Elfen Lied Review
Studio: ARMS Corporation
Licensor: Sentai Filmworks
Elfen Lied centers around the Diclonius, a species born from humans, identifiable by small protrusions from their skull, resembling horns, and the ability to harness the power of Vectors, limbs that are invisible to the naked eye and capable of spectacular feats of strength and dexterity. From tossing around objects larger and heavier than a human being to severing through flesh. Such powers have positioned them as an enemy to mankind, a threat to be exterminated at all costs, and only kept alive for the sake of research. That is until one unseen mishap allows one of these individuals to escape, a Diclonius by the name of Lucy who wastes little time exerting her natural abilities upon those detaining her, setting a rather dire tone for the series to build upon.
Yet her proposed escape is interrupted, her fate is left unknown, and this dangerous individual finds her identity fragmented between her established self, that of a relentless and malicious killer, and a new identity known as Nyu. An individual comparable to that of a newborn child, one with no inherent understanding of the world, residing in the body of a teenage girl. It is in this vulnerable state where she is discovered by Kouta and Yuka, a pair of cousins who take in this enigmatic figure, and quickly become enraptured in the turmoil that gravitates around their newfound friend.
It’s a very iterative tale that paces itself between two extremes, that of the brutality, selfishness, and malice, contrasted against kindness, altruism, and love. It is a story that regularly flips between Kouta and company leading a simple existence where they form a makeshift family by inviting in all who have been rejected by the world, and scenes that demonstrate the evils they are trying so hard to escape from. It is a tale that bears an abundance of cute, serene, and genuinely heartwarming moments, and contrasts them against violence, abuse, and hatred, showing a duality that should come across as jarring and unnerving, but instead manages to achieve an effective balance.
It is a story told without restraint, viewing nothing sacred or uncouth. From its excessive ultraviolence, physical and sexual abuse of children, liberal use of naked underage girls, infant filicide, mental trauma, and more. It can be a disturbing and almost wrenching show to sit through, and one that could be seen as an open embrace of the ugliness of the world, if not for how it embraces the opposite with about as much affection. It is a series filled with kind characters, tranquil scenery, small silly antics, a conservative offering of sexual fan service, and so many tiny and almost insignificant bouts of relentless cuteness that is almost upsetting to see them followed up on with somebody’s limbs getting chopped off.
Throughout many of my reviews, I have praised many works for their use of diverse tones, being able to blend comedy with tragedy, cruelty with kindness, and the adorable with the disturbing. From Danganronpa, to Saya no Uta, to Muv-Luv. But there is something special about Elfen Lied, about the extremes it indulges in, and the balance of it all. And for as much as I can love and praise the series for its ability to balance these two, its intentions run deeper, with provocative themes that left me routinely pontificating its seemingly binary and morally straightforward story.
Firstly, it raises the question of what defines a monster, and whether or not the true group at fault in this conflict is the individuals with red-hued hair and horns, or that of humankind. The Diclonius are individuals capable of relentless destruction, ones who can kill dozens within a minute, and in some instances, have even murdered those closest to them, their parents. The might and power possessed by Lucy and her peers is daunting, disturbing, and makes them into living weapons that are functionally immune to all common forms of human weaponry.
The Diclonius became an identified threat after a select few expressed their powers violently, falling into inhibitions about their might, and painting their surroundings red with the blood of humans. Yet one must ask what truly caused this, what could have possibly led an individual to enact such terrors upon the world, to treat life so flippantly. The humans aware of these incidents claim that this is a natural tendency of the Diclonius, that they simply enjoy killing humans, yet that is not true. Diclonius are shaped by their environment, like any other lifeform. Abuse begets violence, violence begets fear, fear begets prejudice, and prejudice begets abuse.
If you repeatedly strike at an animal in order to test how thick its hide is, should you be startled if they assault you whenever given the opportunity? If you raise a creature in isolation, depriving them of any and all context, should you be surprised when they express violence towards others? If you brand a group as monsters, then should you be surprised when they use their natural gifts to fight against you? I think not.
These are all actions enacted by humanity, a species capable of sincerity and affection, but also capable of a malevolence that exceeds expectations. Humans can be selfish, abusive, and violent. They can rejoice in killing, take pleasure in abusing children sexually, and can react to the obvious struggles of others with open hostility. Every negative inclination possessed by a Diclonius can also be seen in a human, and every birth of a supposed violent inhuman monster can be traced to the cruelties of mankind. From the cold oppressive hands of the organization detaining Diclonius, to the average man who simply wishes to derive enjoyment at the expense of others, to children, the supposed epitome of innocence and the joys they experience from destroying something cherished by another.
Yet at the same time, humans do not occupy a single shade of morality. Cruelty is contrasted by kindness, and there exists selfless individuals who simply wish for the best to come to others, who will share what they have, and would never seek to harm others. Most of whom, evidentially, are those who had been hurt themselves, who reacted to this violence by ending this cycle and instead became the change they wanted to see in the world. A world that, itself, is supposedly threatened by the mere presence of the Diclonius.
Nature is dictated by the theory of natural selection, the idea that those with a superior genotype will supplant others, allowing the species to grow, evolve, and reshape itself into something new and greater. The Diclonius are just that, an iteration of humans with the ability to manipulate matter using their Vectors. They are more capable than humans because of these additional appendages, and are also able to implant their genetic makeup into all humans who are exposed to their vectors, allowing their genes to spread rapidly. A bodily trait that could, through enough effort, prevent the birth of humans within a matter of years.
It sounds horrific, monstrous, and terrifying to a degree, but while the methods are extreme, one must ask how different this is from the lineage of humans, or rather homo sapiens. A species preceded by the homo erectus and homo neanderthalensis, both of which were eliminated by the rise of a species that was, in multiple ways, superior than what came before. How different is this situation from one seen throughout ancient history, and is there a reason to truly object to what can be considered an evolution of humanity? They possess all the mental fortitude of mankind, all the physical capabilities, and while there exists much anecdotal evidence of this mutation bringing with it behavioral quirks, they are just that, anecdotes. It is fully possible for this new population to thrive, for them and their unique abilities to push forward a new glorious future that exceeds what humanity could accomplish. But at the same time… it might not.
The Diclonius are armed with natural tools that enable them to kill with proficiency and if left to usurp humanity as the dominant species of this planet, it is possible that they will simply destroy themselves once their population grows and their abilities continue to spiral out of control, evolving upon their evolutions, amounting to a race of biological weapons that, while capable of intelligence, are fueled by violent tendencies developed by the mere possession of such innate strength. How possible is each scenario? And… does that actually matter? Is the threat of the loss of everything humankind has built over the millenia not serious enough to warrant drastic measures? As sapient beings, is it not the duty of humankind to control natural selection, and use it to benefit them and their longevity?
As Elfen Lied takes place, the threat is contained, it is incredibly feasible for the Diclonius to be reduced to an unseen and unknown blip on the radar of history. They are unknown, their reach is limited, and most of those infected with the genetic information of the species have been killed. Yet at the same time, I cannot help but think about this complex situation from a wide variety of viewpoints. What would you do if you were born with this immense power? Would you accept death under the pretense of a possible bad future? And what would you do if your child was born with this mutation? Would you consider it a gift and allow them to spread it across the world? Would you have them contain it, and restrain their abilities, simply living out their life without daring to use their vectors lest they ‘infect’ others with their dangerous genetics? Or would you exterminate them yourself for the future of humankind?
Now, I may be blowing things out of proportion and accentuating things that might have never truly crossed the creative team’s mind. However, these are the things I found myself deliberating over as I watched this show. Because for as easy as it is for one to dismiss Elfen Lied as a clumsy and overly edgy series rife with gratuitous ultraviolence, sexualized children, and some slice of life filler, I think it’s something far more than that. It has something to say, it raises compelling questions, and ultimately… it has a level of passion that allows the series to exceed whatever missteps it makes. …And it does make a fair amount of missteps.
Many of which can be attributed by how this anime is ultimately an adaptation based on part of a manga that, at the time, was incomplete. This meant that the production team needed to wrap things up in 14 episodes, and the ending they settled on attempts to tie up a large number of loose ends, but in a very sudden and slapdash manner. Reveals come out of nowhere, characters are thrown to the end of their development arcs, and the show runs out of its budget at some point, so the studio decided to spend about two minutes recycling flashbacks during the otherwise truncated final episode.
But in the parts that seemed to be a direct translation of the manga, some character behaviors can be inconsistent, such as Banto, the murder loving mercenary who is incidentially really terrible at his job. Kouta’s cousin Yuka, who is not given much to do other than push for an incestuous relationship at a near glacial pace. In episode 5 Kouta and Yuka begin attending the local university, but stop attending after their first day of class. The Diclonius containment facility the series begins in seems woefully ill-equipped at housing Diclonius when… that’s the reason it exists in the first place. The main characters seem to have a really hard time understanding that Lucy has a dual personality, and simply dismiss her complete change in demeanour and speech patterns as a personality quirk. There are all little things that are either contrivances done to make the story work, could have been better managed, but do not really detract from the enjoyability of the show.
An enjoyability that I will openly admit is not for everyone. As, to reiterate, this series does go into some exceptionally dark places, and earned a less than favorable reputation for being a show that begins with people being severed in a callous, unnerving, and almost dehumanizing manner. Features naked girls covered in blood murdering people for torturing her before getting her head grazed off by a shotgun. Paints a scene of a 13-year-old getting sodomized by a family member with a subdued dullness that only adds to the surrealness that the teenager must have felt, being thrust into such a vulnerable and horrific situation, likely with only a vague understanding of what the flippity-flim-flam a sex is.
And while I do think Elfen Lied does a generally good job of handling this material, it can all feel very edgy, hyperbolic, and a bit needless at points. People do not just die, they get sliced up like a hot knife through butter and by the dozens. To illustrate that people are bad, they cannot just be bullies, but they need to be malicious sociopaths who derive pleasure from torturing animals while people watch in horror. Nyu is not just very childlike in her demeanour, but she is a full on baby-brain who goes potty on the floor and needs to be dressed by someone else. Passersby are not just indifferent to the plights of certain characters, but they outright hate them for being dirty drug-riddled vagabonds suckling from the teats of society.
Personally, I find these to be quirks of the series that give it an undercurrent of absurdity-based levity, while allowing these scenes to retain the impact and severity they are meant to express. And it is well worth noting that a good degree of this stiltedness and silliness can be attributed to the English dub of the series, which features a more… colorful vernacular that punctuates certain scenes in ways that they weren’t in the original Japanese, while featuring a cast of voice actors whose performances can be awkward at times, but I think that only gives the show more charm. I mean, clearly somebody thought the dub was good enough to bring back all the voice actors they could dub the OVA, 9 years after the original recordings. Sure, they couldn’t get all the actors back, but that is still insanely impressive to me.
Visually, the show does a great deal to reinforce its blend of the tranquil and pleasant with the dark ann unnerving, taking place in a gorgeous small city, the protagonists living in a tranquil Japanese home, and the characters commonly having a pleasant mundanity to their appearances. It all feels grounded yet it filled with little visual delights like the ancient shrine or the commonly used view of the ocean from up a series of stone steps. It all contrasts sharply next to the many instances of bloody violence or the act of the Diclonius utilizing their Vectors, which were wisely depicted using semi-transparent 3D models to give them an otherworldly effect that, while a bit dated, is still quite effective.
Then there is also the matter of female nudity, something this show uses quite liberally, and to an interesting effect. While it does have a lot of it, Elfen Lied rarely used nudity to a sexual effect, and instead uses it more mundanely in the vast majority of cases. When seeing a naked Diclonius exert their powers on the world, shambling from the injuries after having their clothes destroyed, it is never depicted as something worthy or arousal, as much as it is a reminder that, despite the horns and Vectors, they are, fundamentally, humans. They are people. And, in many instances, they are being subjected to these immense cruelties that, to an extent, are made all the more hurtful and painful because they are being deprived of modesty and the ability to hide their privates.
As for the fact that literally every instance of nudity in this show is underaged nudity… it’s kind of messed up, but I will insist that the nudity throughout this series really isn’t sexual in nature. I mean, sure, there are a scattering of fan service moments that mostly involve breast fondling, though their implementation and use is more akin to general levity. I mean, this is a mid-aughts anime, so that really shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.
Elfen Lied is extreme, vulgar, sweet, and honestly a bit clumsy, but it has some surprising depth and heart to it all. It is a series that, over the years, has gained a somewhat mixed reputation, either from people who dismissed the series as a gorefest from the first episode, or those who are really passionate about what the series strives to do and accomplish, and I can safely say that I am in the latter category. It can be genuinely hard to watch, put me to tears repeatedly, left me laughing profusely, and captured my engagement and attention in a way that most shows or anime just… don’t. It is a very passionate series that, while far from perfect, is one that I came to cherish thoroughly.
It is an appreciation that I honestly only feel towards a few pieces of media, and believe is only as extreme because I, in a sense, have had time to grow after first experiencing the show. Since I watched it in 2013, I did not pay the series too much mind, but as I rewatched it and reexperienced it all, I found myself fixating on little things, such as the demeanour of Lucy, the expedient and impactful violence, the use of female nudity, and the immense might of many of its characters. I kept thinking back to my work, my novels, and how Elfen Lied influenced them. From battles, settings, to the familial friendships fostered between much of its cast. It did a lot that I admired, and while it was not a truly groundbreaking piece of media for me, it still hued my tastes and, in a sense, gave me something to aspire to as a creator.