I find it very difficult to describe Lain. Wikipedia says that basically every American review called it "weird," so...yeah, it's weird. It's mildly—sometimes wildly—incoherent. It's incredibly moody and deliberately unnerving. It's not very funny at all, and smiles are in short supply.
Lain is about a teenage girl (an anime about a teenage girl? YOU DON'T SAY) named Lain. She's shy and introspective and kind of an outcast, but one girl, Arisu, invites her into her group of friends. The series begins when a girl kills herself...and a week later, people start receiving e-mails from her. Lain gets one too. It says that she had no more use for her body, and she is now in the Wired, which is essentially a souped-up version of the Internet (the series came out in 1998). She says, "God is here."
I thought the series was going to explore this whole "e-mail from a dead girl" thing, but that's just the catalyst. Because of this communication, Lain becomes more interested in the Wired, and she goes on a trippy journey of self-discovery (an anime about coming-of-age? YOU DON'T SAY).
What the series explores instead is the nature of reality itself and, more importantly, humanity's place in it. Communication, connection, consciousness—these words and ideas pervade the series. The Wired (i.e., the Internet) connects people on a level that was previously impossible; it could be seen as a step in human evolution. It allows us to communicate information to everyone else whereas before, so much information was kept to ourselves because we had no way of distributing it. And then there is the matter of consciousness and whether it transcends the body: when you're online, what is that? Who is that? How do our digital selves relate to our real-world counterparts?
Do you ever feel like the line between the Internet and real life is starting to blur? Because in Lain, it is. Quite literally.
The storytelling takes some getting used to, and, really, you may never get used to it, per se. My reaction to the first several episodes was a simple "...WTF?" It did eventually start making more sense, but it made more sense by making less sense, if that makes sense. And I found that having some of my questions answered wasn't actually what I wanted; the sheer WTF of the enterprise was part of its...I hesitate to say charm, but its essence. Since the show is about the interplay between the real world and the digital world, it was hard to tell how much of what we were seeing was "real." It's amusingly appropriate that the theme song begins with "And you don't seem to understand."
The real story is Lain. This is a little problematic in the beginning because she's so reserved and quiet, and it becomes incredibly problematic later in the series for reasons I cannot say, but suffice it to say that once Lain becomes obsessed with the Wired, it gets really hard to tell what she's thinking and feeling, which makes it somewhat difficult to accompany her on her journey. But then, say, she wears some adorable bear pajamas, and you like her unquestioningly. You want her to find out who she is and what's up with the Wired.
Along the way, the show employs several devices designed to freak you out. My favorite is the pre-credits opening, in which a guy declares, "PRESENT DAY. PRESENT TIME. HA HA HA HA HA HA HA." It's so menacing and unnerving and I love it. Oh, just watch it. You also get to see another device, which is static. Static is freaky shit, yo. After the credits, each episode opens with some narration over the same cool, muted scenes of a bustling city full of people walking around but not connecting. Then the title of the episode is read by a speech synthesizer. Each episode is called a layer, with each layer taking you deeper and deeper into the abyss. Finally, the most noticeable recurring element throughout the individual episodes is the hum of telephone wires. I came to almost welcome the monotone, the basest manifestation of noise in an empty, quiet plane.
Lain may have a plot, but it doesn't really matter. It's not necessary to understand what's going on to appreciate the show. It's so much more about the imagery and ideas, about what it says about our increasingly technologically advanced society and how it manages to freak you out more than a Hollywood sci-fi vision of the future (because this is PRESENT DAY. PRESENT TIME). It's about Lain finding her place in the world. The ending is surprisingly satisfying. Even though I didn't understand half the fucking things that happened along the way, I thought it somehow ended the way it was supposed to.
For the closer, I'm going to borrow from my dear duchessdogberry, who lists this as her favorite anime:
Stop resisting and judging. Just give into it and let it wash over you.