Anime Review: Elfen Lied

Written by Richard Brown

Elfen Lied proved to be the most time consuming review I have ever written, going through four drafts before I got it right, and the tone level. But is the anime any good? Read on to find out.

The Basic Plot

In the near future, two students, Kouta and Yuka, find a horned girl on the beach.  Obviously lost and confused, they decide to take her home, and name her “Nyuu” after the only word she can say Unbeknownst to them, this is actually “Lucy”, a Diclonius, a mutant who can kill in an instant at the slightest provacation. Lucy/Nyuu doesn’t remember who she is, and has recently escaped from a maximum security secret base.  What will happen when she remembers? Or when her captors come looking for her?

Violence, Sex and Gore

Elfen Lied is best known for its opening scene, which is possibly one of the most memorable in anime. Naked bar a face concealing helmet, Lucy breaks out of her restraints, and proceeds to dismember and kill more or less everyone she sees, before taking a .50 calibre BMG round to the head, which inadvertently creates her alternative “Nyuu” personality and sets the series in motion.  The scene is deservedly infamous, and it sets the tone for the series. Elfen Lied is one of the bloodiest animes I have ever seen, although people don’t die every episode. While this anime prefers violence, it’s also fond of using sexual subjects to shock. I am not going to go into much detail here, I like my reviews to be nominally worksafe, but some things need to be said. There are a number of implied rapes, child abuse, and no small amount of nudity in places where you wouldn’t want it. Nobody has anything approximating a normal relationship in this one. In short, this anime is not for the faint of heart.

With the warnings made above, I feel can start talking about the actual anime and its elements. Elfen Lied has strong elements of horror, balanced by moments of humour, sadness, and revelation. None of this is the animes defining feature however; all of the above is used purely for one purpose. The thing about Elfen Lied is that its key, and possibly single, strategy is to provoke the strongest possible reaction from its audience. It is very good at this, its impossible not to be affected by the endless stream of tragedy. The many amusing pieces of comedy, those scenes of tenderness, all of it serves to weaken you before the next emotional scene. The anime does however have two major, interdependent, problems that feed off each other until it’s just an endless stream of awful. The first is that the anime spends so much time off the deep end that it becomes routine; you will learn to spot the signs of impending doom, and you soon stop caring about the characters. I found myself very quickly becoming cynical and indifferent to the fate of Kouta and co., and this brought into focus the second problem. The plot progression is so reliant on coincidence and idiocy that it gave me a case of “Reviewer’s Rant”, and it makes the first problem worse, as you know there’s no shortcut the anime won’t take, and idiots aren’t that likable outside of comedy.  I could end the review right here, and you could indeed skip to the conclusion. However, its failings do merit further explanation.

Spoilers will be discussed from this point onward.

The Problem Part 1: Plotting, Contrivances and Idiocy

You really can’t enjoy this anime for its plot and story. Its simply too fond of contrived coincidences and convenient stupidity, and I could not suspend my disbelief.  To demonstrate, I am going pose a hypothetical question to you, the reader. Let’s say you find a naked a girl on the beach, with an obvious head injury, odd horns, and who is very confused, what do you do? If your answer is along the lines of “Put some clothes on her and call an ambulance”, congratulations, you have given what is possibly the only sensible course of action, but its not what Kouta and Yuka do, instead taking her home wearing Kouta’s underwear, and I can’t quite work out why they did. There’s no end of reasons why taking her to a doctor, or possibly a policeman, would have been a really good idea, not least because head injuries are potentially fatal if untreated, but I strongly suspect the reason why they didn’t is because it was convenient to the writers. A counter argument to this is “If they didn’t take Lucy/Nyuu home, there would be no anime”.  That misses the point; of course Kouta needs to take Lucy/Nyuu home for narrative purposes, but there are other ways of doing it. For instance, Kouta could have met her/them while she/they was being chased by some gunmen, neatly giving him a cast iron reason to take her/they in, and avoid any form of authority like that you would get in a Hospital or Doctor’s Office. That situation instead happens in episode 2, which makes up for the bad start somewhat, but it sets a precedent for the series. This is but the first dumb thing of many the characters would do, and also would be revealed to be the first of many contrived coincidences. It turns out that the trio happen to have a common history, hidden behind mental illness and a government cover up, and Kouta and Yuka also attend a college where the person who set up Lucy/Nyuu’s escape teaches. There’s a rather large number of chance encounters between those close to the Diclonius around that stretch of coast. The writers seem to have been lazy about plotting, although in all fairness, they were trying to compress 107 chapters of a then incomplete manga into 13 episodes.

Ok, Kouta and Yuka are obviously just good kids with bad judgement, but are they the only ones acting a bit stupid? No, the unnamed shadowy group set up to deal with the Diclonius threat is incompetent, and they don’t really have an excuse, given the number of big brains they employ. Time for another hypothetical question. Let’s say you are in charge of holding a group of homicidally insane mutants, and you definitely don’t want any escaping. They are often bulletproof, and can basically mince anybody within 3+ metres, but through a series of highly unethical experiments it has been established what weapons can reliably hurt them.  What do you equip the guards with? If your answer is along the lines of “As many weapons that I know work as possible”, congratulations, you have demonstrated better judgement than this men-in-black organisation.  I do not exagerate, it’s mentioned in episode 1 what calibre of bullet you need to drop someone like Lucy/Nyuu, its confirmed in later episodes that pistols with effective  ammo do exist, and they have already had at least one escape attempt where the guns they had were found lacking. So why are the guards equipped with pistols and sub-machine guns they know are  basically useless? The answer is simple, the director really wanted that rampage in episode 1, and if the average mook had the firepower to actually hurt Lucy/Nyuu, this would not have been possible. Perhaps I am being too genre savvy here, but this is like having an organisation that hunts Werewolves refusing to buy silver bullets for its hunters. Sure, conventional weapons would slow them down, maybe even kill a weak one, but basically all it will do is make them angry.  Now for the final hypothetical question. Let’s say a Diclonius gets out, and you need to recapture her before the civilians start dying, and she starts spreading the virus that propagates her kind. You need to send a team of men, specialists in this sort of thing, so what do you do ? If your answer is along the lines of “find of  a bunch hardnuts who will keep quiet, tell them exactly what they are up against and give them the guns that work” congratulations, but that probably the sensible course of action, but its not the one taken, and more people die as a result. I could go on, but picking apart every questionable decision would not only spoil the entire plot, but also make an already too long review even longer. The above are only the issues that arise from the first two episodes, there are many more, like Kouta’s plan to take Lucy/Nyuu to class with him, a certain scientist’s plan to free a second Diclonius, another’s plan to impregnate Lucy/Nyuu, or the decision to send a Diclonius to catch another Diclonius, twice. I’m sorry, I just really don’t like it when an anime makes a pretence of being serious science fiction, but fails any form of logical analysis. Perhaps I am overthinking things, but what is sci fi for, if its not for geekish over analysis?

The Problem Part 2: Empathy Failure

One thing that makes a great anime, or redeems a sub-par one, is characterisation. If the characters are interesting, likable or memorable, you’re halfway there. Eflin Lied scores badly on this front, because, as outlined above, there’s a tendency for the characters to do what is required for the next tragedy or plot development, rather than act in a believable way. This is compounded by the animes regular abuse of those characters that are even slightly sympathetic, as part of its quest to shock. Towards this end, there’s no shortage of monsters, both figurative and literal, that make regular appearances. One thought I did have during the earlier episodes was that just about every named character in the cast had a horrible death in their near future and no one to blame but themselves for it. Mass murderers, teenagers suffering from plot convenient idiocy, victims so obvious they might as well have bull’s-eyes tattooed on their faces, scientists with no ethical oversight, baby killers, sadists, and the generically evil populate this anime, and on first impressions I was less than impressed.  How can you bond with these people? Even if you find yourself liking someone, the possibility of bodily dismemberment/murder sort of discourages you from forming any attachments. It’s a very basic principle of storytelling; people have to identify with the characters in order for the tale to be effective. Elfen Lied bases itself on this principle; assuming that we will care about the characters, but it takes the audience for granted, and the characters end up being little more than tools for the next shock, and the latest fountain of blood has no meaning as a result. My emotions just shut down in self-defence, which I suppose is to the animes credit, to get that strong a reaction from me. However, this is not a good thing, as you will see the next tragedy coming, and by extension half the plot.

Take Kouta as an example. He is not a bad person by the standards of the series, no blood on his hands, but the anime makes him do some really silly things to advance the story and that makes sympathising with him difficult. The sad truth is, the anime needs him to be an idiot, because had he acted sensibly at any one of three or so key points, the plot would have collapsed like a house of cards. Factor in his bouts of memory loss, and you basically have a person who wanders through life aimlessly, acting as a catalyst for the next bloodbath. Then look at Yuka for another example.  Again, not strictly speaking a bad person, though she is about as stupid as Kouta, and her fixation on him is childish, a touch creepy, and ultimately very selfish.  She spends a lot of her screentime obsessing over a childhood promise of love, getting upset because he doesn’t remember it, and reacting jealously to any potential love rival. When we find out what the basis for this crush was, and the reason why Kouta forgot about it, any goodwill you had towards this character vanishes. Plus there is the whole “you are my cousin, isn’t it taboo to date you?” issue, a grey area which the anime doesn’t address. In any case, Kouta does himself no favours by first ignoring her behaviour, and then reciprocating just enough to lead her on. Then, for a third example, look at Lucy. While the split personality muddies the waters a great deal, (Nyuu is as blameless and charming as a puppy,) the fact remains that she is a damaged and dangerous individual who was rightly locked up in the first place. Yes, she does have a bad background, and you sympathise with her to some extent, but she kills and mutilates so frequently and viciously it’s hard to forgive her . All this ultimately led to a weird situation where I was expecting Lucy to kill Kouta and Yuka, before being gunned down by the army, as this seemed to be the only likely fate for the trio.  This doesn’t happen of course, but little that did was much of a surprise. The only character I actually liked in this anime was Bando, a human who can compete with Lucy in the homicidal monster league, and that’s only because his situation, which involves going on the run to save his testicles, is quite comical.

Spoilers now end.

Now for the Positives

I will admit that I really didn’t enjoy this anime, so I must concede the possibility of bias, and bias is something I try very hard to avoid. I do have a tendency to focus like a laser beam on a given negative, and miss out on the positives. With this in mind, and assuming that you don’t take offence to this anime, what is there to enjoy or admire? Two worthwhile things, as it turns out, although the aspects I take issue with often overshadow them. Firstly, this anime has nerve, it’s willing to touch on difficult issues that few animes would dare, and this is to be respected. While I feel that the child sex abuse sub-plot could have been handled with much greater care, generally this is a challenging experience, forcing you to consider the morality of the situation, and there aren’t any easy answers. Are the Diclonius the monsters they seem to be, or are they brutalised children with weapons they shouldn’t have? Are the attempts to contain and experiment on them justified? Does Lucy/Nyuu deserve a second chance? Did she have a chance in the first place? Is that one innocent Diclonius is sign of hope, or is she simply suffering from Stockholme Syndrome? Its always a good thing for a piece of fiction to provoke debate, and the animes love of gore actually adds to this. So, if you want to take an interlectual perspective, you can, just don’t think about how the story actually progresses. Secondly, the anime does the quiet moments, the lulls between the shock scenes, very well.  In a roundabout way, Elfen Lied is something of a harem anime, one that is best compared to a ticking time bomb attended by the mentally ill admittedly, but still a harem anime, and the scenes based around the characters day to day lives represent some of the enjoyable ones in the anime. For example, Kouta’s actually ok when he isn’t playing with the idiot ball, and his interaction with Lucy’s alternate personality Nyuu is a pleasant respite. A late addition to the cast adds to the humour value of the series, and even Yuka demonstrates comic timing. The OVA episode 10.5, in addition to filling a few plot holes, is largely about this sort of thing, and better for it. So, if you aren’t put off by the certainty that a nasty scene always follows a happy scene, there is something to enjoy, but I feel I am reaching a bit here. There isn’t much of an overlap between the gore market and the romantic comedy market, after all.

Conclusion

This anime is very hard going, and drives away many people due to its subject matter and infuriatingly manipulative writing, including me.  The best thing I can say about Elfen Lied is that it’s a marmite anime, and that if it doesn’t appeal to you by the end of episode 3, you should probably stop watching it. However, if you enjoy emotional roller coasters or gore, and you aren’t too concerned with the story that allows it, give Elfen Lied a try. I can’t honestly recommend it though.

5/10

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