Anime Review: Elfen Lied

Kouta is a student just getting started with college. He’s looking forward to living in his own house, reuniting with his cousin Yuuka, and generally living an uneventful life. But plans change as one evening at the beach, they find a strange, naked girl with horns growing from her head. She has no memory of who she is, and can’t even speak, so naturally, they take her in. “Nyuu,” as they call her, has a dark, terrible secret. She’s actually a Diclonius, a human with special destructive powers. A powerful organization is trying to hunt her down, but Kouta’s strangely protective attitude towards Nyuu gets him and Yuuka entangled in mystery, intrigue, melodrama, and lots and lots of bloody murder.

Plot

Perhaps echoing the split of Nyuu’s personality, there are two main stories that seem very different, but are connected. One part is a laughably predictable love/drama that involves Kouta’s feelings for Nyuu, and Yuuka’s feelings for Kouta. For reasons that aren’t clear until the end, Kouta has a habit of taking vagrant girls into his care – which sounds like the setup of something very perverted to me. In fact, this part of the story bears extreme resemblance to the basic premise of Chobits, down to the part where they name the strange girl after the only thing she can say (Nyuu).

With a start like that, it’s hardly surprising that there is a boatload of melodrama just waiting to happen. The main female characters do a lot of crying, and it all gets kind of ridiculous eventually. “Drama” in this series means crying, slapping, or running against a backdrop of rain or sunsets. It got to the point where I was forced to wonder if the producers told a sixth grader to write the B-story. The other part of the series is a sort of military horror drama, and the two contrasting moods are spliced together to fair effect. If you’re not used to extreme gore, be careful when watching Elfen Lied. Most likely an appeal to the growing Japanese extreme cinema market, this series combines violence, nudity, sexual deviance, and all sorts of mental disorders into one big sloppy package.

And therein lies the problem: it’s simply too ambitious for a thirteen episode series. You eventually get the impression that everything presented on screen is only superficially significant. Certainly, Elfen Lied makes mention of topics that convential anime avoids, and doesn’t shy away from brutality and gore. But the director rarely ever uses the violence to say anything – when he does, it just comes across as a tautology anyway. Everything seems to be shown for its own sake, just because it’s out of the ordinary.

Fortunately, the misogyny and violence displayed is not glorified; this is not really an action anime. This series is indeed one of impressions and moods. Suspense is built up by your anticipation of murder, and then you get a visceral release. Despite all of its failings, some part of Elfen Lied stuck with me after the end. You just don’t see much anime that tackles such dark and taboo subjects without grossly mishandling the execution. That’s why I want to recommend Elfen Lied. But after you get past the nature of the topics presented, you’ll see that the substance still has a long way to go.

Characters

The cast of Elfen Lied is not the worst I’ve ever encountered. Although the characters are fairly easy to sympathize with, I never felt they had much depth or substance. Kouta, for example, is a pretty uninteresting lead until maybe the last two episodes. We’ve simply seen this kind of role before in thousands of other main characters. He’s stoic, somewhat dim-witted, has a strong sense of duty, and absolutely will not take the common sense course of action. Only too late do we really appreciate the depth of his psychological trauma (the nature of which seems too arbitrary and miraculously coincidental to me).

Yuuka is similarly generic. She has fallen for her cousin (I guess that’s an Asian thing… it happens a lot in anime), but has trouble expressing her feelings. Well poor Yuuka has to deal with her jealousy as Kouta is stalwart in his decision to house and nurse Nyuu. She’s the sort of character that just has to be there, but offers nothing of value to the series. Her presence doesn’t affect Kouta’s feelings for Nyuu, nor is she portrayed as someone who is at all capable of resolving the Lucy situation.

Lucy (Nyuu’s darker personality) has been endlessly tortured by human malevolence. This is the cause of the extreme violence that we see throughout the series. Surprisingly, the writers actually hit upon a good character with Lucy. Are her acts of horrible violence justified? Can we assign the blame to Lucy, or should we blame ourselves for creating such a monster? These questions are raised toward the end of the series, and seeing Lucy’s origin casts the earlier parts of the series in a different light. Having such a revelation re-inform your interpretation of earlier events is a cool narrative trick, and it really pays off in a story that frequently lacks direction.

A large host of side characters also get brought in for dubious story purposes. Mayu is a victim of child abuse and molestation who wanders the streets with her dog Wanta. She finds a home at Kouta’s residence, and befriends Nana, another Diclonius. Nana is perhaps the most sympathetic character; she’s very nonviolent despite the fact that she has been tortured by scientists virtually every day of her life. Her bond with Kurama (a scientist) in particular is odd because he seems to be responsible for some of the terrible things that happen to her. In a misguided attempt to fight Lucy, Nana winds up in a lot of trouble, and of course eventually becomes a resident in Kouta’s household. Why? Because it’s anime and that’s how it works.

This is the kind of thinking that really irritates me about this show. Why did this or that have to happen? Because it’s anime, and that’s what happens. I don’t dislike any of the characters in particular. But they were written in mostly for the wrong reasons (some are simply forgotten about when the conclusion rolls around). For someone as interesting as Lucy, giving her a counterpart as dull as Kouta will only hurt the story. The writers are blatantly playing it safe here, resorting to templates when they should be experimenting with new personalities to help the story along.

Technical

After the rather haunting opening sequence, everything else feels fairly generic. The characters are the typical anime fare, and nothing about their design really stands out except for some really bad outfits for Nyuu. The colors are too bright for the subject matter, but the scenes are ultimately composed well enough to get across the intended tone.

The musical selection was pretty subdued, lacking any distinct sound or anything that heightens the mood. And let’s not forget the voice acting, which for the most part was understated, but can get incredibly cheesy. Generally, I have no huge qualms about the production values. It just seems like nothing special. The art did get inconsistent at times. If you compare these visuals with, say, Fullmetal Alchemist, a TV series that’s two seasons long, the production just looks unpolished.