In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki is an odd essay about traditional Japanese aesthetics. It is haphazardly composed, switching between discussions as disparate as sushi recipes and Noh actors. But amid the stream-of-conciousness-like writing, there is a central theme: in the Japanese sense of beauty, the presence of shadows is the key influence around which any artistic situation should be desiged. For example, the author reasons that miso soup is best served in earthy laquerware rather than white china because the broth takes on a murky, obscuring quality.
Although Tanizaki’s writing concerns the period in which basic Western technology – such as electric lighting – is being introduced to Japan, I was curious to see what insight the essay might provide to more modern forms of technology. In particular, I wanted to examine Serial Experiments Lain as the best known anime concerning this particular topic. Does the series demonstrate the same traditional appreciation of shadow that Tanizaki writes about? Or has the influence of technology created a disposition towards different sensory compositions? These are the central questions I wish to answer here today. I am not foolish enough to claim I understand the plot of Lain but I hope that in understanding the work’s relationship with shadows, some new understanding can be gleamed from the series.
The first scene in SEL shows the sillouhuette of powerlines before cutting to a couple walking down a street at night. We see neon signs and faint reflections off of urban architecture, but not much else. Besides the few lights, their surroundings are entirely black. If we go by the strictest interpretation of Tanizaki, we might say that the glow of electric lights immediately disqualifies the work since he thinks them to be too harsh. However, if not to the letter, the scene certainly adheres to the spirit of In Praise of Shadows: We’re given an impression of the location while the details hidden in the darkness are left up to the imagination.
I mention the above alley scene because it was the first to occur, but the same things can be said virtually any time that the background is obscured in shadow. For example, the first time we see Lain’s room, we see only a small circle of light from the window and Lain at her desk. The majority of the screen – and the room – are invisible to us. Even when the camera angle changes, half of the space is in darkness. Logically, we suppose that there must be another half to the room, but given the surreal nature of the show, even this conclusion should be questioned. For audiences returning to Lain, every aspect of the show should be treated with scrutiny, but it is scenes like this, when shadows create large ambiguities, this is when we should be at our most attentive to what Lain is experiencing.
So we know to pay attention to shadows, but do they change over the course of the series? Perhaps the most prominent evolution of shadows concerns Lain’s room. What in episode 1 is merely the absence of sunlight quickly evolves into shadows of a muted blue, made that way by the Navi screens she accumulates. Though her world is still shrouded in obscurity, it has taken on an unnatural quality. In these dim corners of the show where reality seems to be uncertain, the digital, electronic world begins to play at ambiguity. Here, I can say for certain that Tanizaki’s sense of shadow is lost completely. Instead, the traditional sense of shadow must give way to a modern, computerized shadow – one in which anonymous Knights, men in strange equipment, and god-like entities can slip through with ease.
The other main difference in shadows that reccurs over the course of the show is that not all of the them are dark. A second type of shadow occurs, and occurs often in the show. They are most often potrayed as cloudy lumps of purple and black, with splotches of red that reminiscent of blood splatters. What do these shadows mean? It seems as though the characters are not aware of their strange appearances – we might then hypothesize that they have been designed that way as part of the art style, solely for the appreciation of the audience.
I’m unsure of what to say about them. For me, the odd appearance added a surreal element to the series. They tend to occur in otherwise brightly lit scenes (though not always), so they tended to stand out. “These shadows don’t look right. Is this really reality?” was what I thought whenever they appeared. They are perhaps not aesthetically murky like Tanizaki’s conception of shadows, but for me, they created a sense of murkiness to the plot, by making me question why the world would produce these strangely-patterned shadows.
Technology and shadow might be opposite things to Tanizaki, but Japan has advanced tremendously since he wrote In Praise of Shadows. I think in the time since then, the two have found a new, modern relationship with one another, one that is demonstrated in Lain. The series without its shadowy elements simply wouldn’t have been quite as impactful as it is. It is an anime that is appreciated best when the aesthetics and plot can be just barely discerned from deliberate obscurity. If I can give some cliched words of advice to appreciate the anime, I’d have to say: “Live in praise of shadows. And, let’s all love Lain.”
Edited by kamomesan
Removing extraneous image