The ubiquitous still shots of a nude Lain in fetal position surrounded by computer wires and components suggest her total takeover by the machine (Figure 6.2). Of course if Lain is only “software,” then it doesn’t matter whether she ever existed. This may be the reason why her father tells her that she needn’t wear the bear suit anymore, a cute signifier of contemporary Japanese girlhood. The “machine” (program) of the Wired has finally stopped for her, and she is now liberated to take tea in an imaginary space, without any pretense of reality at all.
Mention of tea may evoke memories of the Mad Hatter’s tea party, since Japanese viewers are also familiar with Alice’s Adventures in Wonder- land (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Indeed, in many ways Lain can be seen as a retelling or even a reversal of the Alice stories. Like Alice, Lain—and Shinji as well, to a lesser extent—descends into a world in which nothing is what it seems and in which identity constantly fluc- tuates. As with Alice, she has godlike powers, since she is the “software” hat creates her own world, the Wired, just as Alice dreams up Wonder- land and Looking Glass Country. Also like Alice, she ultimately confronts the reigning deity within her made-up world and triumphs over it. Here we have a reversal, however. In Alice’s case she recognizes the Red Queen’s and the others’ true forms as simply “a pack of cards” (trite, material ob- jects) while Lain recognizes that it is the immaterial that is the Achilles’ heel of her enemy, since without a body, he simply disappears.
Both Lain and Shinji are desperately concerned about their own in- cipient immateriality, the fact that their subjectivity is verging on “termi- nal identity” because of their dependence on the machine. Lain fears to be left alone in the world of the Wired but knows that she has nowhere else to go, while Shinji fears that without the EVA he is nothing. The fact that these are children makes their vulnerability particularly disturbing, suggesting extratextual aspects of a social malaise in which young people seem less and less connected, not only with other people but also with themselves.30 In many ways the emotionally empty Lain seems spiritually linked with Rei who, while a clone of Shinji’s mother, is visually presented as a young girl who wants only to “return to nothing.” The fact that Lain begins with the suicide of a young girl is even more disturbing, suggesting “terminal identity” in its most concrete form. In today’s Japanese anime, in contrast to the elderly ghosts who haunt the Yamato, it is the children— the future—who seem to have become “phantasmagoria,” unhappy ghosts or stick figures lingering on the edges of consciousness.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice, who may be considered a nineteenth-century form of sh ̄ojo, is also afraid of losing her identity, as her tearful insistence that “I am real” attests. As it turns out, however, she has no need to worry. Alice is the dreamer and the Red King is simply a figment of her dream, although she is astute enough to wonder, on waking, whose dream/reality it really is. After all, “he was a part of my dream of course but then I was a part of his dream too.”31 For Alice, this is an amusing conundrum. For the children in Evangelion and Lain, bound to a world in which technol- ogy rather than the human imagination increasingly seems to dominate, the question is one with terrifying implications.
Carroll’s nineteenth-century text privileges the imagination. Forster’s modernist work highlights the need for “real” human intercourse unmedi- ated by technology. The two late-twentieth-century anime works suggest that the imagination, the real, and technology are bound together in in- creasingly complex ways, and they hint that reality may ultimately be simply a creation of the mind. While this is a powerful, even liberating notion, it is also one that, for many of these narratives at least, can lead to alienation and despair. At the turn of the twenty-first century, when the machines stop, can the human imagination transcend the ruins and cre- ate a new reality no longer tied to technology? Both Evangelion and Lain explore this question, but, given the enigmatic quality of their conclusions, it is hard to say whether the answers they offer are positive or negative.
— Robot ghosts and wired dreams, 6. When The Machine Stops: Fantasy, reality and terminal identity in Neon Genesis Evangelion and Serial Experiments Lain. // Susan J. Napier