Though this will probably end up sounding like a primarily negative-sounding review, I do think that Elfen Lied is an anime built upon a promising premise. There are a few interesting moments scattered across its thirteen episodes, as well as one of my favourite opening themes. Sadly, when a series feels the need to coat promising ideas in fluff in order to gain viewers, it generally stops being worthwhile, and that’s my view of Elfen Lied (though probably also the reason it is as popular as it is). When I first watched the series – years back, in high school – I would have said “the story underneath is worth it” (having been more impressed back then by some of the darker ideas it presents), but upon rewathcing the series as an adult, the packaging for the otaku fanbase is rather blatant. There are some worthwhile aspects to the series, but in the end it’s the kind of series that people think of when they derisively say something is “just an anime” and sadly conforms to those stereotypes. The anime that I consider truly great are the ones that you could present to any mature, intelligent, or like-minded friend, whether they are an anime fan or not, knowing that the merit of the story and execution itself will be enough to convince them beyond any bias they may hold. Elfen Lied is not one of those anime.
The premise is that a new race of evolved humans, called Diclonius, are beginning to emerge. They possess “vectors”, invisible arms which can control or destroy objects (or more frequently, humans). The first of these was Lucy, a girl of around teenage years who escapes her facility in the very first episode. She washes up on shore and is found by the two other main characters, who take her in. From this premise, Elfen Lied drifts between dark action sequences, strangely out-of-place comedy scenes more at home in harem series, as well as moments of introspection and character drama (which are probably the strongest parts of the anime).
It would be difficult, however, to convince most people to stay along with the series to get to these emotional moments, as the series often deems fanservice and the drama of trivial jealousy more important. The opening few minutes contain more gore and nudity than a great deal of other series combined. It doesn’t let up for the rest of the series, and that the first downfall of this series – gratuitous violence, gore, and nudity. There will be many groans, of course, from viewers who believe that this is overreaction or puritanism, or those who believe that these excesses are in service of a deeper story. This judgement is up to each individual viewer, but I find no value in the clunky ways in which Elfen Lied goes about including these elements. I don’t think it would be controversial to say that much of the nudity is merely fanservice, as it’s draped over the OP, ED, as well as in nearly every episode in the series, many times completely randomly or for shallow humour. The violence is, of course, more subjective, and I tend to have a lower tolerance than most. It’s hard, though, to think of Elfen Lied’s fetish for showing heads popping and showering pools of blood as having any sense of artistry or honesty.
As those elements of the show will certainly be the most debated, I have gotten them out of the way first – but it’s important to state also that equally important is the rather weak execution of the story altogether. For example, the main human characters, Kohta and his cousin, do not act very realistically at all. They find a near-mute girl who washes up naked on the beach, and they believe it’s a good idea to simply take her in and let her live with them. Yes – adopt this stranger without any idea of who she is, without any way of communicating with her, and without trying to find anyone who knows her. Those two characters also felt very generic, especially Kohta’s cousin, who has held a secret crush on him since childhood (another obvious cliche). At one moment in the series, she actually begins crying to herself over whether Kohta likes her more than the aforementioned anonymous, near-mute, and childish girl. I should also mention that most of the deadly killers in this anime happen to be adorable little girls. Give me a break.
The anime does have a few moments of true emotion. There is a series of flashbacks near the end of the series which delve into the past of one of the killers and shows how she developed into the personality we see today. It contains some scenes which are quite haunting and were key in the first (positive) impression the anime made on me as a teenager. There is also a character in this series, a scientist who researches the Diclonius’, who had a daughter who ended up being one of them. His story, and the resolution to it, was also one of the more moving aspects of the anime. Scenes like these hinted at the potential of the premise of this series.
If you have a greater tolerance for obvious pandering to the audience then I do, you will perhaps be able to appreciate some of its finer points as I once did, but I don’t see many people getting through the first episode alone, much less the entire series. Usually I take the stance that anime which rely too heavily on fanservice and pandering probably aren’t worth one’s time to begin with, but this is one of the rare cases where an anime that could have been quite good has been compromised for it.
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