Serial Experiments: Lain as a Reflection of Modern Japanese Anxieties in the Digital Era

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“But then where is the real me after all is said and done? Ah there is no real me, I guess that’s it. I only exist inside those people aware of my existence. But what about the me that I can hear talking right here and now, it’s me isn’t it? This me that’s talking . . . who is me, who’s me?”

Serial Experiments: Lain is a revolutionary anime series from director Ryutaro Nakamura. The story follows Lain, a thirteen-year-old student living in Tokyo. This visually stunning anime tells a story in which the lines between the ‘real world’ and the ‘wired world’ (the world that exists in computers, through networks) are beginning to blur. But the series also asks serious questions that reflect the anxieties of modern Japanese living in the digital era. In Nakamura’s version of modern day Japan, Lain struggles to exist within the vastness of the digital age while trying not to loose her identity. These themes are a direct result of the tensions that have been building up for centuries in post war Japan. When Japan opened its doors to Westernization there was a huge collision between traditional Japanese culture and the ‘modern’ industrialized West. Like Pandora’s box, this collision gave birth to serious issues, issues that stem from the Japanese need to reevaluate their position in the world and to consider what toll their rapid industrialization has taken on themselves. Japan today is the world leader in technology development, but at what cost?

At the beginning of every episode the viewer is met with the same distortions of modern Tokyo. Busy streets, bright lights, tall buildings, and the silhouettes of power lines all serve to emphasize the incredible industrialization of modern day Japan. In addition, every episode contains countless frames of power lines looming over the city – the hum of their electrical current a constant reminder of the technological revolution and the existence of the wired. In this Tokyo a world has been created that functions much differently from the ‘real’ world. This world is referred to as ‘the wired’ and it is the world that exists in the flow of information across the worldwide network. In Serial Experiments: Lain a consciousness is forming on the wired and that consciousness is beginning to affect the events of the real world.

In the first episode, the viewer is introduced to Chisa Yomoto, a shy classmate of Lain’s. Our introduction to Chisa consists of Chisa’s swan dive from the top of a downtown skyscraper, leading to her quick and rather messy end. A few days later many in her class start receiving emails from her, including Lain. In the email sent to Lain, Chisa says that, “I have only given up my body, you see by sending you email I can use this system to explain to you that I am still alive.” This notion of being able to exist solely as a consciousness through technology is a fairly common theme in Japanese animation. Other series like Cowboy Bebop also explore this theme, in addition to features such as Ghost in the Shell. This theme speaks directly to the bizarre and complicated relations between what we consider ‘reality’ and the reality of the wired. Given the Japanese’s cultural history this theme also relates to their notions of self and social interaction.

First consider the practical differences between the physical world and the world of the wired. In the wired there are no distinctions of social position, race, gender, age, level of education, etc. that are very important aspects of the Japanese social atmosphere. Dorinne Kondo speaks about these interpersonal relationships in her book Crafting Selves. Kondo points out that the Japanese have a system of interacting that is based on a hierarchical model. Ruth Benedict also asserts this in her book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword in which she writes,

Any attempt to understand the Japanese must begin with their version of what it means to ‘take one’s proper station.’ Their reliance upon order and hierarchy and our faith in freedom and equality are poles apart and it is hard for us to give hierarchy its just due as a possible social mechanism. Japan’s confidence in hierarchy is basic in her whole notion of man’s relation to his fellow man and man’s relation to the State. (43)

Within the wired, there are no distinctions between individuals with which to base a hierarchical system on. It is there, on the wired, that the Japanese therefore are forced to exist outside of what they are comfortable with. Their identities, without having to conform to the tight social constrictions of the hierarchical system, become more individualized, more based upon a person’s ‘true self’. Both Takeo Doi and Erving Goffman speak about this concept in their books. Goffman, in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, calls attention to the fact that whenever a person is forced to interact with another person, that person is putting on a performance, carefully analyzing every move they make in terms of how the other person will react or how the other person’s image of them might change. This concept is related directly to the Japanese in Takeo Doi’s book, The Anatomy of Self. Doi writes of the difference between the Japanese omote and ura. Loosely translated they can mean ‘façade’ and ‘inner truth’ respectively. As to the Japaneseness of these concepts Doi writes, “I think omote and ura correspond to the distinction between soto (outside) and uchi (inside) that is often prominent in the Japanese consciousness of human relations” (24). These concepts of façade and inner truth are intertwined heavily into the theory of the Japanese hierarchical social structure. But as we will see, the hierarchical structure dissolves when faced with the world within the wired. The wired then exists as a world in which identity is relative – where the need for ‘masks’ is nonexistent.

One of the stereotypes of the Japanese is their group-oriented mentality. We have already been introduced to this kind of mentality through the discussion of the Japanese social structure where all social interactions are based on a person’s relative position in the larger social hierarchy. But there are other aspects of this group mentality that are also represented in Serial Experiments: Lain. The Japanese term amae is discussed in Takeo Doi’s essay, Amae: A Key Concept for Understanding Japanese Personality Structure: “Amae is the noun form of amaeru, an intransitive verb that means ‘to depend and presume upon another’s benevolence’” (121). While this concept is perhaps not completely foreign to Americans, the fact that the English language lacks a word for such a concept shows that perhaps it is not as important a concept in the West than it is for the Japanese. Amae implies a natural and deep need for and reliance upon others, which is the backbone for all of the Japanese’s interpersonal relations. This concept of amae is represented in many ways in Serial Experiments: Lain, namely in the family atmosphere, in Lain’s relations to her peers, and in Lain’s presence on the wired.

In his essay, Takeo Doi asserts that amae originally arises out of what a small child might feel toward their mother (123). It is therefore important to look at Lain’s family situation. Lain is the youngest of two daughters in her family. Lain’s father is a career man who probably works with computers. Lain’s mother is a housewife who seems to be rather bored with life. The structure of the family is very typical of the Japanese household, while the relations within that structure turn out to be very atypical. While some of the stereotypical family dynamic is sacrificed for plot development and the representation of themes, there are still aspects of it that serve this argument. Lain from the beginning has been very shy and independent. As we see her relations to her parents, it is clear that she has very little if any feeling of amae for anyone in her family. Lain appears like a stranger in the family, doing her best to pretend to be her parents daughter. Lain’s mother is perhaps the best example for our purposes here. She is seemingly in a state of detachedness from the world. She hardly ever speaks, and spends most of her time staring off into space. Her movements are very mechanical and her face is always expressionless. She seems to be so devoid of energy that often is the case that when she is spoken to she will not reply. It would be hard for anyone, especially a thirteen-year-old girl, to have a meaningful relationship with someone who lives this kind of non-existence, almost as if in a coma. What this means is that Lain has grown up in a household in which she was unable to develop her understanding of the hierarchical form of socialization. The small bit of understanding of this system that she may have had, she slowly looses as she dives deeper and deeper into the world of the wired where that kind of socialization is nonexistent.

Another result of Lain’s dysfunctional family life is that she has also never felt part of a group. For the Japanese who define themselves by their relation to the group Lain is lonely and searching for a group that she can belong to. At school, the place one might expect most receptive to the formation of groups, Lain is shy and awkward and does not have any close friends. Lain therefore finds it easier to ‘fit in’ in the world of the wired, a world not controlled by the hierarchical socialization system. Lain therefore becomes a representation of the Western notion of individualism as she is alone in a world that functions within the parameters of a hierarchical group model of socialization.

Takeo Doi writes of this theory of individualism and its origins in his book, The Anatomy of Self, in which he says that, “the importance of the individual was generally recognized in the West only after the beginning of the twelfth century, and that until that time, the word individuum itself did not have the meaning it has today” (54). Doi then goes on to say that the so-called ‘discovery of the individual’ occurred “because of massive and rapid social change during this period. No longer able to seek behavioral norms outside of themselves, people in the West began to privilege personal experience” (54). This is the exact same situation that faced the Japanese at the onset of Westernization. The social norms of the Japanese were changing swiftly due to outside (i.e. non Japanese) influences, and many Japanese, unable to keep up, sought comfort and stability by turning to themselves and to individuality. Lain then seems to represent the individualistic result of the mass Westernization after the war. The question then arises of what will become of Lain (or of Japan) as the technological revolution sweeps through the country?

The issues dealt with in Serial Experiments: Lain are issues that arise from the emergence of technology in Japan. As John F. Embree writes in his book, Suye Mura: A Japanese Village, the Japanese have “a remarkable docility” (3). This ‘docility’ is understandable when one considers the Zen, Confucian, and Shinto influences on Japanese life. The lives of old men are often good representations of what we in the West might refer to as ‘the good life’. The old, freed from many of the social, economical, and political responsibilities they may have had in their youth, are freer to live life how they choose, at a slow and leisurely pace. This is clearly illustrated in many anime series, including Cowboy Bebop and Ranma ½. This desire to live a ‘peaceful’ existence has clear roots in Confucianism and has become a social ideal of the Japanese.

This ideal is reflected in the slow pace of Serial Experiments: Lain. The story unfolds slowly, carefully, going for minutes at a time with no dialogue. The stillness of life is represented to the fullest. But this has another purpose besides the naturalistic expression of real life. This slow paced world of the real also stands as a blaring contrast to the fast paced world of the wired. The wired is a world of high-speed communication, of confusion, hysteria, chaos, bright lights, and loud music. This is perhaps best illustrated by the club that Lain is brought to in the second episode: Cyberia. This club, as the name suggests, is a good representation of the technological boom in Tokyo. The club is populated with hackers and techno-punk teenagers. They dance to the loud sounds of electronic synthesizers and distorted noises with multi-colored flashing lights making the room glow. On top of this it is also here that we are introduced to the drug ‘accela’. Accela is a nano-mechanism that is said to stimulate the secretion of a synthetic neurotransmitter that speeds up the rate at which the brain can process information by a factor of 12. In this world technology is the fast paced road to the future.

But one of the more important things to take note of in this contrast between the high speed world of technology and the slow paced world of everyday life is the relevant importance of identity in each. Cyberia, as well as the wired are very crowded places, with an innumerable amount of people sending and receiving information. In some instances, when Lain enters the wired, her voice is practically drowned out by the other voices around her. In Cyberia, she is small and quiet in comparison to the loud music and the packed dance floor. It is in the world of technology in which Lain begins to loose her identity. In Lain’s case, the fast paced world of technology is quickly encroaching upon her rather dull life, and before long she is caught up in the tidal wave, with no way of escaping.

And this is exactly the problem that faced, and faces, Japan in the post-war era. When Japan was opened to the West, an insurgence of culture and technology flooded the country. There were now new Western ideas to challenge Japan’s traditional modes of living. Besides the obvious issues of struggling to maintain a cultural identity, the Japanese also had to deal with the attacks on their culture made by Western individualism. The Japanese group oriented social structure found itself being questioned and reanalyzed by the very people that had supported it before Westernization.

A lot has changed in the fifty plus years since the war. Today, Japan is the world leader in the development of new technology. Since the bust of the early 1990’s, the optimistic economy of Japan has been almost forgotten. But as Chris Anderson writes, “there is another Japan: Japan-as-metaphor. This is the Japan that represents hyper-modernism in all its dimensions, from advanced technology to individual alienation to urbanization run amok”. Technology, whether we like to admit it or not, minimizes real human contact. It is this ‘individual alienation’ that is the result of the digital era. Serial Experiments: Lain addresses these issues of technology and its effects upon the Japanese social structure. As Lain dives deeper into the world of wired, she slips away from the few real people in her life. She becomes increasingly alienated from her friends and the already pathetic relationship she has with her parents quickly dissolves. In the end, when Lain has fully embraced her technological pursuits, she has completely lost the ability to relate to and interact with her fellow humans.

The blurring lines between the physical world and the world of the wired in Serial Experiments: Lain are representative of the move from a rigidly organized hierarchical social system to one of almost chaotic individualism as a result of the Westernization of Japan. These are issues that the Japanese have had to deal with for decades now, either on a subconscious or on a conscious level. Through the example of Lain we have seen how concepts of self and group, omote and ura, and the individualization effect of technology, have affected and changed modern day Japan. The anxieties of the Japanese in the digital era become apparent when Lain asks, confused and alone, “Who is me, who’s me?”

By Mitchell K. Tribbett

Source: [1]