Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
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
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