Serial Experiments Lain: Peeling Back Layers of Queerness Through Y2K Technology

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<i>Serial Experiments Lain</i>: Peeling Back Layers of Queerness Through Y2K Technology

Animation, unlike traditional forms of film or TV, allows for complete abstraction. Even in popular anime, like Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon, time contorts around long power-up sequences and dramatic, fast-talking banter in the heat of battle. A friend of mine affectionately refers to this phenomenon as “Jojo Time” in reference to Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure,, which famously portrayed a final battle that took place over just a few minutes in a 4-part finale.

As you stray further into the world of anime, you’ll find more short-form, experimental series that are not meant for a wide audience. Directors such as Masaaki Yuasa, Kunihiko Ikuhara and Satoshi Kon are well-known for their experimentations with the medium with keen interests in portraying human experience through conceptual means. Many of these series were inaccessible outside of importing and dedicated fan communities up until the early 2000s. While, to a degree, the anime craze had caught on outside of Japan, only a select few shows aired on Western networks and even fewer were available on VHS.

Around the time of the internet’s inception, groups known as fansubbers began making and distributing bootleg tapes with their own translations. Later, these versions would be uploaded online—given the amount of times these versions would be ripped and pasted from tapes, much of the original fidelity was lost, and fansubbers were often amateur diehards who wanted to share something they were passionate about. It was a thankless undertaking, but many—like myself—were mystified by the inaccessible nature many of these shows took on. Though unintentional, it only serves to heighten the mystique of shows like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Revolutionary Girl Utena. These fansub legacies still follow them to this day.

Growing up during the advent of streaming, I found myself in these anime I couldn’t understand, in the feelings of these protagonists whose emotions swirled and shifted. Often, emotions were solely communicated through surreal flourishes of rose petals, darkening, grotesque facial expressions, and acts of affirming violence. Sometimes these protagonists hurt themselves. These shows had a subconscious effect on my queer identity, whether positive or not, and continue to mean a lot to LGBT viewers because of their non-representational forms of storytelling. Today, I’d like to look at one such example, Yasuyuki Ueda’s Serial Experiments Lain, which not only mirrors my experience growing up as a queer kid but as a person who came of age during the digital revolution.

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LAYER 01: W[E]IRD

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Alone in her room, Lain Iwakura stares at the vacuous blackness of her computer monitor. At home, I sit cross-legged at our family computer, situated so it is facing my dad’s work computer against the opposite wall, leaning in as Lain activates her e-mail for the first time. The quality of the video is poor—I’m watching Serial Experiments Lain for the first time on a bootleg website on terrible broadband, the only option available in my rural, South Georgia hometown to this day.

Technology has always had a queer history. Many teens who reached adolescence in the aughts, like myself, turned to cyberspaces as a mother-hub for communities, niche hobbies, and escapism. During this time, while internet users were still developing a global language, children and teens were easily exploited by other alienated people who crept to the farthest reaches of the web as a haven. There were many times when I nonchalantly shared my age and name with self-identified adults—adults who I would IM daily and form invisible bonds with. We never shared photos of ourselves and, as time went on, we would all begin using fake names, something later referred to as a “display name” or an online “handle.”

Lain’s first encounter with someone online wasn’t a stranger. Instead, it was a message from a dead classmate who committed suicide just days before their correspondence. Several of Lain’s peers received the same message, but Lain was the only one to approach it coldly, without panic—with almost dissociative precision. Soon we see her having multiple conversations with many people at once. Their conversations are intense and intimate, but Lain remains coolly detached. They trade secrets but also transfer emotional baggage—these become inextricable from one another.

In his book Simulacra and Simulation, post-structuralist Jean Baudrillard describes simulations as “a real without origin or reality” or a “hyperreal.” In the Wired, a heightened version of the internet that serves as a virtual reality, Lain can experiment in a non-referential world, a playground untethered from the material, emotionally downplayed offline world. Her personality can warp to the point of hyperbole, and exist as many different selves to different people—to the point that her parallel personalities are pointed out as “total opposites.”

Lain is afraid of the Wired, but finds its allure intoxicating. Irresistible. Web literacy at the turn of the millennium often indicated a disconnect between a person and their peers—they were aware of so much more, had sifted through leagues of information of which the human brain had little capacity to account for. It’s estimated that our brains can store “about a billion bits of data.” What happens when we reach saturation, and who is equipped to push their mind to the brink? It might result in an intense feeling of alienation, or even notions of grandiloquence. Ultimately, optimizing our neurons to their maximum load detracts from our ability to participate in mainstream society and, at times, leads to pathologization from those who meld to the analog world with ease.

The American Psychiatric Association estimates that queer people are more than twice as likely to develop mental health disorders over the course of their lifetime, with extreme odds for transgender individuals. This isn’t because the mere existence of queerness is a form of mental illness but because of the weight queer people carry with them—psychological distress easily morphs into physiological illness. The internet, then, acts as a basin for cathartic relief, but can also further fracture the fragile identities of marginalized youths. It’s what happens when Lain’s disaffected walks home climax with intense paranoia of surveillance, of being trailed by tall, imposing men in black suits. It’s what happens when she questions her family’s existence at its structural root.

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LAYER 02: WIR[E]D

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If we’re to understand queerness and heterosexuality as both constructed identities, we have to understand them as binary forces. In Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, he points out that discourses on sexuality are inherently reactive, “governed by the endeavor to expel from reality the forms of sexuality… that were not amenable to the strict economy of reproduction… to constitute a sexuality that is economically useful and politically conservative.” Lain is more readily able to transgress the boundary between material reality and the deconstructed online world to the point that the line of delineation blurs.

However, once Lain crosses, she can no longer return to her previous life. Something similar happens to those with aberrant (in a hegemonic world) gender presentation or sexual behaviors once they begin questioning reality’s seemingly fundamental tenets, and the discourse, as Foucault points out, will pendulously rally against them through legal means, state-sanctioned violence, and ostracizing language. Similarly, the state tries to co-opt the exploitable aspects of the Wired for oppressive gain—instead of a distinct world with a portal in-between, the state wants to police the Wired so it might be a “sub-system reinforcing the real world.” This view of the Wired is reductive, given it’s a perfect parallel—if not functionally superior—to the real world it spawned. But it speaks a different language and threatens the status quo of the world outside.

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Serial Experiments Lain, then, communicates queerness through an absence of words. Queer bodies present an instinctual form of communication which are not represented in rigid verbal language. It’s a form so ancient that it endures and evolves quicker than popular culture. For marginalized people at the turn of the millennia, relationships were fickle, easily decimated by fragile heterosexism. Rumors lead to threats of outing, endangering our connections to our friends, families, and our selfhood. And, like Lain cleverly intuits through an analogy of conspiracies, once a rumor is rallied behind it begins menacing ideas of global truth and of reality. We are treated in accordance to how we are perceived. And for many queer young adults without a community, they will believe these prejudices as true, that they have somehow violated a cardinal iniquity. We may unwittingly incorporate this guilt into our identity.

No matter how deep Lain dives into the Wired, her physical form leaves behind a record in material reality. Her body becomes her most important possession—it’s proof of her relationships, evidence of her struggles. Our daily lives are inescapable. Even when we retreat online, where we may hold immeasurable influence, our bodies remain vulnerable targets. Mass communcation, then, allows for legacies of queer history, stories, and resources to be neatly filed and curated. There’s affirming strength in the dedication the Wired exhibits for absorbing even minor information on the most invisible populations of humanity. And, most importantly, Lain proves there is no one truth to reality—between the gulf of mind and body, many stories flow.



Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire

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