When ADV Films closed its doors in 2009 there was no shortage of reasons for anime fans to lament their disappearance, but perhaps one of the most obvious frustrations to be borne from their demise is the slow but sure descent into rarity that most of the titles released by the company suffered. Of these titles, one of the most missed by a not insignificant portion of UK fandom is Elfen Lied - the good news is that this vintage series is now available to own once again courtesy of 101 Films, a newcomer to the anime distribution market on our shores.
If you're unfamiliar with what Elfen Lied is all about, its first episode should tell you everything that you need to know about its raison d'être - a blur of full nudity, brutal violence and dismembered limbs as a girl lays waste to everything in her path as she seeks to escape from a heavily guarded research lab. Although she makes good on her escape, the girl only escapes after suffering a head wound which (conveniently) causes the onset of complete amnesia, not only about her violent origins and the special ability she carries at the heart of her destructive powers but also to more fundamental abilities such as the power of speech of and... well, not being a simpering idiot.
Thus, rather than a cold-blooded killer it's a cute, sweet and completely harmless girl which washes up on the beach of Kamakura to be discovered by college student Kohta and his friend Yuka, and rather than reporting their discovery to the police some suspicious events lead to them deciding to look after this childish, monosyllabic creature themselves. Before we know it, Kohta has something of a harem on his hands, as the guest house in which he lives takes in not only this mysterious girl (nicknamed Nyuu) and Yuka, but also a couple of other "strays" that introduce themselves throughout the series.
Of course, watching an unstoppable killer acting cute and coy will only get you so far, and with her former captors amongst those on her trail the series focuses heavily on the attempts of both the researchers involved and other parties trying to get their hands upon Lucy (to use her real name) and the powers that she holds within her, even going as far as to use some of her equally fearsome brethren to do so. Meanwhile, we learn that the links between Kohta and Lucy run far deeper and further than their recent encounter to add another chilling dimension to proceedings.
Taken as a whole, Elfen Lied is an odd series - the first half of the series feels like nothing but exploitative trash as it throws naked little girls into the ring before slicing off their limbs or the limbs of others in an orgy of blood and dismemberment that frequently borders on the unintentionally hilarious thanks to how stupid the whole thing looks. Add in a main character who spends a lot of her time acting like an infant (all the way through to wetting herself) punctuated only with bouts of conveniently hitting her head and returning to her normal, violent self, mix it in with other equally childish characters who are thrust into this oddly gory harem setting and you have a series that actually feels like a genuinely disturbing vehicle that has little to no redeeming features.
Thankfully, these concerns are at least somewhat assuaged by the second half of the show, which manages to find its footing enough to deliver a more assured and satisfying narrative, taking us as it does into Lucy's back story and getting to the crux of Kohta's past. Sure, there are still plenty of ridiculous moments, and the tail-end of the series shifts back into the realms of ridiculous and cruel violence, but it at least feels tempered by what has gone immediately before.
Although it would be unfair to say that Elfen Lied has aged badly in terms of its animation quality, it certainly isn't one of the better looking shows of its era - the unintentional hilarity of its violence at times that we mentioned previously can often be traced back to some particularly clumsy animation, and the limited scope of the series in terms of its settings and backdrops also suggests a show with a strictly limited budget, leaving only the glorious nod towards Gustav Klimt that is its opening scene as by far its highlight. Those budgetary concerns are most likely also the cause for an acceptable but far from memorable Japanese dub which often lacks any real passion - a criticism that can also be levelled at the English dub in places, leaving the included German dub as the preferred option assuming you understand the language!
One area where 101 Films' release of Elfen Lied undoubtedly struggles it its pricing - sure, the packaging is quite nice and the included poster is a neat extra touch, but it isn't enough to justify the high retail price of this series, especially considering its length and the lack of the additional OVA that was released in Japan. If you're a hardcore fan of the series then chances are that you might well already own ADV Films' original release of the show, in which case this new release is superfluous as it quite literally repackages those four DVDs, old ADV trailers and all. Those who are yet to buy the series will certainly be more tempted, and to those of you in that situation I shall leave it to you to decide whether to fork out around £40 at retail on the show or wait to pick up a bargain in the future.
There's a good reason that I referred to Elfen Lied as "vintage" rather than "classic" in our opening paragraph - it's a series that undoubtedly had its part in shaping western anime fandom, and there's no shortage of nostalgic love borne from that fact. From a more detached view however, Elfen Lied is a decidedly mixed bag - a horribly exploitative and base work with low production values at its worst, but with some decent story-telling elements hidden away beneath those elements that do at least get to shine through on occasion. If only its price were lower, that nostalgia value might have made this offering easier to recommend for those who want to know what all the fuss is about.