Otakutober: My Review of Elfen Lied!

Ever since mankind perfected the art of starting fires, we’ve been at the top of the food chain. We’ve used weapons to make up for our lack of claws, and we’ve built houses to make up for our lack of immunity to the elements. We’ve invented food processing, as well as other techniques to ensure that we’re not pumping our bodies full of disease and parasites, and we’ve even invented supermarkets so we could stop hunting and sit on our asses all day while marathoning Breaking Bad. We’ve held dominion over the rest of God’s creatures for so long that we’ve never really had to worry about another species knocking us off of our seat at the throne.

While the practice of humans killing humans is about as common as the practice of making more humans to replace them, we never expected a threat to our population to evolve right from our own ranks… Until the Diclonius arose. They’re the new breed of human, characterized by a pair of bony horns on their head, a set of invisible arms growing out of their back, and no genitalia (which must have been a huge relief to the people in charge of censoring the show). While the way they breed remains a mystery, their mission in life is simple… Wipe out the human race, and then repopulate the earth. And their queen bee just escaped out into the public.

Now, that queen bee… Lucy… is on the run, ready to gruesomely murder any pitiful human who gets in her way. How will she deal with having to live with the one person she can’t kill?

Elfen Lied was produced and released by Studio Arms, an animation company that makes it’s entire living off of crap. I’m not kidding. Their library consists mainly of pornos, loathsome battle vixen shows, and obscure OVAs that nobody cares about. Their most ambitious projects aside from Elfen Lied are Genshiken, which I admit I haven’t seen, and last year’s incompetent snoozefest, Mao Yu. This is not a company you want as your alma mater, and visually, Elfen Lied is no exception.

Well, that’s not completely fair… To it’s credit, the background artwork is actually really good, beautiful stuff. It’s highly detailed, perfectly lit, and shaded with nothing short of a master’s touch. The character designs, on the other hand, aren’t nearly as easy to look at. They look fairly normal in most shots, with nothing really special or noteworthy. Then there are the facial expressions that look like they were designed by the troll face guy, and far off shots where everything looks distorted and off model.

The animation is also some of the worst I’ve seen, at least when you actually see it. You spend most of the series staring at key frames that feature barely any movement outside of the lip flaps. The very few full-shot walk cycles that you get to see are embarrassingly bad, as the characters in them barely seem to exist in the same universe as the backgrounds they’re running against. I said earlier that the backgrounds look really beautiful, but even when you clearly hear the presence of strong wind, you’ll never see a single leaf moving. That is, except that there will occasionally be a shot of cherry blossom petals falling down, and this appears a lot in the outdoor scenes… It looks fluid and graceful in motion, at least until you realize that they’re just playing the same bit of animation over and over again… Even in the freaking rain! The animation does clean up and present itself in a few select fight scenes, but they still look mediocre by any other show’s standards. For the most part, a huge chunk of the budget was clearly wasted on the goofy looking CG arms that all the Diclonius…es… have.

The characters look like garbage, which is fitting, because most of them ARE garbage. Lucy herself is a really good, complex character, but after suffering a concussion during her escape from the research facility, she develops a split personality. That other side of herself, who emerges whenever she’s hit on the head or has a bad memory, is called Nyu, and… Well, to avoid using an offensive and highly volatile term, Let’s just say she’s essentially a walking infant with boobs, which she will happily squeeze into someone’s hand at the slightest provocation. She pees all over the floor, and can only say her name(Yes, like a pokemon). If a character with her personality was included in an American TV show, she’d be banned from the network faster than you can say Derpy Hooves. In short, Nyuu’s existence does to Lucy what Jar Jar Binks did to the original Star Wars trilogy.

And the couple that takes her in? Kohta and Yuka, both of whom are first year college students? They are insufferable. They’re one of the worst couples in anime history, and I’m not just talking about the fact that they’re cousins. I could forgive that. What I can’t forgive is a will-they-won’t-they dynamic that, for me, was more like will-she-won’t-she-kill them already? Kohta experienced a traumatic event when he was a kid, which resulted in the tragic loss of his personality. Oh, and his family, I think. She hasn’t seen him since then, but has somehow stayed in love with him all this time, even turning down her top choice colleges just to go to his. He’s basically a less interesting version of Shiryou Emiya… and I so mean that… And she’s an obsessed hose beast who takes every possible opportunity to be jealous of the other girls in the house.

There are a few characters that were good… Like Bandoh, the sadistic army guy, and Nana, the well behaved Diclonius… But both of them overstayed their welcome after somehow surviving injuries that should have killed them. Yeah, they somehow survived losing entire limbs, when another character a few episodes later almost bleeds out and dies from one bullet wound. Seeing them come back to life wouldn’t bother me if their presence beyond that point contributed anything to the plot, which they don’t. But unlike little orphan Mayu, at least they DO contribute something to the plot at some point.

As much as it kills me to say this, as a die hard ADV fan, I can’t really recommend this English dub. I don’t have a problem with the dialogue, or anything… The adaptive script is actually quite good… But as far as the performances go, it’s a mixed bag. Kira Vincent Davis does an outstanding job playing all three sides of her character… She plays Lucy, Nyuu, and the child version of Lucy, even though the original Japanese had a different Saiyuu for each. She plays Lucy as a jaded loner with a serious chip on her shoulder, and you have to give her props for pulling it off without ever sounding emo about it. There’s a little more hope in her squeakier child version of the voice, and more growth as well. Her performance as Nyuu is ungodly annoying, but then again, it’s an ungodly annoying character, so I don’t hold it against her.

She probably performs her best as the child version of Lucy, which might have something to do with the fact that she’s playing off of such wonderful actors as Christine Auten, Chris Patton, and Monica Rial. As an adult/woman child, she’s hanging with a certified C squad that plays our main couple, Kohta and Yuka. They’re played by Blake Shepherd, who doesn’t seem to understand what acting even is, and Nancy Novotny, who doesn’t have any talent for it whatsoever. There are some pretty good performances by Jay Hickman, Jason Douglas, and Sasha Paysinger, but in this case, a few bad apples DO spoil the bunch.

The only time I’d recommend turning the English track on is when little Mariko sets foot… Er, wheel… Onscreen. She’s played by Her Highness Luci Christian, who I believe I’ve gushed about in the past. I hold her in an extremely high regard, as one of the best emoters in the business, and as somebody who’s able to absolutely own every single role she’s presented with. Keep that in mind when I tell you that her role as Mariko is one of her best performances period. She hasn’t jerked tears this hard since Air. I won’t spoil the reasons why, but if there’s a reason to turn on the dub, it’s her.

As for the story itself, it’s not necessarily a bad one. The plot is one of a kind, is very imaginative, and always manages to take itself seriously without ever becoming preachy or pretentious. The pacing is actually really good as well, as the story never moves slowly enough to start dragging, or too quickly for the viewer to understand what’s going on. That’s not to say you’d necessarily WANT to understand what’s going on, but good pacing doesn’t always mean good content.

Where it fails it’s hardest is in the execution of the story. There are so many plot holes that I honestly could have made an entire Inconvenient Questions list out of it, if not for the fact that several characters go out of their way to ask about said plot holes… To no avail, of course, as Elfen Lied would much rather question itself than explain itself. Much like Fate Stay Night, Elfen Lied is a story that spends way too much time on it’s main cast playing house and dumping exposition to fully explore it’s own exciting concept. In fact, if you really want me to take my gloves off, this is a 13 episode series with so much pointless material in it that it could have easily been told in the space of only six episodes.

All you’d have to do is remove the characters who don’t add anything to the plot (Mayu, Bandoh, Arakawa, both of the Kakuzawas), cut the flashbacks down to only the bare essentials, combine Nana and Mariko into one character, and erase all traces of Yuka after she’s filled her role in the first episode. In addition to cutting back on time, having Kohta take more of an active role in the story with only Nyuu/Lucy in the house would have given him a much more complete personality.

As a matter of fact, I would have loved this show a lot more if little Lucy had killed Yuka, instead of just Kohta’s father and little sister… Oops, i’m sorry, was that a spoiler? I’d apologize, but if you couldn’t figure out that little plot twist by the end of episode 1, then there’s no hope for you.

There’s a lot you can say about this show, and not all of it is very nice. What you can’t say, however, is that it fails as a horror title. As bad as the animation may be, the framing and camera angles are absolutely brilliant, working right alongside the hauntingly beautiful soundtrack and perfect instrumental motif to make the show consistently unsettling and suspenseful, even in the more goofy and ridiculous moments. Right from the start, you have no idea who will live and who will die, and aside from Kohta’s family, you’ll never be able to predict what gruesome fates will await these polished, shiny moe models. Whether you love or hate seeing them torn limb from limb, you’ll never feel bored or indifferent about it, which is the reason that it never becomes gratuitous enough to qualify as mindless torture or gore porn.

Elfen Lied was once available from ADV Films, in a very beautiful thinpack box set. Following the collapse of ADV, it was picked up and redistributed by Funimation, who’ve released a few box sets of their own… They’re not as striking visually, but they’re cheaper, and it’s pretty much the only way to get it on Blu-ray. The original manga has never been released in English, and since I’m not familiar with the practice of streaming manga, I don’t really know where you can find a translated version. What I can find, however, is a fan-made web comic called Nana’s Everyday Life, which concluded several years ago. It’s actually a very interesting read, particular in the latter stages, when they dropped the comedy and went for a more serious, tragic story. You can find that at http://manga.clone-army.org/nana.php.

In conclusion… What do you want me to say? Do you want me to call this show the most awesome thing ever, like so many people do? Well, I can’t, because that’s not true. Do you want me to say that it‘s one of the worst pieces of crap I’ve ever seen, like so many people do? Well, I can’t, because that’s not true either. My opinion of Elfen Lied is much more in the middle… It’s too good to be a bad show, but at the same time, it’s way too bad to be a good show. I really like it, and it will always have a spot on my DVD shelf, but from an objective stand point, i’ll never be able to see it as anything other than average, which is why I wind up giving it an average score… I give Elfen Lied a 5/10, and a strong recommendation to check it out for yourselves so you can form your own opinion on it.

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2 comments
  1. Supermarkets have not fully eradicated hunting. If you watch Ben-to you will find many characters who fight for a meal 🙂

    I’m in the camp of people who liked this show, but I can see why many people dislike it. Great review. Your articulate your grievances with the anime well.

  2. Ah, Ben-To… I’ve been hesitating to do that review for a while now. I want to praise it on having an original concept and great animation, but I want to strangle it for it’s constant perpetuation of the predatory lesbian stereotype. It would be a controversial one.

    Thank you!

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