Anime of Tomorrow
Elfen Lied (review)
Summer 2004 (13 episodes + 1 OVA)
Off the shores of Kamakura is a secret island that conducts research on the cutting edge of human evolution. Called the Diclonius after a type of dinosaur, this genetic offshoot of humanity is distinctive by two small horns protruding from the sides of the head. The other quality that makes them worthy of scientific research is the female’s destructive psychic capabilities.
The first and most dangerous specimen named Lucy breaks her bonds and after an ensuing bloodbath manages to escape the facility. But not before suffering a massive head wound that splits her personality between a dangerous beast and a helpless child. She is discovered on Enoshima beach by Kouta and his cousin Yuka who take her in and decide to shelter her from her shady pursuers. But when Kouta notices her horns, he senses there is a frighteningly deep connection between him and his new dependent that he must remember at any cost.
Elfen Lied and I have a bit of history that needs to be fully explained before I can go into a proper review of the title. Back in 2004, I was still a wide-eyed 18 year old, fresh out of the nest and learning to fly solo at college. At this point in my life I had only watched three anime that I actually knew were anime—Escaflowne, Cowboy Bebop and Evangelion. I’d also seen Tekkaman Blade, Sailor Moon, Dragonball Z, Digimon and Pokemon as a kid, but I thought those were American series at the time so in my mind they don’t count (more on that some other time).
I had just joined my university anime club because I wanted to learn more about this genre and by some chance of fate the club president recommended Elfen Lied, which was still airing on Japanese TV. Horror and R-rated media were things I’d never really been introduced to at the time, which gave Elfen Lied the privilege of relieving me of my innocent naivety. It was such a shocker it felt like I’d been hit by a bolt of lightning (thinking back on it now, that metaphor is so apt it’s kinda scary how green I was back then). I’d never experienced such an incredible emotional response in my life and I became immediately aware of something—I wanted more. The rest they say is history because I’ve been hooked on anime ever since. No other medium has been able to illicit such a heartfelt passion in me as anime and I foresee this to be one of my lifelong hobbies.
As I’ve matured over the past 8 years, my adoration for Elfen Lied has been tempered slightly. I’ve come to realize it has a few flaws that can’t can’t fully be ignored and I may have been initially oversold on this anime’s shock value. The years have also not been kind to its super large-eyed character style that is getting dated and was very indicative of the previous decade even at the time this series was made. It also hurts its own potential with over-the-top violence and blood—important as that may be to its success—and lets us down with deceivingly simple writing about an exceedingly complicated story that needed a lot more time to be properly told (to be fair, there was a lot of contention within the staff to push this series into a longer run).
However, I continue to maintain that Elfen Lied is an excellent model for how to properly use nudity as a storytelling device. Whether it’s to accentuate Lucy’s animalistic savagery or Nyuu’s childlike innocence, what’s very clear by its direction is that this is not fanservice. There aren’t any random panty-shots or views of cleavage made possible courtesy of deliberately maligned camera angles—every instance of the female form works to support the plot.
It’s a story that raises all sorts of philosophical issues about the nature of humanity—namely what constitutes being human. Is it kindness, pure altruism and our ability to forgive past transgressions? Is it nothing more than genetics? Is it emergent in our sophisticated intelligence? Is it our resourcefulness and ability to adapt to whatever circumstances we find presented to us? Is it willingness to do whatever is necessary to survive? Or is it the simple quality of possessing immutable instincts that go beyond mere desire for simple survival? All of these themes and more are touched upon if ever so briefly in this anime and the only disappointment is that there wasn’t time to explore them more thoroughly.
Sadly, Elfen Lied is probably one of the most contentious, misunderstood and quite often underappreciated anime of all time. Despite how well it reviews statistically, I suspect that like my younger self it gets a big boost from its emotional impact. I hardly ever hear very much praise for it from a technical standpoint. Ironically, it’s almost as if, in its attempt to reveal the intricacies of human nature, it was able to expose the superficial shallowness of the average person who so quickly and easily discredits it without making any attempt to reach for a deeper meaning. However, the fact that it’s still capable of firing such powerful emotions eight years later is a testament to the kind of response it generates in its viewers. As much as I can try to guide people on how to interpret the value of this show, it is ultimately going to be an exercise for the individual to undertake.
To this day I continue to hold the position that Elfen Lied is one of the best examples of an anime that not only deserves a sequel but NEEDS one. What anime have you watched that had an open-ended or cliffhanger finale that you think requires a second season to properly wrap up the rest of the story?