Elfen Lied Vol. 1

My loyal readers know that I am no fan of unnecessary violence and fan service in anime. I suppose one could make a habit of watching anime with nothing but gratuitous bits, considering how many are on the market today. Whether it's the vile butchery of Ichi The Killer or the flaunted skin of Popotan, you can find excess if you want it. I'll pass, thank you very much.

So what do you do with a show that has tons of gore and nudity that really works? This is what I found with the first volume of Elfen Lied. Its first episode has an incredibly violent opening, with infamous moments among the most grotesque ever seen in anime, and other equally bloody scenes are scattered throughout the first four episodes. The central character of the show is nude a good chunk of the time, and the opening credits feature her in gothic portraits posed in various states of undress. Obviously, if you are easily offended, just go find another review to read; you already know you aren't the audience for this show. And normally, I might consider myself to be among that lot. But Elfen Lied is different. It combines its elements in such a way that make for one of the most intriguing starts to an anime series I've seen, assuming the viewer has the stomach for it.

Lucy is a vicious killer. Humanoid in form but equipped with cat-like ears/horns on the top of her head, covered only in a gleaming metal face mask, she brutally murders half the staff of a research center to escape their clutches. She is unstoppable: all manner of weaponry has no effect on her, and she slaughters in ways unseen but deadly. She walks out naked into the rainy night.

Enter Nyu. She looks exactly like Lucy, and is wearing the same amount that Lucy was upon her escape (sans mask). But she is naïve, not even possessing the ability to talk. Kouta and Yuka, a couple of teenagers with a "complex" relationship, find her wandering out on the beach. They clothe her and bring her back to Kouta's new home, naming her after the only sound she makes. The two of them don't know what to make of Nyu, but they decide to take her in and help her out.

Problem is, Lucy is Nyu. Why she has multiple personality disorder, we don't know. But what we do know is that the militaristic group that lost Lucy wants her back and will do whatever they can to get her back. As the show progresses, we realize that Lucy is not the only one of her kind...but what exactly are they? Are Kouta and Yuka in mortal danger for befriending the sweet Nyu -- and does the danger lie in Nyu's dormant personality or in those who want her back under their control?

Elfen Lied runs the gambit of genres to strong effect. It starts off as a horror show, but there's enough action and technology for the sci-fi fans. There's also a strong relationship aspect to the program as we track the developing affection between Kouta and Yuka. This straddling of styles actually makes the first volume of Elfen Lied smartly complex. It cannot be pinned down, which left me curious where we were headed.

Now the animation itself is quite nice, but after watching a run of big-budget anime films recently, it looks a little simplistic...very good, but not amazing. It's effective, but the program is still on the budget of a television show. (I have no idea how this ever broadcast on Japanese TV, but hey...) A 2004 release, it still looks very crisp, and I can't really fault it. Meanwhile, the music is dramatically appropriate, and the opening theme (using various Biblical verses and allusions sung in Latin) is haunting. Unfortunately, the ending theme doesn't fit the show too well; I skipped it consistently.

What is nothing short of amazing in Elfen Lied is its ability to draw you past its excesses. It does so by blowing up genre expectations and making full use of the unexpected. The simplest (if grisly) example of this is in the first episode's brutal opening. After the carnage has started, we're introduced to a flighty coffee lady who forgets everything, as noted by all the reminder notes on the fridge in the break room. She seems like a typically goofy anime heroine. What the heck is she doing here? For a moment, we think that we might be heading into another anime stereotype...until coffee lady winds up decapitated not moments later. Not all the surprises are that gory, but they work. The show plays fair, so I never felt jerked around by the plot twists.

But with my firm enjoyment of this volume comes a few minor reservations. As many conventions as Elfen Lied breaks, it also follows a few of them a little too carefully. Nyu is a little too cute, more an anime creation than a real person. Other aspects, such as the relationship angle and the introduction of a sweet little girl into the mix later on, are a little too well worn to be called new. For all I hadn't seen in Elfen Lied, there are a few paths it takes I found a little overused. Horror fans might also be disappointed if expecting the next coming of The Ring. This isn't creepy, just gory.

Also, I must say that this is an extreme title. I've said it before, but it needs to be said again: this show has a TV-MA rating for a reason. My grade reflects the fact that the story might well have been told without its over-the-top violence and nudity. The show does get past them; in fact, by the time I'd gotten through the opening, I wasn't repulsed. I was thinking, "What the heck am I in for?" So judge accordingly if this is a show for you or not.

Perhaps the best thing I can say for the first volume of Elfen Lied is that as I was writing this review, I made sure to put the second volume in my queue at Netflix. It's got me hooked. And if you can appreciate a series geared for adults that spans genres yet offers an intriguing, carnage-laden story, it might just hook you too.

Elfen Lied Vol. 1 -- graphic violence, nudity, profanity, rated TV-MA -- A-