Elfen Lied is the 2004 anime adaptation of a twelve-volume manga by Lynn Okomoto that ran from 2002-2005 in Weekly Young Jump. Although this particular anime is more than a decade old, Okomoto has recently returned to the anime world - she is also the mangaka of Brynhildr in the Darkness which was animated last year by Studio Arms (and you can read our thoughts on it here), the same outfit that also animated Elfen Lied. Although it's from a while back Elfen Lied is no less memorable; indeed it's a signal title that will be immediately recognisable to older anime fans. It was a tent-pole release of the major licensing company ADV Films and a bestseller in the fattest years of the Western anime boom - you look back on it and fondly remember the good times before the bubble burst, when entire wings of HMV could be dedicated to anime instead of just the shelf or two you might get today. It's that nostalgic glow of a golden age that 101 Films is hoping will reflect off the shiny steel cover of their Blu-Ray re-release of Elfen Lied, and even though ADV Films is now just a stack of copyright certificates in a lawyer's desk-drawer its marque is still prominent on the box. 101 Films are also treading over familiar ground - they have already released Elfen Lied as a DVD-format Complete Collection two years ago, which we also reviewed - does more time to reflect on the series, a Blu-Ray touch-up and a change of perspective alter our opinion on it?
I should start at the beginning with the powerful impact that Elfen Lied made when it was first released. The show garnered widespread praise, with the Anime News Network calling it "a horror series of exceptional merit", while the Nihon Review called it "involving" and "awesome" and Minitokyo even called it "one of the best I've ever seen". I'm a little surprised that all that positive feedback could have been obtained on the basis of so little though, as Elfen Lied is the shortest anime that I've ever reviewed on this site. It lasts just nine minutes.
The content of those nine minutes is brief but bloody. In a mysterious and forbidding research facility on a barren island a girl is breaking free of her prison. This is no cry for freedom, however, but a gruesome eruption of unrestrained violence. The girl is naked except for the all-enclosing helmet that masks her inscrutable visage; but while her bare body and pale white skin may suggest delicacy and vulnerability, who can tell what twisted, manic expression she's making behind a helmet whose lock suggests a row of teeth? For all that she might appear as a slight waif, this girl nonetheless possesses formidable power. While she might be walking slowly at a gentle pace, she uses incredible telekinesis to create incongruent havoc around her strangely serene form. She rips off her restraints as if they're as insubstantial as cobwebs, crushes steel pipes like plastic straws, cuts apart blast doors like paper screens, and gorily dismembers anyone who crosses her path - be they attacking soldier or innocent civilian, each one is torn limb from limb without compunction. These powers may suggest some ancient satanic evil, but the staff of the base call her by a weirdly ordinary name - Lucy. The facility's security team make repeated attempts to restrain or kill this Lucy, but the girl seems invulnerable - she's raked with machine-gun fire and shot hundreds of times, but every bullet stops in the air in front of her before tinkling to the ground harmlessly. Anyone who faces Lucy, alas, does not enjoy such defences and their innards are soon externalised - but for all of this girl's appalling brutality there are certain people that she seems to spare, like the chief of the base - is it inconstant insane caprice, a dualistic struggle between her sense of monstrosity and mercy, or is she just saving them for later? Lucy eventually breaks out of the facility and escapes onto the island's coast, where she's finally surprised by a sniper-rifle shot that wallops her in the head, smashing open her helmet and sending the girl and her cavorting spiral of red hair plunging into the sea.
That's all. Elfen Lied is done. It has shown you its hand. presented its artistic style and its thematic thought to the wider world. It has fired off its gimmick, and the powder is spent. You can stop watching now - the remaining 354 minutes of footage on these two discs are just redundant white noise and junk data.
Now as I've said before, I love violence. Bloodshed and gore is healthy, invigorating and full of heat and vitality, and everyone should enjoy it. I grew up on Games Workshop's Warhammer - it takes a skin-flaying just to get me out of bed in the morning - and when I reviewed Hellsing Ultimate a couple of years ago I summed it up with "ultraviolence is the best violence". I need to establish my credentials so you know that my reaction isn't just because a bit of claret gives me a fit of the vapours. I love violence - what I cannot abide however is stupidity, and good grief is Elfen Lied stupid.
Where to even begin? Oh, here's a good bit. A guard shouts to his colleagues, "her power has a range of two metres!" He's standing barely five metres away from Lucy in a corridor that's at least thirty metres long. The guards talk amongst themselves about what Lucy can control as she's walking towards them. Tactical brilliance there, chaps, truly you will seize the laurels from Scipio Africanus.
It's indicative of a wider problem with the action in this scene. Lucy breaks out - a squad of security guards stand immediately in front of her in an open corridor without cover, and they all die. She goes up the stairs - another squad of guards stand immediately in front of her in an open corridor without cover, and they all die. Another corridor - a third squad of guards stand immediately in front of her in an open corridor without cover, and they all die. Level 4 - now they change things up a bit; five squads of guards stand immediately in front of her in an open corridor without cover. They don't all die this time - there's so many bodies that some of them have time to run away while Lucy's occupied pulling limbs off their comrades like daisy petals.
There's that common definition of insanity which is 'repeatedly doing the same thing and yet expecting different results', isn't there? I'm not sure whether to give these security guards gallantry decorations for how unquestioningly they throw themselves into a situation is visibly futile and literally suicidal, or wonder if this facility was offering free lobotomies as a sweetener to the company health insurance plan when it was recruiting them.
What makes this unremitting stupidity unforgiveable though is that Lucy is not some alien monster that's just come out of nowhere and started killing randomly - lining everyone up like Napoleonic musketeers might be a bit more coherent if that was the case, but it is not. Lucy's a test subject in this facility, and they know what she's capable of - the knowledge is so open and widespread that even the low-level redshirts openly talk about it - and yet they attack her in a way that's not only completely ineffectual given her powers but actually complements and enhances them - she can move objects with unnatural strength just by the power of thought, let's give her lots of small, sharp things she can throw back at us! At one point Lucy takes out one of the security guards by picking up a pen and throwing it so hard it impales his brain through the eye socket. Ooh, nasty - good trick. So good in fact she does the exact same thing a minute or so later. When the scriptwriters and directors are running out of ideas inside the same single scene then things really are getting desperate.
"We're out of bullets!" a guard cries - you had thirty seconds when you were all just standing there waiting for her to move when you could have reloaded, you realise? The animators would have to draw more than one frame though. Then at the end of it all, Lucy is shot from long range by a sniper rifle which they tell us she can't defend against ...why didn't they just do that in the first place? There are more than a dozen bodies smeared across the ceiling and their deaths were completely and utterly pointless.
Ridiculous further still is that after they realise that the target's still alive after being knocked into the sea, no-one thinks to go and finish her off. The sea's calm, it wouldn't take more than ten minutes to send a boat puttering round to fish her out again. Hell, if you don't want to get yourselves wet just toss in a belt of grenades after her and we can have sushi in the refectory tonight. Yet as soon as she hits the surface she's gone, vanished, lost forever, as if Mario just jumped down a pipe and fell off the field of play. Lucy is supposed to be a threat to human civilisation that's comparable to The Thing and yet her escape heralds just a shrug and a "well, we tried" - and yep, you failed. All the while Gregorian plainsong chants in the background. This makes it all meaningful, y'see.
I ought to have an aside talking about Kisaragi, one of the secretaries on the base. As Lucy's breaking out she's chatting in the office kitchen with a couple of her girlfriends, and goes to deliver a coffee to her boss just as the alarms start to go off. Kisaragi is a stereotypical clumsy character and she can barely walk three yards without tripping over her own feet, and this adorable childlike lump of saccharine clumsy-moe blunders into Lucy's path precisely to get her head unscrewed off her neck and demonstrate Lucy's cruelty to everyone, not just direct threats. I'm not appalled at the gratuitous murder, though, I'm irritated at the scriptwriters for writing a character that's so implausibly and witlessly oblivious she couldn't hear the gunfire, screams or the blaring sirens telling everyone to evacuate. You could have had her hear the sirens, then as she's clumsy get lost looking for the exit in her panic, and then encounter Lucy - it would have been fitting without being imbecilic.
I said at the start that Elfen Lied is only nine minutes long, and I've spent so much time dismantling these nine minutes, because this opening scene is a microcosm of the whole series that follows. The script is just repeated contorted contrivances to get blood-spray onto the screen no matter how senseless or illogical it is, and everyone in the cast is played by an utter cretin.
Surely I'm exaggerating? Okay, first impressions may have been bad, but can I condemn thirteen episodes on the basis of one-half? Hasn't it got time to make up for early mistakes? Oh, you sweet, pure, blessed, wide-eyed, innocent, hopeless, ignorant fools. Buckle up, we're in for a bumpy ride.
Lucy is washed up on the beach of the mainland where she's discovered by a boy and girl, college student Kohta and his cousin Yuka. Lucy's head injury from when she was shot appears to have damaged her personality and she's now regressed to the state of an infant - Kohta and Yuka call her Nyu after the babyish squeak that's now her only word, immediately deciding to take her in and make her one of the family even though Yuka says herself she has no real idea about caring for children and you might think about going to the hospital first for a girl who has an open wound with blood caked on her face. Or, y'know, the police for a naked girl wandering out in the open in clear distress. Even when the police actually show up looking for her - and at this early stage Lucy/Nyu is just a missing person to Kohta and Yuka and they have no idea of her powers or those seeking her out - Kohta doesn't tell on her to "protect" her. From what?
We're then introduced to Bando, one of a team of special forces sent to kill the rogue Lucy, who dignifies the script with poetry like "what's the point in shooting targets that don't scream or bleed?" and "I never thought I'd see the day when this country would let me kill a minor - things are looking up!". He'd surely be a parody if everything else in Elfen Lied wasn't so leaden and ponderously earnest throughout. Even though the security guards in the base had a literal instruction manual on how to handle Lucy, they didn't see fit to share it with the military commandos who are supposed to finish her off so they are woefully under-equipped for the task and they blunder ignorantly into a bloody catastrophe. To be fair some of this is of their own making - when they get given an order to shoot her they can't just shoot her and have to drag her around and "have some fun", so when the sadistic Bando gives Nyu a blow to the head he inadvertently restores the murderous Lucy personality and gets his eyes gouged out for his trouble. Austin Powers was already calling out frickin' Dr. Evil nonsense like this in 1997, so Elfen Lied has no excuse. Kohta later goes out to find a runaway Nyu and gets knocked out by a commando tracking her - more agents posing as police show up at the hospital to question him and of course they do their absolute level best to act as comically shady as possible and make Kohta clam up and mislead them.
It continues. We meet Mayu, a runaway girl who's living rough after fleeing from her abusive stepfather. Her mother does nothing to halt this abuse because she's jealous of the attention he lavishes on Mayu - so she's angry that her husband is raping her daughter and her revenge is to let him continue raping her. Lucy is confronted by Nana, another more loyal test subject sent out to retrieve the renegade - when Lucy beats her and starts pulling off limbs, Nana has enough werewithal and control of herself to spit threats and defiance but doesn't seem to make the connection that she could be using that time to fend off Lucy's attacks (but we'd lose the money shot of a flying leg, then). One of Kohta's university lecturers, also a member of the research facility, recognises Lucy and announces that she's his niece and that he's her proper guardian - even though this man has no documents and Kohta's aware that there's some strangeness around Nyu he meekly surrenders her to him without even questioning it for a second. The director of the facility kills the scientists on his own research team for "knowing too much". Nana is given a new set of bionic limbs and set free from the facility with a satchel of money to make a new life for herself - no-one told her what money is though and she starts burning it to make a fire.
Suffice to say, the only reason Elfen Lied is longer than five minutes, let alone nine, is because it's an unrelenting Idiot Plot conducted by a cast of idiots who flail around idiotically.
Okay, so the characterisation is clunky but can it be forgiven as a well-meaning endeavour to have them deliver us significant allegory? Wikipedia informs me that Elfen Lied is a reflective, philosophical anime that contemplates "themes of social alienation, identity, prejudice, revenge, abuse, jealousy, regret and the value of humanity" My word, that's weighty stuff to consider. Identity? It can be swapped as easily as a bop on the head. Revenge? Yeah, turns out people get a bit upset when you pull off their arms, funny that. Jealousy? Yuka's a bipolar tsundere who literally comes out with the TV Tropes stereotype line "it's not like I came to see you Kohta". Regret? Nyu pulls a bit of a sad face every now and again in a shamelessly obvious and lazily cynical attempt at manipulating us by the "duality" between a demonic bloodletter and a dribbling baby.
Alienation, prejudice, value of humanity? Now this is the point where Elfen Lied stops being stupid, if only to slip down further into being outright insulting. Towards the end of the series Elfen Lied begins working up to a "Man Is The Real Monster" theme and urging us to feel sorry for the mass-murdering Lucy because she's been treated harshly by life and us beastly humans are so hateful of co-existence. This is a simplistic message to make but Elfen Lied is so utterly incompetent it fumbles even this.
If Man is the figurative monster we ought to examine the actual one. Lucy is what the anime calls a Diclonius, a horned mutant who has invisible arms called "Vectors", ghostly projections of her telekinetic abilities. Lucy was restrained in the research facility because she's an existential threat to mankind - anyone touched by a Diclonius's Vectors is infected with a retrovirus which mutates his or her reproductive system so that any offspring they have are further Diclonii, so if they were to run amok they could make mankind extinct in a generation. Lucy does this to random uninvolved bystanders over the course of the anime, just to spread it around. She's a serial rapist. What has made Lucy so misanthropic is that when she was a child she was bullied by other kids in her school because of her horns - and in case you start thinking that she really ought to have gotten over that by now, these kids also beat her pet dog to death in front of her. It's not so much overegging the pudding as strapping you down and shoving raw eggs down your throat until you choke on them. Okay, this incident is absurdly over-exaggerated and ham-fisted but it's tragic enough I suppose - but any sympathy for Lucy it might have engendered is tipped down the drain when the scriptwriters tie her in to Kohta's past. Kohta as a young boy befriends a runaway Lucy (by-the-by, while she's blushingly holding hands with him she's also finding shelter by murdering the occupants of houses and setting herself up in them - no-one comes to find the missing people, conveniently) and Lucy butchers Kohta's father and sister in a jealous rage when she finds out that he's also been out playing with his girl-cousin Yuka. Yeah, I think that you've spent your sympathy points a bit early in the game there Lucy my dear, you really ought to have kept your powder dry.
Furthermore the argument even undermines itself. Now, it's not unreasonable for Lucy to want revenge because she's been very badly treated in the research facility - her and the other Diclonii are literally tortured in the experiments. However, she's directing her ire at the wrong target. It's revealed that the facility is run by a Diclonius and he's trying to isolate the Vector Virus so that it can be distilled and unleashed across the whole world, wiping out mankind in one blow. This is presented as a "wow, what a twist!" stinger but it has further implications that the scriptwriters evidently didn't realise that they were making: far from Man being the Monster, all along it was the Monsters who were, well, Monsters - not only were Lucy's sufferings inflicted on her by a member of her own race but Man's fear and hatred of the Diclonii as agents of destruction is entirely justified.
In terms of production, not all things deserve the warmth of nostalgia. Ironically for the amount of bloodshed on display, as the series goes on the action become really anaemic with obviously reused frames in the big climatic battle when a show ought to be pulling out the stops. Characters drawn at a distance become indistinct sketches, and I can't say I notice that much of an enhancement between DVD and Blu-ray versions - Elfen Lied was never a show noted for its hi-res visuals even on first release. There is no hidden detail unrealised by DVD that Blu-ray brings out; indeed it's remarkable how rapidly a character's drawing quality drops off the moment he's not in wide-angle close-up.
Audio's also iffy. The Collector's Edition in one respect has given us less than the "Complete Collection" because the German dub that was in 101 Film's DVD release is missing here, and what we have been left with isn't too remarkable. Studios are more professional nowadays but even in the big years English voice acting could be ropey and Elfen Lied has not aged well - the English dub is awful. Kohta speaks in a perpetual burbling mumble that gives the impression of less a mature college student and more a guilty hangdog eleven year-old; Yuka's voice is an incessant reedy blackboard-scratching whine. Everyone else is a droning indifferent monotone. When Lucy and Nana are fighting, rocks are being flung left and right, characters are backflipping out of danger and leaping on top of trees like it's wushu wirework, and any sense of excitement of danger is drained away with delivery of lines like "that's what I was afraid of her powers are stronger than mine oh no" - I haven't missed punctuation marks there by the way, Nana drones out the words like she's recording a voicemail greeting. Kurama, one of the executives of the facility, is appalled to see the mutilated Nana but he tells Lucy "there's no way I can forgive you, no way in Hell" with about as much investment as someone checking over his shopping list as he's looking for the cheaper supermarket own-brand cereal. Bando might be a walking cliché but I'll say this for him, at least his voice actor actually invests some emotion into his performance, and stupid and myopic as Bando is he rapidly becomes the most interesting character in the show by simple virtue of the fact that he's the only one who seems to give a damn about his delivery. The narrator who reads out the next-episode preview teasers also has more gravitas in his voice than anyone in the actual cast.
Does Elfen Lied do anything right? Well, the background art is pretty enough, and the famous opening sequence is indeed pleasingly offbeat in its imitation of the Symbolist painter Gustav Klimt; he was an anti-establishment figure whose work was sometimes castigated as "pornographic" which is perhaps appropriate given the nudity in Elfen Lied. 101 Films have made a nice presentation of the case itself with a glossy, colourful steel box and an elaborately-patterned artbook inside, even if some of the pictures featured are just recreations of the old DVD four-episode volume covers (remember those, kids?). The character and production art galleries in the extras are also very substantial, including long 15 minute-plus slideshows with hundreds of frames that cover a lot of material, a lot more than there is in the printed artbook. There's good detail on the subtitled signage. The design of Lucy and the other Diclonius characters is interesting and intriguingly understated - making their horns appear like nekomimi cat-ears is a simple but effective idea that's oddly subtle given anime's visual tropes, and visualising their powers as ghostly arms for scenes where you have bloody palm-prints floating in the air around them can be chilling. Finally the OVA episode, which was in the 2013 U.S. Blu-Ray version but hasn't been released before in the UK, actually isn't all that bad - it opens with a radically different tone to the main series, beginning with some slapstick comedy as Nana tries to make lunch and do the housework with a lot of enthusiasm but not much skill, complete with cartoony reaction faces. It's a shot in the arm for Elfen Lied and an honest surprise because it has far more energy and spirit in it than the thudding, plodding pace of the dour drama in the rest of the series. Even the second half of the episode, which returns to the drama with another look back at Lucy's life on the run before she came to the facility, shows her with more settings than sullen scowl and babyish drool. Interestingly the OVA has also been dubbed into English, not something that happens often, and although given that it was recorded almost a decade after the first series' release several of the cast are different it still shows good attention to detail. All this though is just dabbing around the edges.
There is one good thing that came out of Elfen Lied in the end - it was the source for Dan Kim's fan-comic Nana's Everyday Life. That short series of simple four-panel strips begins with Gunslinger Girl crossovers, Metal Gear cameos and run-ins with that old meme, the Pedobear; but it evolves past that, running out all the blood of its initial black humour to the bitter husk of a bleak, wretched, heart-wrenching and desolately lingering conclusion that I honestly found more evocative, sobering and affecting than any of Elfen Lied's own lurid overwrought schlock. Go and read it, it's an internet classic, and Kim continues to make more comics today.
As for the show itself though, I cannot stand Elfen Lied. I can only say its early positive reception was a consequence of our "cartoons-ain't-just-for-kids" celebration of nudity and gore for its own "mature" sake and an undeveloped adolescent taste. Once you get past that notorious first scene, its action is pedestrian. Its storyline is incoherent. Its theme is insulting. Its characters are contemptible. It is a stupid, horrible anime about stupid, horrible people doing stupid, horrible things. With this release, it's finally done. Now for God's sake, let it die.