Elfen Lied is infamous among anime fans and outsiders alike for its graphic violence and persistent nudity, both of which run rampant throughout. The first episode alone has gained a reputation as an endurance test, some online machismo for fans to lord it over others. Yet watching it this way does the series a disservice, undermining the tragedy and redemption at the heart of Lynn Okamoto’s manga.
The enchanting opening credits – perhaps the series at its strongest – are reminiscent of Lars von Trier’s provocative title cards. If the duo behind Stranger Things can take inspiration from Elfen Lied, it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to think series director Mamoru Kanbe can cherry-pick the west. Indeed, the artwork plays on prominent pieces from Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, whose symbolic renditions of womanhood form the opening’s chromatic touchstones. Performed in Latin by Japanese opera singer Kumiko Noma and put together from Bible quotes by MOKA, ‘Lilium’ is a beautifully melancholic hymn, woven through the opening and as a motif during the 13-episode run.
Things kick off with Lucy imprisoned in a military facility, cocooned in a full body straight jacket and masked. She’s a diclonius, a genetic offshoot of humanity, the same except for horns and telekinetic tendrils known as ‘vectors’. Using these prehensile wisps, Lucy orchestrates her escape, destroying any adversary in her path. Yeah, the violence is excessive – splatterpunk, even – but we see Lucy not as human, but as a caged animal, a savage being forced to kowtow to human laws. As the series goes on, Lucy is shown to be a victim of circumstance and suffering, then her own nature. A disproportionate number of real world murderers suffered systematic childhood abuse, fracturing identity early in adolescence. In that way, Lucy isn’t inhuman because of her mutation, but from her treatment at the hands of her human captors.
During her escape, she suffers a head trauma which fractures her personality, causing another, more subdued one to surface. She’s found by local university student Kohta and his cousin Yuka, who take her in, feed, bathe and clothe her. They name her Nyu, for the mewling sound she can only seem to make. While far from a compelling lead, Kohta is trapped in his past, where he lost his sister to some imagined tragedy. PTSD and amnesia patched up the past, but meeting Lucy inevitably unstitches the sutures and rekindles their shared history.
Read as a feminist text, the series throws up a number of interesting and conflicting ideas. Lucy is objectified, but as a weapon; the means of her escape and redemption the same as her imprisonment. Her second personality is pure moe – but this is the result of brain damage, beaming conflicting ideas at the viewer. Sometimes, when she’s staring fascinated by her own nipple, or when Kohta tries to change her with his eyes closed, it’s genuinely funny, while other scenes are much more problematic.
Elfen Lied is as much about women as it is redemption, love and family. The narrative threads of menstruation, pregnancy and sisterhood take what is often fobbed off as schlock and elevate it into a fascinating and essential study. Its reliance on staple tropes – old white guy in the antagonist role – and the soap opera fantasy of normalcy do leave it dated, but then that’s all Lucy ever wanted. The ending, while abrupt, did more for her character then the rising tide of blood and bodies behind her.
Fan of Elfen Lied? Then you might like our poem – Death’s head and vectors