Strong First Impressions
From the very first frame -- literally -- Elfen Lied is an anime that captures its viewers' attention. An eye opens. A tear drop falls. A bell chimes. The bone-chillingly beautiful theme song, Lilium, plays. The lyrics, sang in biblical Latin, are juxtaposed with with the nude bodies of the various characters of the series. Although the characters are naked, the nudity is tasteful. amd the accompanying imagery is abstract, but very beautiful. This opening video is then powerfully contrasted by the opening seconds of the first episode: a dismembered arm writhing in a puddle of blood on the ground, a girl strapped to the wall of a metal chamber, and a guard trembling in fear for his life -- before having his head torn, graphically, from his body. Elfen Lied wastes absolutely no time in stretching its muscles, quickly setting the tone for the entire series.
The first episode of this show accomplishes quite a lot. As we witness Lucy's violent escape from the research facility where she is being held, we are given the strong implication that her mental health is sharded and broken. She ruthlessly butchers everyone in her path, including those who attempt to show kindness towards her. In the second half of the episode, this implication is confirmed, as we see an entirely different side of Lucy -- the Nyuu side. Lucy appears to suffer from a very serious form of multiple-personality disorder, with one of the sides being an ice-cold slaughterer, and the other being a mentally deficient, but undeniably sweet girl.
The first episode of Elfen Lied walks an interesting line, with Nyuu being played for comedy value and fan service. At times this strut borders on the outer edge of being an ecchi. However, flashes of blood and carnage remind the viewer that something is very wrong with Nyuu/Lucy, and that Elfen Lied isn't just a love triangle.
Elfen Lied will try to impress you with its excessive gore -- and if that's what you're after, you're going to be satisfied. It will try to entertain you with the sexually-charged Nyuu scenes -- and again, you'll be able to enjoy them if that's your cup of tea. However, as gratuitous as these elements of the show might be, they are not pointless. Elfen Lied is not a show that sacrifices its storytelling for any purpose. Indeed, not only does it have a story to tell, it has a really disturbing story to tell -- and it tells it well.
Over the course of the series, Lucy goes from being a emotionless sociopath stock-character, to a very real and three-dimensional one. Granted, she does remain a killer, but piece by piece, the viewer is shown Lucy's back story, and can begin to understand how she became the way she is. First you'll feel kind of bad for her. Then you'll feel really bad for her. Then you'll just be completely sickened. I don't consider myself to be easily moved by works of fiction, but after watching Elfen Lied, I had to reconsider my anime-watching itinerary. I decided that I had to follow it up by watching Ponyo, just so I could feel a little less horrified by the world.
Don't get me wrong -- that's not a bad thing. It's very difficult to truly manipulate feelings of a viewer, and the fact that Elfen Lied can delve so far into this abyss says a lot for its quality. It's just... really screwed up. One begins to wonder if the Nyuu scenes of cuteness were added as a counterweight to everything else on the show. This theory has some merit.
The Humanity of Man
When Elfen Lied is not busy depressing you and making you feel like you need a hot shower, it tells a more orthodox story. Lucy is for all intents and purposes a killing machine. She can produce vectors -- invisible arm-like fields capable of severing flesh, stopping bullets, and performing superhuman acrobatic maneuvers -- and she utilizes them to cleave through nearly everyone she comes in contact with for a large portion of the show.
Her situation is this: After washing up on shore, naked and covered in blood, she gets taken in by two teens, Kouta and Yuka -- by this point she has slipped into her Nyuu persona, and is capable of forming a friendship with the two. The crux of the story is based around the three realizing who Lucy/Nyuu really is, and how the paths of the three have crossed in the past. In the mean time, the Lucy persona continues to slaughter each of the assailants sent from the research facility to reclaim her.
By all accounts, Lucy does certain unforgivable things throughout the story, but I feel that this is one of Elfen Lied's strong suits. There really aren't that many wholly good characters in this show. The best of characters have made mistakes. The protagonist could generously be described as a sociopath; and frighteningly, some of the researchers come across as being even worse than that. There is some exploration into the topic of humanity versus inhumanity which has garnered a lot of discussion in certain anime circles. Whether Elfen Lied actually is a philosophical anime, or simply an action anime that does a bit more than offer explosions and fight scenes is left as an exercise for the reader. I'd certainly love to read any comments regarding this issue.
The Technical Nitty-Gritty
Technically speaking, Elfen Lied is a great, big, mixed bag. For a 2004 anime series, a lot of the backgrounds look quite good, if not particularly awe-inspiring. The solid line art, and the vibrant color choices in palette are both much appreciated. The animation and facial expressions are nothing to write home about, but they meet a reasonable industry-standard for the time when the show was released.. The blood and the vectors, however, looked great even today. Clearly a great deal of care was put into the scenes of violence, and it adds a lot to the show. As bad as it might sound, it's fun watching Lucy carve people like roasts.
Voice acting is good in Japanese, with Nyuu being the highlight. Lucy, Kouta, and Yuka all hold their own weight, as do a majority of the show's secondary and antagonist characters. This is not the case in the English dub, which I had the displeasure of suffering through at one inopportune moment I'd sooner not discuss. The English cast is either laughably bad, or they chose not to take their roles seriously, because there's not a single good apple amongst the bunch -- but then, I surely don't have to tell you people not to watch dubs... Right?
I haven't yet decided if I consider Elfen Lied to be a particularly deep anime on a philosophical grounds. I may never come to such a decision. However, it is an anime that made me stop think about a lot of things; and I appreciate it when an anime makes me do that. It's somewhat rare that an anime -- or a game, or a movie -- goes so far over the top with its levels of violence, but can still make the legitimate claim that there is a good story underneath it all. Elfen Lied does that, and the result is definitely worth watching. I consider it a modern classic.
Final Score: 8.5 out of 10.0