A monster in the form of a naked red-haired girl breaks free from her cell and wreaks bloody havoc before escaping outside. The next day a pair of college-aged cousins discovers the girl on the beach – but now she’s a simpleton lacking any means of communication. Unaware of what she is and not knowing what else to do with her, Yuka and Kohta take the girl they call Nyu (because that’s all she can say) home, clothe her, look after her, and even try to protect her when police and armed special forces troops come looking for her. Though Nyu seems harmless enough, the serial killer personality within her still lurks within, occasionally taking control when threats arise. Are Yuka and Kohta safe from her? Is anyone?
You know you’re in for quite a ride when the very first scene of the first episode features a severed arm whose fingers are still twitching. What follows is a tense 7½ minutes which serve up a stunning blend of fan service and extreme graphic violence in one of the most jaw-dropping opening sequences ever created for an anime series. By the time the title screen comes up you’ll either be utterly repulsed or thoroughly entranced (and quite possibly both). Although the story shifts to more mild content after that, bursts of intense graphic content and displays of nudity pop up on a regular basis throughout the first four episodes. If you cannot handle scenes of bodies being torn apart in gruesome fashion then this is not a series you should be watching. If you can handle it, though, then you’ll find Elfen Lied to be a fascinating new horror series loaded with mysteries and – surprisingly – romantic elements, too.
Taken individually, most of the story elements in the first four episodes have a familiar feel. Monstrous creatures that get loose and run amok are staples of sci-fi and horror stories on both sides of the Pacific, and who hasn’t seen at least one series or movie involving a split-personality killer? Many of the scenes between Yuka and Kohta are strongly reminiscent of anime romantic stories, and a few scenes involving Kohta being innocently caught in a compromising position with Nyu smack of typical romantic comedy hijinks. Nyu’s personality and behavior have also been done before; they reminded me strongly of Chi in the earlier episodes of Chobits. The mysteries are the ones you might expect: who helped Lucy (the killer personality) get loose, since she couldn’t have escaped on her own, and why? What is the connection that Kohta and Lucy seem to have? And why didn’t Lucy harm Kurama, when she brutally killed everyone around him in one scene? The backstory about how Lucy/Nyu is a Diclonius (essentially a human mutant) whose reproductive potential threatens the existence of humanity is also just a simple twist on common sci-fi/horror plot elements.
What makes Elfen Lied distinctive and intriguing is its effectiveness at melding all the standard aspects together with a couple of surprises and some new material to create a production which has a strong impact on the viewer. Its horror scenes carry a punch, but so do its romantic and dramatic aspects. Part of its effectiveness comes from a cast stocked with empathetic characters, most of whom are at least a bit removed from standard anime stock. Both aspects of Lucy/Nyu are well-portrayed – Lucy is genuinely scary, while Nyu is the lovable simpleton – though it’s her dichotomous nature which is her strongest appeal. Or perhaps it’s just the large amount of fan service associated with her? Either way, she’s more the centerpiece around which the story revolves than the actual lead character. Of the rest, one of the most interesting is Mayu, the runaway who stumbles into the midst of what’s happening with Lucy/Nyu. Runaways who still “live on the edge” don’t come up much in anime, which automatically makes her inclusion an edgy move, and this particular one exists in a state of denial over what she’s seen because she cannot conceive of a girl like Nyu going around chopping people’s limbs off. (There’s also the issue of why exactly she’s a runaway, though that is not dealt with in this volume.) The other standout is NANA, another Diclonius employed by Kurama to help find Lucy and bring her back in. Though her design and personality is a little too cutesy, she is a deliciously tragic character who has grasped on to Kurama being her father, and working to please him, as a means of keeping her sanity in the face of the terrible experiments she has undergone. It takes a cold-hearted person not to feel for her plight, especially when things go particularly bad for her in the later stages of this volume.
Elfen Lied would be watchable based just on its story content, but superb artistic and technical merits enhance its appeal. Most of the character designs are not terribly distinctive – we’ve seen characters who look like Kurama, Kohta, Bandoh, and Yuka dozens of times before – but they’re all well-done, and Lucy/Nyu is sexy rather than cute, though in a disconcerting way in her Lucy persona. The one disagreeable touch is the way the horns that sprout from the heads of Lucy/Nyu and NANA, which mark each one as a Diclonius, look suspiciously like cat ears. (An homage to cat girls, or an attempt at cuteness? Either way, they are out of place.) Balancing that is the chilling menace effectively conveyed when Lucy takes over, at which time her face is depicted with a single eye staring out from behind hair shadowing a hateful expression. Backgrounds are vividly detailed and gorgeously rendered; this is one of the best-looking series to date in that regard. The gore factor is disturbing without looking forced or being heavy-handed, two problems which often plague more graphic anime. The brighter-than-normal coloration of blood in the series, and the way it sometimes looks more like paint than body fluid, dampens its harshness to a bearable level but does make some scenes (such as NANA’s initial appearance) look a little odd. Integration of foreground and background art is nearly seamless, with the only noticeable CGI effect being drifting cherry blossoms. Animation is also very well-done and devoid of shortcuts, with background characters actually sometimes being animated. Admittedly, Elfien Lied doesn’t boast prolonged, complicated action sequences, but overall it’s one of the best-looking of recent series. The artsy opener, which features prominent nude depictions of Lucy/Nyu, is also a wonder to look at, and not just because of the fan service. The much simpler but similarly visually-themed closer also features prominent nudity.
As good as the rest of Elfen Lied is, its musical scoring is the key which winds it all up and makes it work. It begins with “Lilium,” the wonderful opening number, which is sung in Latin by a female voice and sounds much like a Reformation-era church hymn. That theme, which is revisited at various points throughout the series both as an instrumental piece and with a Gregorian chorus, sets the tone for the whole. Highlighting other scenes are string arrangements, which can be either gentle melodies to complement dialogue or nerve-wracking riffs to bolster horror or fight scenes. The closer, “Be Your Girl,” is a more upbeat and traditional J-pop/rock tune done in the style of Avril Lavigne. Though not as distinctive as the opener, it’s pleasant enough. Also supporting the series is superior use of sound effects; just the sounds of what Lucy does to some of the people she kills is enough to make many viewers squeamish, and great attention to detail is paid in the use of background noise. Even without a Dolby 5.1 or DTS track, this is a series which begs to be played on a system with surround-sound capabilities.
If Elfen Lied has a weak point, it’s in its vocal tracks. Most of the English voices actors are long-time ADV regulars, with only Adam Conlon (as Kohta) being a relative newcomer; you might have also heard him as Noboru in the English dub of Voices of a Distant Star. They are all well-cast, but the performances are generally a bit flat. The root of this problem is a concerted effort to mimic the original Japanese performances, which were also a bit flat. Kira Vincent-Davies in particular is dead-on as both aspects of Lucy/Nyu, but that isn’t saying much since her character doesn’t vocalize much. ADV’s dub can take the blame for the English script, however, which strays farther than is necessary from the subtitles, to the point that the meaning of some dialogue is altered. I don’t see this as a major problem, but it won’t sit well with sub-favoring fans. On the upside, sign subtitling is automatically on for the dub unless it’s manually turned off in the Settings menu, which becomes relevant in the early stages of the first episode.
Extras on the first volume consist of standard fare like a textless opener and closer (though the opener is certainly worth watching textless), company previews, and extensive displays of character and production art set to music. In what is becoming common practice for ADV, a preview of Volume 2, which automatically plays after the last episode, is also present. The liner notes include a short interview with Mamoru Kanbe, the Executive Director. Fair warning, though, this interview does include spoilers, and not just for this volume.
Elfen Lied is an impact title, one of those rare anime which makes such a strong impression that it will, for better or worse, linger in your mind long after you’ve first seen it. If future volumes live up to the artistic, musical, and storytelling standards set by the first volume then this series has the potential to be one of the best releases of 2005. The intensity of the graphic content may make it too extreme for even some mature viewers, but it’s a title which should be on the shelf of any otaku with a high tolerance for graphic violence.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A
+ Superior music, sound effects, and background art, stunning opening sequence
− vocals are a bit flat on both language tracks
Yuka and Kohta convince Mayu to stay with them and Nyu at their place by more or less adopting her, while Nyu’s visit to college with them results in unexpected and dangerous complications. When Nyu turns up missing in the wake of that incident, Yuka and Kohta set out to look for her, only to be caught in a rainstorm that winds up bringing them closer together. Lucy is now afoot, though, and doesn’t seem happy with current developments. It’s also becoming increasingly clear that Lucy and Kohta have a past connection, and it isn’t a good one. How will Kohta deal with that?
Meanwhile Mayu has some chance encounters which, unknown to her, put her in great potential danger.
This volume, which consists of episodes 5-7, slides away from the horror and action emphasis of the first volume in favor of a predominant emphasis on character and plot development. Though the series remains quite serious and plays most scenes straight, the flavor of anime romantic comedies continues to linger; the living arrangements are gradually developing in a haremesque direction, for instance, and the way Yuka reacts to Kohta at times reminds one strongly of any number of past romantic comedies. Unlike in true romantic comedies, though, the signs of Yuka’s frustration with Kohta are often subtle and muted, and the overall tone is too dark for the series to qualify as any kind of romance or comedy. The romantic story between Yuka and Kohta, while it does get heavier treatment in this volume, is still merely a sidelight to the main plot rather than the focus of it. Equally as important are the revelations of the very disturbing reasons why Mayu is a runaway and the heartwarming way she responds to the offer of Yuka and Kohta. We also get to see more character development for Bandoh, Lucy, and even NANA—yes, she’s an important character in this volume despite the fact that she was apparently dead at the end of the last one.
Oh, there are still bits of intense gore, action, and horror-themed tension to these episodes, but those elements come in much smaller doses. The most fascinating elements of this volume are the way characters shift in and out of states of psychosis and the different ways which characters come up with to cope with incidences of extreme trauma. Further hints are dropped about the suggested past connection between Kohta and Lucy, enough so that a viewer can come to some rather ugly conclusions about what really happened several years ago that caused Kohta to repress some of his memories. The full truth will have to wait for a later volume, though. More is also explained about the nature of Lucy and NANA, though whether their nature truly makes them a threat to mankind or whether their threat is a product of the way they have been treated is left unclear. As with the first volume, the writers make a concerted effort to always end episodes on cliffhangers. The one at the end of this volume is a doozy, and the fact that you can see it coming a minute or more in advance only heightens the anticipation. I am quite intrigued to see where the story goes next.
As with the first volume, Vector Two is a technical and artistic marvel. It is one of the best-looking anime series currently in circulation, with sharp, well-detailed backgrounds perfectly supporting somewhat cutesy but very well-rendered character designs, with a vibrant palette of colors bringing both to life. Of particular note in this volume is the striking use of red highlights in the dark and muted mountainside temple setting in episode 6 and the visual contrast between the normal and psychotic states of certain characters. Animation is smooth, clean, and mostly devoid of shortcuts, with minor support from CG effects and an emphasis on facial expressions. Fan service continues to be used liberally, and its use is very edgy in one case. All the actual nudity appears in episode 5 and the stylish opener and closer art.
As good as the artistry is, Elfen Lied is unquestionably the best-sounding anime production to date. Its wonderful musical score ably supports each scene, but even more important is its well-balanced sound mixing. This is a series which must be heard on a surround-sound system to be fully appreciated, one where off-screen sounds coming out of the rear speakers give scenes a convincing three dimensional sound effect. The stellar Latin opening number, respectable J-rock closer, and eerie menu themes don’t hurt either.
The English and Japanese dub performances in Vector Two are distinct improvements over the first volume, though this could partly be because this block of episodes gives more characters a broader emotional range. Most English casting choices are both a good match for the role and for the original performance, with only Andy MacAvin as Director Kakuzawa sounding a bit off. The English dub in general is solid, with the only flaw being a distinct reduction in background murmurs in one college lecture hall scene in episode 5—but you have to be listening closely to both dubs to catch this. As with the first volume, ADV’s English script takes a few liberties with the translation. Most of the time this isn’t going to be a problem for anyone other than diehard purists, but it does result in a handful of scenes where the meaning varies a little between the dub and subs. (This is particularly noticeable during a confrontation between NANA and Bandoh in episode 7.) Fortunately none of this affects major plot points.
The extras for this volume are a duplicate of the set found on the first volume: clean opener and closer, company previews, and extensive (if somewhat repetitive) sets of character and production art. A preview of volume 3 is also included, continuing a recent trend by ADV. Included in the case is a reversible cover and brief commentary by series composer Takao Yoshioka, who might be known to American fans for his work on Happy Lesson and Mezzo.
Though Vector Two lacks the “WHAM-BANG!” opening punch of Vector One, it acquits itself quite well in its examination of core characters, its handling of situations both dark and romantic, and its maintenance of top-rate artistic and production values. It is not as graphic as the first volume, but still an edgy title intended exclusively for mature audiences. More importantly, it reaffirms Elfen Lied’s position as one of the year’s top series releases.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Top-rate artistic, animation, and sound merits.
− English script takes some liberties.
The Director authorizes the use of Number 35, the deadliest of all the Diclonius, to hunt down Lucy, but Kurama has his own ideas about how to handle matters. Meanwhile, Nana struggles to adjust to life with Kohta and crew and reconcile herself to the fact that Nyu may be the same body but not the same personality that she fears. But the hunt for the escaped Diclonius makes bloody confrontations inevitable, and this time Kohta does not remain oblivious to what – and who – Lucy/Nyu really is. What dark memories will be aroused when he finally sees Lucy’s true nature? What is the full extent of their past connection? All will be revealed in this final volume.
The year’s edgiest and most intensely graphic series concludes with a trio of episodes which resolve most of the major plot threads, serves up a couple of surprises, and finally reveal the full truth behind the incident in Kohta’s past which caused him to lose part of his memory – and no, that isn’t one of the surprises, since anyone who’s been following the series to this point should at least partially anticipate that revelation. A couple of points are brought up in the final few minutes which strongly imply that there’s a lot more story to tell, but then the series ends on a note of anticipation. This will doubtless frustrate many fans, and a few plot points are left hanging, but overall the ending feels right. Kurama’s story is resolved in the only reasonable way it could be resolved given what leads up to it, and while some may question Kohta’s reaction to finally realizing who Lucy/Nyu really is, it does not feel at all out of character.
The healthy doses of nudity and gory deaths in Elfen Lied (and this volume is no exception) invite comparisons to Gantz, but whereas the latter is almost pure sensationalism framed within an action-oriented story, Elfen Lied is a true horror story with some romantic elements mixed in. Sure, it’s got its shock value, but it also has a bit more story, a lot more substance, and tremendously better pacing. The background of Lucy showcases the stress factors that can shape one already predisposed toward psychosis into a monstrous killer, while the contrasting case of NANA shows how the influence of, and belief in, a father figure can shape one so predisposed in an entirely more socially acceptable direction. The extreme dichotomy between the Lucy and Nyu personalities, when combined with the final bits of background revealed in this volume, raises the possibility that Nyu’s absolute innocence may be less a writing gimmick than a plausible psychological reaction to feelings of extreme guilt on the part of Lucy. Events revealed in this block of episodes also suggest that Kohta’s motivations for taking all these girls under his wing might run much deeper than his character being a typical anime nice guy. The writers also didn’t forget an important rule of horror tales: some of the scariest and most disturbing villains are cute children filled with malicious intent and/or a callous disregard for human life.
One should not be quick to overrate the depth and complexity of the storytelling, however. This is still a pretty straightforward story loaded with plenty of nude girls (even in the opener and closer!), bodies getting torn in half, and various body parts exploding to satisfy those with more prurient interests. The victims in this volume aren’t always adults, either, so the series is still nearly as edgy as it was in the previous two volumes. On the more pleasant side, seeing the subtlety in Yuka’s envious reactions to Kohta’s friendliness with the other girls, instead of the bombastic reactions we normally get in such situations in anime, is a refreshing change of page.
While other top-end titles may surpass Elfen Lied in writing, it has few equals in technical categories. This is some of the sharpest and prettiest traditional anime artistry to be found in any anime series, especially in its detailed renditions of backgrounds and strikingly vivid (but never garish) use of color. Character designs beyond Lucy are unoriginal, but that can easily be overlooked given how exceptionally well-rendered they are, and the series continues to do a great job in visually differentiating between the Lucy and Nyu personalities through alterations to her expression, posture, and manner of movement. Even the gore is very well-handled, though it cannot be stressed enough that the series pulls no punches on showing it. Animation is also amongst the best of recent series; the only obvious CG effects are the vectors used by Diclonius, but movements are consistently smooth and fight scenes lack typical anime shortcuts. The only reasonable complaint here is that the series slightly overuses flashbacks in the final volume, but do keep an eye out for a brief flash scene showing how Kurama’s life with his wife and daughter might have gone had Mariko not been born as a Diclonius. (It passes by so fast that you’ll have to slow it down just to comprehend what you’re seeing.) Let’s not forget the beautifully-drawn opener, either.
In its sound production Elfen Lied is in a class by itself. There may not be a better-sounding animated series that’s ever been made, in this or any other year or country, nor one which better-exploits a surround sound system. Some of the credit for that goes to a top-rate soundtrack based around the soulful, elegant Latin opening theme “Lilium” (which, as it turns out, is actually a plot device) and buttressed by suitably creepy or dramatic musical scoring in other places. It’s in the use of background noise and sound effects, and the way everything is balanced between multiple speakers, where the sound production truly excels, though. This is a Hollywood blockbuster-caliber effort.
ADV’s English dub, originally the weak point of the series, has made great strides since the first volume. While the English casting has always produced very good matches for the original Japanese voices, the performances at the beginning were a little weak. The voice work has steadily improved since then, partly because the VAs have clearly found their respective characters’ proper tones and partly because the Japanese vocals they were patterned from have also improved. The last three volumes also give the VAs more of an opportunity to show off their characters’ emotions, and this is generally done well. The English script still wanders a bit, but it is tighter than it was in early volumes.
As with previous volumes, ADV serves up a good set of extras with this one. Clean opener and closer, extensive character and production artwork, and company previews are once again present. The special feature this time is a collection of cover artwork from the Japanese DVD releases, while the liner notes explain the translation and composition of the lyrics for “Lilium:” they’re an amalgamation of phrases taken from Biblical verses, hymns, and Nicholas Melchior’s Alchemical Mass. A reversible cover is also present, and the creepy sound effects used on the menu screens of past volumes are back.
Elfen Lied is definitely not for everyone. This isn’t a series that children should be anywhere near, and it’s not for the prudish, squeamish, or anyone else that doesn’t have a very high tolerance for nudity, extreme graphic violence, or general cruelty. For those who can handle it, though, it is a horror series of exceptional merit, and its final volume does the series justice.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A
+ Best-ever sound production, outstanding artistic merits, oodles of intensely gory violence.
− The ending may leave many fans unsatisfied.