The Shape of "Serial Experiments Lain"

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The rejected anthropology master’s thesis of the author Kurt Vonnegut posited that all stories could be plotted on a two-dimensional graph, with two axes: the G-I axis and the B-E axis[1]. One extreme of the G-I axis is “good fortune”; the other extreme is “ill fortune”. By the same logic, the B-E axis lies between “beginning” and “ending”[2].

Let us begin by drawing the two axes. Draw a sideways T, making the vertical axis the G-I axis, and the horizontal axis the B-E axis. We will call the intersection of the B-E and the G-I axes “Normality”. Let us start the plot at Normality.

Let us define “good” and “ill fortune” as those of Lain[3]. And let us define happiness as inherently implying “good fortune”[4].

We first see Lain walking to school (on strange ground!), taking the train[5], and arriving at school. Her only friend, Alice, tells her about Chisa’s suicide, and berates her about not checking her email regularly[6].

When Lain gets home, the first thing she does is turn on her computer, to find a message from Chisa. They exchange a few words. We see that Lain is expressionless—she is simply curious[7]. In view of the later circumstances, however, I would definitely move the plot below Normality towards Ill-Fortune. Loss of control over one’s personal life is not a pleasant thing for anyone to experience, least of all when it is caused by a person who is supposed to be dead.

The next day, Lain is sitting in English class when she drifts away. She sees the words on the blackboard become “Come to the Wired quickly,” and is teleported to a railway crossing where she is unable to prevent a four-eyed person with long hair from killing themselves on the track. She is startled by her teacher, who catches her crying and sweating, no doubt having fallen asleep in class. Lower the plot, as the combination of the nightmare and the rude awakening afterwards would cause undesirable emotional disturbance (as well as off-screen untoward consequences) in Lain.

On her way to school the day after that, she encounters Alice alongside Reika and Juri. Reika mentions that they saw a girl like Lain in a club called Cyberia the previous day. Alice proposes offhand that it would be good to invite Lain to go to Cyberia with them that night. This is bound to raise a little bit of excitement in every person, if for nothing else, then for the novelty of it. Raise it to just below the B-E axis.

Lain’s father helps to set up her new NAVI of which the delivery boy had previously expressed admiration. Raise it above the B-E axis, because one always feels exhilaration when one has something unfamiliar to explore, as a tourist has in a new city.

When Lain arrives at Cyberia, the girls tease her for not wearing “grown-up” clothes[8]. Immediately after, the sound of glass shattering is heard, and Juri falls after a second gunshot[9]. As Reika struggles to carry Juri, Alice rushes to help Lain. Thinking that Lain is immobilized by terror, Alice tries to pull Lain away. Instead, Lain confronts the shooter, says “Everyone is connected,” and he shoots himself[10]. I would raise the plot, because Lain has gained power, which she can use to make herself happy. While this power may later prove disastrous, it is only when Lain discovers it that it, so to speak “goes south”.

The police detain and interrogate Lain, but upon finding that Lain is too shaken to offer any useful information, they call her house and allow her to go home.

The next morning she wakes up having overslept. When she gets to school, she finds that the whole school is curious about Reika, Alice, and Juri because they witnessed the incident in Cyberia. Lain opens her locker, but is accosted by Juri, who spies an envelope in the locker. Without asking Lain, Juri opens the envelope and what seems like a computer chip falls out. She is disinterested (she was expecting a love note) and walks away.

That evening, Lain asks her father if he knows what the chip is. He does not, although Lain believes he does and presses him about it. Lain goes to Cyberia, where some children tell her that it is a very powerful processor that will allow full access to the Wired for every device to which it is mounted. Raise the plot.

After a scene showing a person running from a little girl, we once again see Lain in her room. She has upgraded her computer into an intricate system with multiple monitors. She receives a new message from her father. He tells her that he has asked some of his colleagues about the chip, and gives her instructions as to how to install it. Lain also investigates a game that children have been playing, and in the process is warned about the dangers of letting the Wired become mixed up with the real world.

We see two dots on Lain’s face. Suspicious, Lain gets up and looks out the window, seeing two people with laser pointer headsets near a car. She shouts “Go away”. Their headsets break and they are pushed away by the force, and they drive away crestfallen. Raise the plot.

Lain hears someone going on a monologue about how humans have ceased to evolve. When asked who he is, he replies “I am God.” Lain is stunned. Later, Lain is sitting in her room. She asks a doll opposite her to “tell me a story I don’t know.” The doll responds with “I can’t do that because something you don’t know about is something that doesn’t exist”. Lain insists, so the doll says “an event cannot happen without a prophecy.” When Lain asks who makes prophecies, the screen fades to black[11].

As Mika (Lain’s sister) walks down a street, she sees Lain’s face projected onto a giant video screen. Shortly after, she sees Lain standing alone in the street with cars swerving to avoid her[12]. The next day Lain is told of the incident by her classmates; she cannot remember it[13]. Perhaps here is the point where the trend towards “good fortune” reverses, so lower the plot.

Lain sees a boy with his arms raised toward the sky. She thinks nothing of it, but after school that day when Lain is out shopping with her friends the boys reappear. The clouds also part to reveal a naked figure of Lain[14]. At this point, Lain ought to realize that her powers are now beyond her control, so lower the plot[15].

Lain connects to the Wired. As she is still looking for information on the kids’ game, a solitary, giggling mouth pops up next to her. Lain refers to him as “Cheshire Cat”. The Cheshire Cat tells her that the game was invented by a Professor Hodgeson, and suggests she see him. When Lain sees Professor Hodgeson, he is lying on a reclining chair in a Romanesque villa facing clouds. He is evasive at first, but when pressed admits that it was part of an experiment to harness children’s supernatural power, and he expresses indifference towards the fate of the children involved. When Lain screams “That’s enough”, he vanishes from view—both from the real world and the Wired. Lower the plot until it touches the B-E axis. Lain should realize by now that the Wired is not all pink-frosted cupcakes and unicorns.

When she finally retires from the Wired into the safety of her own computer system, she sees two laser dots—the men in black are back! Determined to remove them once and for all, she goes outside, but they simply say “Get down”. After that, her computer system explodes. Before Lain can accuse them of having done it, they say “It wasn’t us. It was the Knights,” before silently driving away as always. Lower the plot below the B-E axis. Lain is now a target for the Knights, as they see her as a threat.

Lain climbs to the rooftop of her school, and is spacing out looking outside, when Alice comes to her. Alice apologizes for making her uncomfortable, and Lain thanks her for caring and says that she is not. Raise the plot, as Lain has seen that her one true friend still cares for her.

When Lain walks home from school that day, she is surprised to see the black car still parked in the street in front of her house. The men in black step out of the car and invite her to come with them. Although they claim that “this is a request,” their blithe tone indicates otherwise. She is taken to some sort of research laboratory, so she can help a worker fix their computer, which she does easily. They ask her a few questions about her background[16]. She cannot answer those, grows frustrated, and shoves her way out of the room. Raise the plot.

At home, Lain tries to talk about that to her parents, but they aren’t interested. Rumors are also flying around campus about Alice being in love with a teacher. Lain accesses the Wired in class[17]. When she returns, she finds that both her classmates and her teacher are watching her, a la Inception. This is not because she has been accessing the Wired in class, but because the words “Lain is a peeping tom” are all over the Wired. Lower the plot.

After that, “evil Lain” is revealed to be the culprit that spread the rumors. The “wired” Lain at one point has a wrestling match with “evil Lain”. Since they are equal, neither can defeat the other. “Wired Lain” pulls out her trump card: she erases everyone’s memories of the rumors. But none of it matters for our purposes, as we have defined Lain as “real-world” Lain.

When all is said and done, Lain has disappeared from everyone’s memories[18]. She is unable to interact with her friends. “Evil Lain” walks up to her, giggling at the tragedy which she has brought upon herself. A duplicate Lain goes to Alice and her friends, and seems to be happy with them. Lower the plot.

Lain goes to Cyberia. The DJ there tells Lain she left something there yesterday[19]. It turns out to be a chip[20]. Lain asks some children what the chip is, and convince a young boy to go home with her. Once there, Lain plays some music that hypnotizes him into speaking the truth, but he genuinely does not know since he is not a full member of the Knights. When he is about to leave, he suddenly kisses Lain full on the lips. Lower the plot[21].

Lain goes outside. She looks up, and sees Eiri Masami, the God of the Wired, in the flesh. He has been stitched together with tape[22], because he committed suicide by lying on a railway track, and letting a train run over him. Eiri claims that objectively there is no god, but anyone who can affect the Wired and has believers is a god in the Wired[23]

Lain goes to school, where her teacher orders them to stand up and bow[24]. But there is no chair or desk in her place, and when the teacher passes out the test she passes it straight through her. Lain is surprised[25]. Alice turns and whispers to her, “the real world doesn’t need you.” Lower the plot. Lain is saddened. When she gets home, her family is gone. Her father comes in and all but reveals the fact that he was not her real father. Bidding her farewell and wishing her good luck in the Wired, he departs. Lower the plot.

Outside, the sky is multicolored and crisscrossed with wires. Voices emanate from the sky, all addressed to Lain. Raise the plot. The Wired (represented by the wires) is her oyster. In an empty Cyberia, (presumably busted by a police raid because of controlled substances) Lain somehow releases the information of all members of the Knights, and they are purged on the orders of an unknown employer, two of whose agents are the men in black. The men in black pay a visit to Lain. They do not kill her, both because they believe she is under the protection of God, and because they love Lain[26]. Raise the plot (somewhat).

Lain is faced with Eiri Masami after she leaves her house. Eiri Masami claims that she was an artificially created organism. Lain refutes all of his allegations with a simple and effective “Lie”. When Eiri continues to demand Lain “abandon the flesh”, she roars at him, literally pushing him away. Lower the plot.

After Lain reviews all the events of the previous episodes, Eiri Masami once again tells her that “you are software, not hardware,” and that she is an .exe file given a living body. When she is walking down the street, Chisa (the girl that killed herself kickstarting the events of the series) comes to her. Lain understands her. Eiri Masami hands her a laser pistol and tells her to kill herself with it so she can finally abandon the flesh. Lain refuses. Lower the plot.

Lain appears in Alice’s room, giggling. Lain says she has many forms and that a different form of her spread the rumors that she was in love with a teacher. She also concedes that Alice is unlikely to believe this, but she is telling the truth. Lower the plot. Off-screen, she erases all memories everyone has of this rumor, except Alice’s[27]. Raise the plot by half as much as it was lowered.

While Alice is talking with her friends, Lain makes what she did clear (if she didn’t make it clear enough by smiling) by sending “You can erase unpleasant memories”. Also, Lain explains that “the many versions of herself” were simply perceptions of herself by many people. After that, a television reporter repeats “Let’s all love Lain” over and over again. Alice comes to Lain’s house. It is in a mess, but she makes it up the stairs to Lain’s room. Lain emerges sleep deprived and bound in computer wire. Alice tries to remonstrate with Lain and ask her why she only kept Alice’s memories of the rumors. Drastically lower the plot. Lain goes on to say that everyone is a program, and they don’t need their flesh. Alice grabs Lain’s wrists, and remarks on how nervously their hearts are beating. They laugh. Dramatically raise the plot. But Eiri Masami busts in, invisible and inaudible to Alice. He says that since he created Lain, he is all-powerful over her. Lain seems to mock him for giving someone else a body while giving up his own. This provokes Eiri enough. He forms into a purple tentacled monster and tries to strangle Lain and Alice. Heavily lower the plot. But he tips over too many parts of Lain’s computer, so they fall over and crush him. Lain and Alice scramble out by the skin of their teeth. Greatly raise the plot.

After Lain and Alice are saved from the purple tentacled monster, Lain apologizes for all she has done to Alice. She resets the world without her. Lower the plot to rock bottom[28]. She speaks with another version of herself. Now Lain is a pure observer[29].

Lain speaks with her father. He says “Lain, you don’t need to wear that anymore,” meaning the bear pajamas. He says “Next time I’ll make some good black tea.” The tea party adjourns sine die without any food or drink being served[30]. Raise the plot to the B-E axis.

Lain visits Alice. She has now become an adult. Alice recognizes her, though she cannot remember from where. Lain comments “I can see you anytime.” She follows through with “I will always be with you. Always,” ending the series[31].

How can the plot we have drawn be best described? It does not neatly conform to any of the eight standard shapes of stories, befitting its status as an avant-garde anime. At the beginning it resembles the “Man in Hole” shape, while later it starts to seem like the “Cinderella” shape. By the end we have drastic changes in Good- and Ill-Fortune[32]

  1. This would do for literature what Descartes did for algebra, collapsing the study of stories into the study of the mathematical properties of their shapes, as Descartes merged algebra and geometry by collapsing the study of shapes into the study of their functions, and by collapsing the study of functions into the study of their shapes.
  2. Note that this is different from the “plot arc” or “diagram” commonly taught in elementary literature classes: the “plot arc” merely measures the speed and excitement of the action, while the shape of a story measures the good and ill fortune of its (main) characters.
  3. Inquisitive readers (spoiler alert!) might ask which version of Lain we are using. This is a completely reasonable question to ask, as a big part of the series focuses on the complex interplay between the different personalities of Lain. But since we are expected to view the world from her perspective, we will use the timid “real-world” Lain.
  4. It naturally follows that its loss, or the danger of its loss, is “ill fortune”. Also, the converse is not necessarily true. For that reason, the first few minutes of Layer 1 (depicting Chisa’s suicide) do not matter for our purposes, as Lain is not immediately revealed or known to the audience at that point.
  5. The train suddenly stops; this will be important later.
  6. Is getting to know the Wired good or bad for Lain? This is a manifestation of the philosophical question “was civilization an improvement for mankind?”—one that is a main theme of the series. I suppose we shall have to act on the definition that happiness is always good (even if it is only in the short run) and plot it according to that.
  7. It is impossible to tell just from her face whether she is apprehensive about the future or any other emotion that could help us determine to which direction to depart from the B-E axis. But we must diverge from it, because it is abnormal to receive an e-mail from a dead person.
  8. This will either not produce an effect viewed at this scale or appear only as a minute jog. Depending on the width of your graphing tool, you may or may not choose to graph this downward shift.
  9. As there is no blood, she is presumably simply in shock.
  10. Admittedly it is possible for normally timid people to become assertive when their lives are threatened, but judging by the reactions of her friends, this is not the “real-world” Lain.
  11. A series of these visions occur after that to Lain: projections of the doll, her mother and father, and a mask that uncannily resembles Darth Vader. They all present different viewpoints on the relation between the real world and the Wired.
  12. Mika sees visions that lead to her breakdown: a napkin with the words “Hell is full so the dead walk the earth” written in red, a stall door with “Fulfill the prophecy” written all over it in red, and a drink spilling forming that phrase. We are not told what “the prophecy” is, or why this is pertinent to the whole story, nor do we know who even did this to her, or whether these objectively occurred. Later she will fade away and be replaced by another version of herself.
  13. It should be noted that the first mention of the phrase “fulfill the prophecy” is when Alice, Reika, and Juri are sitting in a restaurant discussing spam mail. Alice mentions receiving some, suspecting it to be from the “Knights”.
  14. In the Chinese (subtitled) version, the full body of Lain is shown (although without any marked sexual features to be spoken of), whereas in the American version, only Lain’s face is shown. Ironically, this is one of the only examples of things that are less censored in China than in the United States.
  15. Granted, for the purposes of this graphing exercise, happiness axiomatically translates to good fortune. But I also mentioned that “the converse is not necessarily true”, meaning good fortune is not only happiness. Although Lain may feel pride at seeing her figure in the air, it is painfully clear to the audience that she did not do that and that she is incapable of controlling her powers. Damocles may have wielded a lot of power; but with the sword dangling over his head, he did not have a lot of time to feel happy without his thoughts drifting to the sword again.
  16. When Lain asks them back about theirs, they defensively state that they “have no names”. However, when the blond-haired agent tries to pull Lain back, the workman stops him by sternly pronouncing “Karl!” In the official canon, one of the men in black is German, and the other is Chinese.
  17. What exactly are the technical details of accessing the Wired? In the later episodes of the series, the Wired is depicted as a full environment no different from the real world. If so, how can Lain remain in her seat or speak without drawing the attention of her fellow classmates? The author of this work believes that when Lain speaks she does so by typing in words, with modifiers to express tone of voice much like how in Wiki-markup there are modifiers to express bold, italic, etc. But the guess of the imaginative reader is as good as anyone’s, including mine.
  18. Logically this should not happen; she deletes her memories, not her existence.
  19. Strangely, she is visible to those around her now…?
  20. This sequence is interspersed with what seems to be snippets from a documentary about alien conspiracy theories. Vannevar Bush’s “memex” is mentioned, even though from its description in his original article “As We May Think…” it would be far outclassed by the modern internet. An alien opens the door, then swiftly closes it again in one scene; the alien is heavily popular-culture influenced and never reappears. Possibly, the series is stating that the effect of the Wired merging with the real world is that if enough people wish for something to happen, it will happen. Also, “Schumann resonance” is mentioned; it is alleged to be an extremely low electromagnetic frequency that spreads easily throughout the Earth’s lower atmosphere, and it was the subject of several proposals to use it for the dissemination of messages, including one by the (in-universe) Eiri Masami.
  21. After that Lain connects to the Wired on her NAVI. She sees herself being “introduced” to her parents and Mika. Disturbingly, when her father is shown to bring Lain to her room, the door opens behind Lain sitting at the computer. Has her NAVI gained the power to go back in time and superimpose what was then to what is now? A computer powerful enough to figure out causality and calculate its inverse could conceivably do that. After all, physics has four fundamental forces, like mathematics has four fundamental operations, to which all forces and operations (respectively) and their inverses could be reduced.
  22. Why should he need to be stitched up if he is dead and has assumed the form of a disembodied spirit visible only to Lain? This is not unique to this particular scene: many times, incorporeal people or things assume the attributes and limitations of their corporeal cousins. Is this a commentary on how the human mind is incapable of truly perceiving supernatural things, without putting them under a human mold?
  23. The author of this work agrees with him in this respect. A god without believers is simply a demon to be feared and fought against. But this inherently unstable equilibrium will be resolved either by people believing in the unbelieved-in god or creating a new god out of whole cloth to oppose the demon. Like human tyrants who oppress their citizens under the guise of fighting evil, this new god might set all manner of catastrophes upon its believers, and the believers would still remain unfazed, simply because they believe. The best example is, of course, the Old Testament Jews, who (or at least whose literate prophets and priests) viewed every catastrophe their God failed to protect them from as either as a test of their faith or as a punishment for falling away from it, an attitude still held by many fundamentalists today.
  24. So China took this from Japan as well?
  25. Wasn’t she surprised when she passed right through the door? Or, if she opened the door, weren’t her other classmates surprised when the door appeared to move by itself?
  26. Illogically, all that contact with the Wired has not led them to subscribe to any of the beliefs held by Wired citizens. Like O’Brien in 1984, they shut their mind to it either for professional reasons, or because it simply does not matter to their opportunistic selves. They do not believe in God; they spare Lain because they fear the supernatural.
  27. In the series, this is expressed by Alice coming to school and finding all her friends know nothing about the rumors. When they encounter Lain, Lain smiles at Alice in a mischievous fashion.
  28. This is bound to be the most controversial direction I will make in the whole exercise. Although she has resisted the attempts of both Chisa Yomoda and Eiri Masami who tried to persuade her to kill herself and live on in the Wired, she ends up annihilating her physical presence by resetting the world without her. Even though she had come to realize the value of maintaining a physical body after the purple beast was defeated, she still has no choice but make the world start over again. This is a sign of powerlessness, so opposite to good fortune. But one could make quite easily a case for the opposite, that it should be raised sky-high, since no one laughs at Lain, she does not have to worry about social interactions, and she is omniscient.
  29. This begs the question of whether it is truly possible to be a pure observer. How can one read a book, for example, without having a corporeal presence to open it and turn its pages? How can one access a website without sending a request to its server?
  30. This bears a striking similarity to the “Reconciliation with a Father-Figure” stage of the Hero’s Journey. An attempt to compare “Serial Experiments Lain” to the Hero’s Journey should probably be made the subject of another paper altogether.
  31. Presumably, she has the power to travel through time and space instantly and at her will, like Eternity in Isaac Asimov’s “The End of Eternity”. After she reset the world, she probably just hit the metaphorical spacebar skipping the metaphorical 10-billion-year long cutscene preceding what would be her first introduction to the Wired if she existed. How did the 6 billion people on Earth (in 1998) handle the reset? Did everything just go black and start over with them coming out of their mother’s womb, but with faint traces of their previous lives?
  32. Consequently, we also obtain another definition for the “plot arc”: The derivative of a story plotted on the B-E/G-I axes. That is, when the plot arc is high, change in Good- and Ill-Fortune are also high. Due to insufficient time and skills, the actual production of the graph is left as an exercise to the reader.