Director: Mamoru Kanbe
Screenplay: Takao Yoshioka
Based on a manga by Lynn Okamoto
Voice Cast: Chihiro Suzuki (as Kouta); Sanae Kobayashi (as Lucy / Nyuu); Emiko Hagiwara (as Mayu); Hiroaki Hirata (as Professor Kakuzawa Yu); Mamiko Noto (as Yuka); Maria Yamamoto (as Kanae); Yuki Matsuoka (as Nana)
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles
Out of all the anime I admire greatly, Elfen Lied is the most compellingly flawed. Out of its thirteen television episodes, and an additional one released straight-to-video later, its virtues are as much amplified by its strange production decisions as they exist in spite of them. It's a series that regardless of its weird tonal shifts manages to tap into a nihilistic teenage angst that is sincerely dark, rather than the cliché of the moody teenage angst other anime fail with. It's as appropriately ugly and messy as the emotions one feels as a young adult as much because of its strange decisions as well as the plot, tapping into something more visceral as a result. The series is still available today whilst other more famous ones have been out of print, both for its infamy through its gore but clearly because it touched viewers emotionally. Particularly, what was once clearly made for Japanese male otaku became more twisted and emotionally razored as its developed a fan base, which you can see just from looking on Deviant Art showing this hit something personal despite its erratic qualities.
In an alternative modern Japan, young girls are being born as Diclonius - genetic mutants with natural pink hair, natural pink/red eyes, two small horns growing out of their heads and vectors, usually four invisible arms alongside their own, the result of a enlarged pineal gland, which can both move objects but can also slice through any objects including flesh and bond with ease. Diclonius are seen as a threat to humanity, killed at birth or locked up to be experimented on by a secret government organisation, who can only reproduce by infecting males with the touch of their vectors and are viewed as an evolutionary stage meant to replace mankind, mostly sociopathic and even capable of murdering their parents from the age of being a toddler in the eyes of those trying to stop them. One of the most dangerous, the "Queen Bee" who can reproduce normally and may be the origins of the Diclonius, is Lucy, a young woman who escapes confinement in the first episode in a gruesome manner. A sniper manages to hit her in the head before she flees, the trauma causing Lucy to become dormant and a new personality to take over, a child like savant completely unable to look after herself found on the beach by cousins Kouta and Yuka. Dubbed Nyuu, from the only word she can say at first, she is taken in at Kouta's new home, a former restaurant, leading to her meeting various people, and opening up many traumas and anxieties of all those involved as Lucy is still within her sub-consciousness. Kouta's amnesia especially of the death of his little sister and father, Yuka's unrequited love for him, and Lucy's conflict as a Diclonius and as traumatised young woman, all the while the scientists who had her captive use anything from psychotic soldier to her own kind to find her.
Elfen Lied is laced, intoxicated, with very exaggerated melodrama. Everything is fraught with emotions unsaid, building up as new characters converge at the home and bring their own baggage - a young runaway called Mayu and Nana, a Diclonius sent after Lucy who is mutilated by her and had to blindly stumble into the world naively as a member of this mutation who is alien to the destructive desires of her kind and only cares to be enjoy life. This emotions, where there is an average of one scene of crying in each episode at points, are exaggerated further by the extremes of the content, warning you as a viewer what to expect when the first ten minutes of the first episode is a barrage of dismemberments and gore as Lucy escapes a government lab. This is capped by a clear message of intent as a clumsy young female secretary, cute in her habit of tripping over her feet and a likely protagonist for another anime, has her head popped off by invisible hands like a coke bottle lid in one of many moments where stereotypes of cuteness and sweetness get mangled in the series. It's amazing, based on the age ratings set in stone in Britain, that Elfen Lied has always been acceptable for fifteen year olds to see and buy. Not only is there extreme levels of gore, harkening back to the infamous examples of gory anime from the nineties, and a lot of nudity but there are some incredibly dark themes brought up throughout the narrative. Some of it could only be acceptable to depict visually animated, the Diclonius viewed as monsters yet, despite Lucy happily killing people depending on her mood, the scientists more than capable of torturing and experimenting on them even when they're children.
While its heavy handed in places, one of the most interesting creative decisions for the anime is that, even if someone like Lucy is sociopathic and murders innocent people, human beings barring sympathetic characters are actually worse than the Diclonius; the officials use their polite digression and view that they'll save mankind to hide acts of violence in the name of scientific study, like firing giant steel balls at a chained up Diclonius, adults commit sexual child abuse and even children will harm a small animal to torment a peer. An obvious idea, but alongside the possible humanity still left in Lucy as the Nyuu side blurs with her own, the idea that it may be for the better if mankind was violently replaced by Diclonius rears its head frequently even if there are human characters capable of only kindness like Mayu. This in itself probably explains the popularity of this series as I brought up in the first paragraph - adolescence angst taken on a wider scale, nihilism and hope confused with exaggeration an important part of that depiction. Alongside Lucy's back-story, there is a theme of trauma as its clear many of the Diclonius are the result of neglect, emotional and physical abuse or isolation from birth, the monsters firmly created by their apparent victims treating them like freaks. That most of the Diclonius are female and the scientists mostly male, even if it was unintentional, cannot help but bring up a theme of misogyny, as I cannot help find it blend into a theme of nature versus civilisation from the horns the Diclonius have, evoking pagan gods and vengeful natural spirits. The series, while light in tone in spots with comedy, is unbelievable grim at points as a result, comparable to (entry #15) Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011) only with a bipolar tone and a cavalcade of decapitated heads and ketchup gore.
The bipolar nature of Elfen Lied is as much an added personality to the show's tone as much as it is a distraction. It suffers from a problem like many anime of it being completed when the original manga had yet to be finished, but contrary to how I first saw it, it's not as jarring in how it ends, still having a smaller and sufficient emotional one that does work as a close even if there's a lot of loose ends left. The cutting between events in the middle of scenes back-and-forth is an interesting editing style which does cause a varying emotional reaction, clearly deliberate in places even though it does lead to one moment where day and night apparently switch between each other. Character behaviour, adding to the hyper melodramatic tone, flips within the same scene, though it is possible to imagine its closer to a theatrical acting performance cycling between emotions than the leisured tones of other stories. Some continuity errors stick out and the decision in the last episode to recycle parts of Lucy's childhood back-story does come off as cheap padding.
The area where the series both has its best and worst aspects is in the work of screenwriter and series composer Takao Yoshioka. He does an admirable job with the story but significantly, his work includes (entry #6) High School DxD (2012) and the Ikki Tousen series alongside other works with heavy amounts of fan service, not pop culture references but "fan service" in terms of nudity and sexuality, and this series shows his other work's trademarks including as a detriment. Some of it is appropriately unsettling, discretion or the act of purposely creeping out the viewer taking place as the Diclonius are treated less than experimental lab rats. Some however is pure titillation and, like with other anime with underage characters, its discomforting especially when there's a difference between tackling the awkward passions the characters would have around each other, even as a comedy moment, and just being tasteless. Particularly with Nyuu, a child savant who is yet a grown young woman, some of this is inexplicable when she starts to be able to interact with more than one word and starts behaving in odd ways along this way. Some of it works as fittingly weird - an act of dry humping, which she is perfectly with as Kouta is frozen stiff mortified during it, reminds one of a scene Lars von Trier could've added to The Idiots (1998), but having her gropes Yuka at one point for a joke is just dumb. Thankfully this isn't High School DxD but the traits Takao Yoshioka likely emphasised in that series can be found in brief flashes here. A dream involving "naked crucifixion" with sentient yen money possessing limbs and waving burning torches is as mad as a box of frogs and was probably written by one of the amphibian occupants within said box. Cumbersome attempts at humour usually in the sex comedy vibe, while some of it works, are probably the biggest potential hindrance to viewers even above the misanthropy and gore. It's both absolutely distracting and yet, depending on one's reactions, fittingly bizarre for such manic material, the whole barrel of hormones soaked into a story fitting for its young adult and teenage cast, even ones with pink hair and horns, alongside the trauma and depression, as appropriately in poor taste as it is good taste rather than sabotaging the entirety of the series.
In defence of Elfen Lied's tone, it knows when to be serious. As much of this is in the presentation as well as the script, and just from the opening credits one is brought into a series, despite its haphazard nature, this is going to do its best to be earnest and thoughtful. While it may seem sacrilegious, recreating the paintings of Austrian painter Gustav Klimt with the characters - The Kiss (1907-8), Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) etc. - is incredibly effecting and appropriate, all the paintings referenced from Klimt's famous Golden Period which were very sensual, erotic but in cases melancholic. The titular "Elfen Lied" is a German poem, a music box version playing an important part as a plot point. Visually the series proper is the standard of digitally assisted, brightly coloured animation of the early 2000s, bolstered by its story and gruesomeness, thankfully as far away from digitally assisted camera pans and CGI vehicles as possible. Musically the series is helped immensely; baring a mandatory cutesy pop song on the end credit and surprising use of drum 'n' bass, most of the score is also coral like the opening theme and ethereal, adding greatly to the show's tone. In general, while it can be a haphazard thirteen episodes - the bonus episode trying to add more to Lucy's back-story using a subplot from the manga but jarring against her emotional trajectory at the point its set, thus making it useless - but what had kept me going back to Elfen Lied, and more than happy to defend it here, is this concoction of emotions that still feels rawer than a lot of anime, as messy as the themes its depicting and causing one to feel as messed up by the end of it as the characters themselves. It's an anime that does punch you in the gut and I access its mistakes as part of its personality, making it far more meaningful as a result.