihilistic uncaring power the only recourse is madness.

It is this internalisation of horror that marks the shift from the Gothic tradition to more Modern forms of Horror literature- the movement from the horror of an external threat to the entirely internal horror of realisation. The reader, through the vicarious experiences of the characters in the narrative, experiences that internal terror firsthand- often in conjunction with the characters as the narrative feeds information to the reader. That this internalisation of the narrative goes hand-in-hand with the manner information is distributed in these stories should not be surprising because it allows for narrative techniques that can heighten feelings of tension or fear.

In SEL, the story is almost entirely told from Lain’s point of view, with the occasional perspective change to her sister Mika and Alice. It’s framed as a journey to find information- Lain starts by looking at Chisa’s e-mail, and soon she’s tangled up in cryptic events and sinister conspiracies as the information she finds lead to more questions than answers. Unpacking the central mysteries of the show is a largely internal exercise for the viewer, who is using the PoV characters as proxies- the show very rarely reveals details in a straight-forward manner. However it’s a testament to Konaka’s skill as a writer that the entire process feels remarkably organic- rather than instilling tension through a narrative that feels artificially constructed to dispense information, that tension comes about naturally just from watching characters with limited perspectives scramble to try and make sense of their terrifyingly disjointed and looming world.

3) Cosmic Horror

As a sort of elaborate in-joke, Lovecraft established a fictional mythology for his stories- a pantheon of uncaring gods that were to usher mankind into the End Times “when the stars were right”. (The idea of mythology is significant to SEL, but that will be covered at a later time, when we talk about religion.)

One of the more interesting ideas associated with his pantheon is that they resides in higher dimensions among non-Euclidean geometry. As such, they were free from the constraints of time and space, and it was only by cosmic happenstance that they are locked away at the moment and not loose upon the world. Any time a hapless Lovecraftian protagonist encounters or accidentally frees one, it is the sheer enormity of the implications of the creature’s existence that drives people insane,

As such, there’s no clearer example of Konaka’s Lovecraftian inspiration than in the last episode of SEL: Eiri Masami manifests for the final confrontation with Lain and Alice from another dimension by coalescing out of the Wired the way a 4th dimensional object might theoretically manifest in the third dimension, and as a slimy tentacled monster with many eyes to boot. Alice, already stressed and confused from her experience with Lain altering people’s memories, is shaken by the experience- her sanity shattered by the terrible implications, the terrible information, of Masami’s and Lain’s existence overloading her neuro-processor to the point where she’s rendered comatose. And seeing Alice suffer from this information overload serves as the impetus for Lain’s final decision.

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Probably what is most important about Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones is that they are not malevolent in the traditional sense- rather they are merely harbingers of an apocalypse that will occur as a matter of course; an apathetic Ragnarok borne on waves of nihilism. Ultimately it is this essential view of the insignificance of man, born of his life experiences, that drove Lovecraft’s work. In the face of the cosmos, of the infinity of higher dimensions and the depths of space, man’s existence is an insignificant flicker of a candle, safely happy in ignorance but fragile and prone to crumbling when confronted with this the meaningless of his existence.

This is where Konaka and SEL diverge the most from Lovecraft’s influence: while the show does use the elements of cosmic horror such as the allusions to sanity destroying knowledge beyond the ken of human understanding and the existence of beings far more powerful than humanity, SEL doesn’t necessarily prescribe the nihilistic worldview so integral to Lovecraft’s work. It does question the value and meaning of life by throwing out alternate viewpoints and constantly getting the viewer to question the information presented in the show- that assessment/reassessment by the viewer as the show proceeds forms the real core of the story, and is the primary method the show engages with its audience. There are positions the show presents that could certainly be construed as nihilistic, true- Lain likens herself to a program and everyone else as applications in some grand simulation, but at the same time there are positions the show presents that are incredibly humanistic too- Alice puts Lain’s hand on her heart, and they just feel her heartbeat for a while in silence. It is that juxtaposition that makes the show conducive to interpretation and dialogue, and it is that unique ambiguous balance between nihilism and humanism that really sets this story apart.

Cool, that should wrap up this article- if you want to learn more about ol’ Howie P., there’s an excellent documentary here, and the Dead Authors Podcast has a wonderful skit skewering him satirically that should offer more insight into his strengths and failings as both a writer and person.

Next time we’re gonna look at Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis and the psychology of Lain.

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