Anime Breakdown: Elfen Lied (2004) Series Review

This show holds a great deal of significance…to my little brother at least. As oppose to myself where my entry point back into anime was Angel Beats! (a show my brother doesn’t hold in the same regard). Elfen Lied was his entry point into anime and one of the few shows he recommended me to check out. I did just that and to be honest it didn’t have the same impact on me, but is still a great show. It’s mature, bloody, and all around is supported by a creative team that manages to discuss many dark themes in the short span of thirteen episodes.

Premise:

University students Kohta and Yuka (Kohta’s cousin) save a Diclonius girl called “Lucy” when they see her naked in a beach. In fact “Lucy” is a serial killer who is being searched by the government but they are not aware of who “Lucy” really is because her personality is split.

Good: Holds Nothing Back

In Elfen Lied no area is too gray to discuss. Just about every episode casually discusses genocide, violence, vengeance, discrimination, inhumanity, and other dark themes. It’s for this acceptance for these dark themes alone that makes its story worth seeing. Providing a depiction of dark subjects without downplaying them. One such prominent and driving characteristic of those themes is Lucy and her violent outburst. Literally the opening minutes has her killing guards in bloody manners and upon this sight we tend to side with the humans. Delusioning the audience into believing that Lucy does in fact deserve to be locked up seeing how many people she killed. As the series advances and develops there’s a clear line drawn between compassionate killing and killing for a selfish reason. There’s a difference between child Lucy killing a child her own age versus young adult Lucy who kills an Assault Soldier. Violence for Lucy’s case is a path that presents maturity in her growth into a different person. Even the way Lucy kills a person has a distinct difference in methods. As a small child Lucy method is sloppy as her early killings there’s plenty of bloodshed despite being successful in her kills. Now compare to young adult Lucy and there’s more precise cutting and less of a bloody mess. She’s learns to become an expert in the art of killing while slowly becoming consume with regrets and hatred for herself committing such activity that encourages discrimination and the people that drove to that state.

The way it depicts violence isn’t for fun showing the pain it causes both on who inflicts it and whose receiving it. Because it chooses to show violence as a form of pain rather than a spectacle it further pushes it highlighted themes. Beginning to question who are the biggest monsters; Diclonii for resorting to violence when discriminated or the humans that discriminate against them viewing the species only as a tool. Both sides are morally wrong, but at the same time morally justified for such actions. We get to experience the conflict on both side. In Lucy’s views she had a small spark of hope in humanity that was lost. Negative feelings that were only reaffirmed through the hardship once she got captured and treated as an animal in experiments. On the other side we have the humans believing Lucy represents the Diclonii short temper and dangerous powers that gives them little leeway if more of them are born. Some see Diclonii as a problem being a superior race that can easily overthrow humans. The conflict isn’t one dimensional as both morally reinforce the other negative feelings towards the other questioning if there is such a thing progress beyond the label of race.

Stopping myself before I spoiled every theme for newcomer I’ll discuss my favorite moments in Elfen Lied weren’t so much the deep meaning it gave to it themes. It was actually the dynamic backstory of Kurama. Episode 10 is the series biggest turning point as not only does it developed Kurama as a much more than a cold, complicated individual, but it brings a whole new meaning behind his actions. Most of which are questionable even before learning about his past. With the revelation in episode 10 it puts into perspective that further reinforced him as a monster or as a weak minded man who’s intentions outweighed his actions. His conflict is no longer one sided, morally seeking revenge, nor it is one outweighed that it’s his duty. Rather it’s a smaller personal journey that through the course of the series we see him changing, but not necessarily for the better. While he does not have a change of heart he neither goes out of his way to redeem to himself for the possible dozen of lives he has taken. Kurama is a man who in his exterior does anything that is for the better of mankind. No matter how much of his humanity he has to sacrifice, but not at the cost when the dilemma becomes personal. This is proven when he refuses to go through with a specific order in Episode 10. Kurama is just one of many cast of characters that not only struggles with the cruel reality, but also struggles with complicated issues themselves that cross a series of gray lines.

Good: A Love Story With Blood and Gore

Underneath all the dark themes lies a story of romance that’s rather odd. One would expect going into any show with a male lead making a prediction of who he’ll likely end up with and be correct. That’s not the case with Elfen Lied as it blend of comedy and harem (protagonist surrounded by multiple love interests) semi-realistically among the chaos. Each episode focuses on the central characters current dilemma with the bigger picture in the background slowly inching it way to centerfold. Kouta, at the center, is shown conflicted with his romantic feelings. He’s neither oblivious to the idea that Yuka (childhood best friend) loves him nor makes attempt to conceal he might have feelings for another girl. Naturally he’s drawn to Nyu/Lucy child mentality state as she sees the world in her own eyes for the first time. Whenever Nyu is around you always feel there’s a warmth of innocence and good intentions behind everything she does. Nyu might not be able to fully comprehend everything about modern society, but neither do we hold it against her. Yuka on the other hand intends well, but comes across too strongly in expressing herself. She isn’t afraid to speak out her mind that for better or worse leads to the predicament she gets into.

Another good trait about the romance is how it works into the dark themes. As oppose to making the whole series entirely broody the romance aspect tends to be more lighthearted. This is a nice departure serving the interactions between characters feel natural. We never feel like they unknowingly get involved into a big disaster. They naturally go about their daily lives as best they can. These romance scenes reveal a lot about the characters naturally setting up some misunderstandings. A misunderstanding could work its way into a joke which nicely transition into a serious subject. Breaking the barrier’s rough exterior with a joke, then going into its topic with a serious talk. This also works for scenes that feature comedy in general. Depending on the situation within a scene determines the type humor. Ranging from dark humor like a character line from learning he’ll have his genitles remove to out of the blues to metaphor humor like a character having a nightmare on Japan currency crucifying her.

Now where does exactly does exactly blood and gore come into the picture? Well nearly every affection or misunderstanding between Kouta and Lucy/Nyu results in some form of violence. In episode 2, after an argument regarding a precious pink shell Kouta becomes upset at Lucy/Nyu causing her to run away. Lucy and Kouta run into trouble resulting in Kouta being knocked out and Lucy mercilessly killing those sent to retrieve her. While technically both characters haven’t connected at this point it empathizes the focus on a love story. This event only strengthens their bond and from an audiences perspective can truly understand the beauty Kouta finds behind such a cruel killing machine. The romance and the characters current dilemma never builds up to the level as the Diclonius Research Institution violent search to retrieve Lucy, but it’s bridges the gap between discussing larger than life issues with the smaller side of human conflict.

Good: Lots of Great Female Characters

Fans of the series are quick to point to Lucy as the best character of the series regardless of genders and that’s not far from the truth. While not my favorite of the cast, Lucy does resemble a “Jekyll and Hyde” trait transforming back and forth between an entirely defenseless girl you want to protect to a psychopath who you hope don’t come to bad terms with under any circumstances. She chops bodies without having to lift a finger. All she has to do is stand next to a person and let her vectors (telekinetics invisible hands) do all the chopping. She isn’t afraid of a fight on several occasions proving she’s not to be messed with. Being capable of holding her own against her own kind. It also helps that she develops allot through the series seeing what drove her to lose faith in humanity and the person that made her believe in them again.

Mayu is the youngest of the cast of characters and admittedly my favorite of the cast. For anyone wondering no it’s not because she’s cute (her voice actress doesn’t help either), but rather her maturity. Despite never understanding the bigger picture of the series conflicts she manages to be a sort of therapist for the characters. Listening to their problems and being able hold a conversation on subjects she might or not entirely understand. Much like the rest of the female cast she gets a tragic backstory. Nana on ther hand is more lightheaded and no understanding of the real world. She doesn’t receive as much screen time as Lucy, but is a welcome addition with her nearly fun loving personality. Her misunderstanding on how the real world works leads to some funny situations. There are two other worth mentioning, but those two are left as it since mentioning them will lessen their impact when they appear.

Good: Less Is More

Colors are nicely saturated, and the series’ kind of minimalistic design aesthetic comes through decently. Everything visually is kept simplistic even during the moments of carnage which despite having characters get ripped limb to limb are shown one at a time generally. It can get gratuitous with the nudity, but it’s generally used in a context where it would not be viewed as (possible) fan service. Granted some will enjoy the amount of nudity more so than other (me not being one of them). Blood can also get a bit excessive, but the level of dismemberment is intensified by the amount of blood that comes on screen. Either all at once or little by little to proven effect. Character designs are generally distinct, and the lighting for a given scene always look proper. The only major complaint against the animation is all the characters have the same face. While they’re all distinguishable due to hair, eye color, clothing, and things of the like, they all have the same exact facial structure. One of the instances of taking shortcuts, though it’s forgivable since characters are being reused. However, using stock animation in Episode 12 literally minutes after one of its characters performs a specific action does not get a free pass.  

Sound mixing is superb even if the cheery outro “Be Your Girl” by Chieko Kawabe doesn’t fit with the tone of the series. Some of the credit goes to a top-rate soundtrack based around the soulful, elegant Latin opening theme “Lilium” (which, as it turns out, is actually a plot device) stirring hymn inspired from the biblical and buttressed by suitably creepy or dramatic musical scoring in other places. It’s in the use of background noise and sound effects, and the way everything is balanced between multiple speakers, where the sound production truly excels.  It is based upon a catholic chant of the same name. Performed entirely in Latin, it was very unusual and fitting. The Lilium theme also features repeatedly through the flashbacks. The rest of the soundtrack is also good. It sets the right mood and invokes the right emotional response. Most of it is made up of simplistic piano and string arrangements. Instrumental variety isn’t an issue for high quality music is never a bad thing.

Mixed: A Forced Story

Elfen Lied is a tragedy and one that makes sure it does everything to reinforce that. Much like Angel Beats!, what saves the series is great writing and closing a rather large story into 13 episodes that provides a sense of closure. For starter in order for its story to be in a position to continue the characters Kouta and Yuka upon finding Nyu/Lucy naked on the beach first response is to take her home. Instead of the doing usual asking people around town if anyone knows her or report her to the police. Setting up the story with unrealistic action gets a free pass since it’s setting up the story. However, it is a force trigger to get it story going.

Unfortunately Elfen Lied falls into the routine of being predictively cruel leaving little room for surprises. It becomes a running formula for one of the central characters to have a tragedy occur to them. For some characters their troubled past comes across effectively. One example being Mayu character who first time we see her is homeless. Through the early goings we learn tiny details about Mayu current condition which makes it tragic when discovering the truth behind her past. This was foreshadowed as well as hinted at makes sympathy towards Mayu earned. When it hints or allude at a character past and follows up on it becomes a rewarding emotional investment.

Of course anyone who seen the series will hate me for criticising one such scene in Lucy flashback as an example of its forced story. Without spoiling it, all I’ll say is that it involves a puppy. Now here’s a problem with this specific scene. The whole dynamic of Lucy losing faith in humanity at a young age is very forced in this pivotal scene. Lucy takes a liking to puppy, but nothing ever becomes of the relationship. Now in the manga (according to my brother, Anime Psychopath) time is spent on showing Lucy relationship with this puppy which gives greater significance to what occurs to the puppy. In the anime series we don’t get that at all making it feel like it just happened the next day. All that is gathered from Lucy connection with the puppy is that she wanted to feed it and that’s it. We’re never shown any depth to Lucy connection for this puppy aside from she likes it. That’s not so hard buy since allot of people like puppies. It comes off as a plot device that forces itself to prove a point not so much to add value to its story.

Now the whole series does falter in major conflicts getting resolved rather quickly. This is also to blamed on the writing anime series which yes is not a problem in the manga. One such example is Kouta finally gaining back his memory of a tragedy that occurred to him at a young age. Once he discovers who it was behind the murdered of his father and younger sister he quickly forgives the person who done it. Apparently Kouta finds family murdered to be a turn on. Another issue with the series is Yuka (basically the childhood best friend, love interest) character is the weakest of an otherwise great cast mostly filled with strong female characters. More than half of Yuka’s dialogue has something to do about Kouta possibly not loving her or someone else taking him away from her. She’s not given much of a personality coming across overly clinging and unsupportive of Kouta’s good will taking in girls with life issues.

The final episode in particular is a mixed bag. For starter it hints there’s a lot more story left to tell, but doesn’t have a second season to tell those stories. To its credit it does end many of its hanging threads to prevent dissatisfaction with how it all played out. However, it’s basically a read the manga ending if you want to discover what happened pass that ending.

Final Thoughts:

Elfen Lied is currently the most mature anime I’ve had finished. Visually its minimalist details emphasises the nature of pain that comes from violence serving as a commentary tool for its dark themes rather than mere spectacles. Suffering some minor issues from a force story that is routinely tragic and a ending that reveals there’s a lot more story left to tell that is not going to make it way onto the small screen or big screen anytime soon. As it stand as a 13 episode anime Elfen Lied gets across many themes without stumbling between the dark nature of the cruel world and the lighthearted moments between its cast. It might not last very long, but like Angel Beats! it’s a short burst of a quality television worth giving it a watch while it last.

Themes: 2/2

Genre Blending: 2/2

Characters: 2/2

Production Values: 2/2

Execution: 1/2

Rating: 9/10 – Elfen Lied falls into a routine of being predictably cruel, but never does predictability detract from what’s otherwise a great show. It has light elements you associate with anime while never lessening its maturity in telling a story with many dark themes.

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