(Image from Amazon. Used for review purposes only.)
Lain aired on Japanese TV in 1998, produced as a 13-episode series, released in conjunction with a Playstation video game of the same name in the same year. Both were under the umbrella of Pioneer LDC. The wiki entry describes it as an "avant garde anime" "influenced by themes such as reality, identity, and communication."
If you're not familiar with Lain, you can read the wiki to get a more detailed description of the story. Basically, it's kind of a cyber punk tale featuring a young school girl, named Lain Iwakura, whose family is typically dysfunctional. Her mother acts like a robot, her older sister is having an affair in a love hotel between classes, and her father is a computer geek who is slowly, but insistently pushing her into entering the online world of the internet. The real difference with the net as we know it and that in the anime, is that the virtual interface is much more advanced, and users of the "world", called "Wired," are committing suicide every few days.
As the story progresses, Lain's situation becomes clearer - her family is not "her family", and she is not the "Lain" that she thinks she is. Rather, she's an experiment by the company Tachibana General Labs, as part of Project 7, the next generation of the internet. Lain is able to switch between the online and "real" worlds without needing to use a computer. As such, this has created three distinct personalities that are more-or-less unaware of each other, but keep stepping on each other's toes. Lain's dissociative disorder is reflected in the anime with jump-cuts, questions that get asked in earlier episodes but aren't put into context until later, and the use of out-of-focus scenes. Another gimmick is that every episode starts exactly the same way, with a scene set at a busy street intersection that ends with a car pulling out into the foot traffic, accompanied by a voice over.
Towards the latter half of the series, the producers introduce historic situations into the story, from the Roswell UFO incident and the Majestic 12, to John C. Lilly's experiments and Ted Nelson's Project Xanadu. These are intended to show how mankind's electronic evolution has led inexorably to the Wired world. On the other hand, though, having these actual people and events in the series can lead the audience into a journey of their own, to learn more about things that aren't normally talked about in school or on daily TV, which I consider a fun activity. This is actually very similar to what the producers of Dot Hack did, with their tie-in to the weird and unexplainable in the city of Gifu. Since Lain was intended to be a multi-media franchise (game, anime, books) all telling different parts of the story, I get the strong impression that the Dot Hack people deliberately stole the idea from Lain.
Lain pre-dates The Matrix by one year, Dot Hack by 4 years, and Ergo Proxy by 8. They all share similar philosophical questions, and (with the exception of Ergo Proxy) similar crossovers between the hardware and software worlds. Lain also has a strong religious element, with the same savior concept as in The Matrix. If you like any of these other titles, you'll probably like Lain.
The artwork is good, although it switches between crass graffiti and simple line art, and back. The character designs are a bit cartoony, with Lain generally looking like a sullen doll. The backgrounds and buildings are well-drawn and the Japanese voice acting is worth listening to (I hated the American actors). What's really good, though, is the hard rock soundtrack, which was created by Reichi Nakaido, lead singer and guitarist for the noise rock group RC Succession. Another nice perk is that the box set comes packaged in its own Lain-themed lunch box.
In summary, Lain is a kind of cyber punk discussion of what it means to live in a world where real life and online life start becoming indistinguishable from each other. This is as pertinent a question now as it had been when first asked in 1998. Recommended. I'd give it higher marks if Lain's character designs looked better.