Ashita no Anime

Anime of Tomorrow

Elfen Lied (review)

Final impression – an often misunderstood psychological thriller (9/10)

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?

Additional recommended reading—Elfen Lied Wiki, Real life scenes from Elfen Lied around Kamakura


7 responses to “Elfen Lied (review)

  1. TWWK May 17, 2012 at 10:37 pm

    You know how I feel about the series – it’s my most HATED of all anime series. I hate this series so much.

    That said, I know it’s far from the worst. The comments you make about the depth of the series could be totally on key. I just couldn’t get past the nudity, ridiculous violence, and shoddy writing to see it.

    Basically, you sum up a lot of what I feel in these sentences:

    “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).”

    The writing was really poor – almost like getting a group of 5th graders together to write a Victorian novel. Blah.

    The violence was what I had the most problems with. I mentioned in my comments on the OASG review that the series existed to titillate – though I partially meant all the massive amounts of nakedness, mostly I meant the violence. It’s basically in that whole torture porn type of genre – let’s enjoy limbs getting blown off, kids getting maimed, etc. Shock value is such a vital part of this series, and I find that to be dumb. You know it’s important because immediately, right from the beginning, the creators have fun with the audience by introducing a woman who seems like she’ll be an important character, and then have her violently killed. Yeah. Fun. Yay.

    Anyway, that’s how I see it.

    I definitely felt your connection to the show, though. My experience with anime was similar – part of my attraction to the medium had to do with the shock of one of the first piece I’d seen – Princess Mononoke, which broke all my beliefs about animation when it came to story, quality, music, and especially violence (though of course no where near on the level of Elfen Lied).

    • Marlin-sama May 18, 2012 at 6:28 am

      It’s not so much that I think the writing was poor, it’s just too simple for the very deep subject matter. As you can see reflected in my score I don’t think it hampered the story that much.

      But how do you feel about other super-violent anime like Akira or High School of the Dead?

      • TWWK May 18, 2012 at 12:24 pm

        I never watched High School of the Dead and I haven’t seen Akira in years, so I probably can’t compare those two. I would say that my problem is the levels at which the animators emphasized the violence. There is a lot in Elfen Lied, sure, but it’s also graphic. It’s graphic, sure, but the animators linger on the images. The images linger, sure, but the tone is disturbing for the dark pleasure of it.

  2. medievalotaku May 18, 2012 at 2:36 am

    It also bothers me that so many people want to dismiss Elfen Lied as show merely designed to shock. Details of people gleefully dismembering their fellow citizens in Lucan’s Civil War are also shocking, but–like in Elfen Lied–there’s meaning behind what this imagery.

    Let me give you some information about the perspective I took with this anime. Having discovered that the title derives from a poem of the same name, I looked it up on wikipedia and discovered that it was written by a Lutheran minister named Eduard Friedrich Mörike. Might there not be some themes in Elfen Lied derived from Lutheranism? I certainly think the idea of the total depravity of mankind features prominently in the show. I mean, we see little children committing murder and kinslaughter, and most characters besides the Diclonii are not role models either. As a matter of fact, the characters which seem good come off as rather fake, don’t they? That’s because “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). Since good people don’t really exist, good characters can’t be anything other than fake.

    Then, the all the nudity plays with ideas about innocence–remember that before Adam and Eve sinned, they were naked and unashamed. The fact that we have a naked murderer further seems to show how original sin has completely tainted humanity. Also, Lucy seems to be seeking after innocence, but has no way to obtain it. One of her methods seems to have been coming up with a new morality, where it is perfectly ok just for Diclonii to slaughter human beings–I remember Neitsche also talking about how people needed to develop a new morality for living in the modern world.

    But, in Lucy’s case, trying to form a new morality simply fails. What she needs is forgiveness, which she gets from Kouta. But this is not enough, because “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5:21) So, she still has guilt on her soul, and feels that she cannot leave the way of being a killer because of her many sins. I think that the idea of Lucy seeking forgiveness and innocence is well portrayed in the opening song, Her nudity symbolizes innocence, and she embraces bloody figures in the song hoping to gain innocence in her soul. But this is impossible: the bloody figures symbolize that she is surrounded by nothing by sin. What she needs is the Savior, Jesus Christ, and no one less can give her the absolution she needs.

    Well, I hope the above at least gives you an interesting new way to look at this show. 🙂

    The main problem with this anime (Other than the doctrine of the total depravity of mankind being false: though people have lost their likeness to God, they still retain the image of God with which they were created.) is that it wasn’t written as well as it could have been. So, a second season would bogged down in filling all the holes left by the first season, I think. However, I hear that the manga was written much better, so you might take a look at that if you haven’t yet.

    • Marlin-sama May 18, 2012 at 6:30 am

      I’ve read most of the manga that picks up after the events of the anime so I have a pretty good feel for what Lynn Okamoto was trying to do with this story. It’s probably why I continue to appreciate the anime as much as I do.

  3. Justin May 18, 2012 at 5:42 am

    Huh, this is about right on. Like you I really did enjoy the show. I have no idea if I hold the same level of appreciation for it that I did years ago though, it’s been that long since I’ve seen it. Definitely going to have to find time to re-watch it…

    • Marlin-sama May 18, 2012 at 6:37 am

      For a couple years I put it up on a pedestal as the most perfect anime of all time. But that was back when I hadn’t watched very many anime. I’ve since gained a lot more perspective and while I can look at Elfen Lied more objectively now, I still feel it accomplishes so much. The setting’s inspiration and basis on real places still blows my mind. The next time I go to the Tokyo area I’d like very much to try and find some of the sites in Kamakura and Enoshima that are featured in the anime.

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