ELFEN LIED is an anime notorious for its obscenities. I’ve wanted to discuss it for a while but delayed it for this reason. There is an excessive amount of gore, violence, and nudity in this show, as well as disturbing emotional scenes that can easily offend audiences. However, anyone who has finished this series knows that there’s more than just blood and breasts at play here. There are many interesting themes within the plot like social alienation, prejudice, and the value of humanity, all squeezed into just 13 episodes.
I’ve realized that ELFEN LIED is a title intended for mature audiences, so any analysis of the series should be intended for mature audiences as well. Consider this is a warning for some graphic images and potentially offensive content. My ultimate goal, however, will be to discuss how ELFEN LIED successfully used this transgressive style, a style that aims to shock and offend audiences in any way possible, to stand out as a series.
Minor spoilers for ELFEN LIED episodes 1-8 follow.
Getting to Know the Infamous ELFEN LIED
Lynn Okamoto wrote the manga series ELFEN LIED in 2002, which Studio Arms adapted into an anime series in 2005. Okamoto based her series on the German poem “Elfenlied” by Eduard Mörike, in which a villager murders an elf because it is an outsider. The ELFEN LIED anime adaptation finished before the manga; as a result, the anime excluded some key plot points and features a different ending. ELFEN LIED left a strong legacy behind despite the anime receiving mixed reviews. The Duffer Brothers, who created the popular Netflix series STRANGER THINGS, stated that their character Eleven was influenced by the ELFEN LIED anime.
ELFEN LIED revolves around the views, emotions, interactions, and differences between humans and the Diclonii — a mutated species that look identical to humans, but with two distinct differences. The first difference is that Diclonii have two short horns that stick out of their heads. Secondly, Diclonii wield vectors, which are telekinetic arms capable of manipulating and cutting through nearby objects.
Lucy is the protagonist of the show, and a Diclonius herself. A research lab captures her as a child and performs harsh experiments on her. Lucy eventually escapes the research facility, but a sniper shoots her head before she can leave, causing her to fall into the ocean. She doesn’t die and instead develops a split, child-like personality named Nyu. Lucy washes up on a beach and falls under the care of two college students named Kohta and Yuka.
Brewing a Controversy with Transgression
ELFEN LIED is a series that pulls no punches with its imagery. There are many scenes where Lucy methodically hurts and kills people. We see this specifically in episode 2 when Lucy uses her vectors to gouge a soldier named Bando’s eyes out and cut several of his limbs off. There are also many scenes involving nudity. For example, Lucy fights a fellow Diclonius named Nana, and somehow Lucy’s vectors rip Nana’s clothes off. Moments later, Lucy cuts off Nana’s arms and legs and Nana lays motionless in a pool of her own blood.
The images of Bando and Nana respectively bleeding out are difficult to stomach, but that’s ELFEN LIED’s style. Shocking and offending the audience adds to the transgressive identity ELFEN LIED ultimately created for itself. It is ingeniously used to present its story and themes. However, Okamoto didn’t invent this style.
Nick Zedd — an American filmmaker — wanted to “rip out of the straight jackets of film theory in a direct attack on every value system known to man.” To this end, he wrote the manifesto that led to an underground film movement in the late 1980s called “the cinema of transgression.” The movement never became mainstream because it outraged people so easily, but it still spread into the arts and literature.
Mörike’s poem “elfenlied” is considered transgressive literature because a villager graphically murders a female elf. Okamoto simply added a sexual element to the violence already present in Mörike’s poem and built a three-dimensional storyline around it.
A Bold Beginning
ELFEN LIED wastes no time in showing its true colors. A powerful opening sequence greets the audience before the first episode even starts. A bell chimes, a blood-red eye opens, and a single tear races down Lucy’s cheek. The bone-chilling theme song Lilium plays, and suddenly the audience is pressed under ELFEN LIED’s thumb. The opening sequence shows nude characters from the series, but it’s tasteful. It feels like a museum could hang up any of the screenshots from the opening sequence on its walls.
This opening segues into a controversial first episode. The first scene shows a dismembered arm laying in a ruby pool of blood. The camera pans to a security guard clutching where his arm used to be in some sad attempt to stop the blood flow. We quickly get our first look at Lucy, albeit she’s wearing a straitjacket juxtaposed with a metallic helmet. Lucy easily escapes her maximum security prison cell using telekinetic powers and cleaves her way through anyone foolish enough to stand before her.
Fans probably wouldn’t use the word artistic to describe the first half of this episode. After all, Lucy basically just showcased innovative ways to kill people. However, the second half tells a different story. Cherry blossom petals aimlessly float through the wind, and rivers glisten with sunshine. Two cousins, Kohta and Yuka, reunite after eight years of separation and everything seems right with the world. The tone shifts when they discover Nyu, but Kohta and Yuka’s compassionate personalities contrast well against Lucy’s previous sadistic murders.
The first episode sets the transgressive tone by making the audience feel genuinely uncomfortable. The appallingly grotesque nudity and violence that suddenly transitions into a wholesome scene is disconcerting. It makes one thing perfectly clear though: ELFEN LIED doesn’t give a damn about your feelings (but in the right way).
Social Alienation, Prejudice, and a Whole Lot of Sadness
ELFEN LIED is not a show that sacrifices storytelling for any purpose. It has a story to tell and a really sinister one at that. The first few episodes set the stage by shocking the audience with violence. If that’s what you’re here for, then you’ll enjoy watching Lucy cut down everyone around her. ELFEN LIED will also treat you with plenty of sexually-charged fanservice, which you’ll enjoy if that’s your cup of tea. But the show’s overall tone changes in episode 8 when we finally get our first glimpse into Lucy’s morose backstory. Over the course of two episodes, Lucy goes from being a sociopathic killer to a three-dimensional character with tons of depth.
Let’s rewind to Lucy’s childhood to better understand this. Lucy is a Diclonius, so she has two horns protruding from her head. Bullies targeted her because she looked different and she struggled to make friends. She did, however, nurture an abandoned puppy in a forest. With no parents of her own in the show, this puppy was the closest thing she had to a family. The bullies eventually abducted the puppy and proceeded to kill it in front of her. This caused the violent outburst depicted below.
It might be hard to find meaning in murdering a puppy, but it relates back to Mörike’s poem. In “elfenlied,” an elf was smashed over the head with a rock, but in this series, a puppy is bludgeoned with a vase. Furthermore, it succeeds in outraging the audience while presenting themes that are key parts of Lucy’s emotional backstory. This experience causes her to distrust humans, which matters when she meets Kohta briefly afterward.
Nothing Good Lasts Forever
Possibly my favorite part about ELFEN LIED is that there aren’t any truly virtuous moments in the show. Each character suffers from some tragedy, and it is interesting to see how that affects their future decisions. Lucy’s backstory exemplifies this perfectly. A young Kohta and Lucy meet as kids briefly after Lucy murders her peers at the orphanage. The two bond over their mutual love for Kohta’s music box and the melody that projects from it. They go to the zoo, eat snow cones together, and play in a lake. Lucy claims she had the best day of her life and asks Kohta to play again tomorrow.
Kohta apologizes though because he made plans to go to a festival with his cousin, Yuka. Lucy decided to show up to the festival anyway and surprise him. But upon noticing that Yuka is a girl, Lucy slipped into a jealous rage and used her vectors to start killing everyone around her. She ended up murdering Kohta’s father and younger sister, Kaede.
What really drives this story arc home is the contrast between these two scenes, just like in episode 1. The sun shines strongly when Lucy and Kohta play together and evil seems completely absent from the world. This optimistic tone shifts completely at the festival. Blood flies everywhere, women and children scream with terror, and Lucy couldn’t give a damn about it all. The stark contrasts in imagery strikes a chord with the audience and makes Lucy’s transition into a psychopath abundantly clear. This is, undoubtedly, the best example of how ELFEN LIED successfully makes use of transgressions.
More than Gore
The biggest question you might be wondering now is, “Why bother watching ELFEN LIED? Is it really worth watching a psychotic naked girl with a sexually charged split personality run around and kill a bunch of people?” My honest opinion is yes, but I’ll preface this verdict by saying ELFEN LIED is definitely not for everyone.
Push past the initial discomfort felt in the first episode. There’s a learning curve to this series, but the thematic elements and transgressive style make it legendary. I still can’t figure out if Lucy is a psychopath or a victim of circumstances. I may never even reach a conclusion, but I love that I’m still thinking about it months after I finished watching. ELFEN LIED has a funny way of lingering in your mind, and I think its transgressive style contributes a lot to this. The constant contrasts between the violent and peaceful moments truly are one of a kind, and it all adds up to a spectacular series with messages worth hearing.
Overall, this is the perfect series for the anime fan that thinks they have seen it all. Trust me, you have not seen anything until you’ve experienced ELFEN LIED.
Featured Image Courtesy of Hulu