This Week: Elfen Lied
As it is October, I’m planning on watching various blood soaked and/or horror titles in my free time outside of currently airing shows. But it’s early in the month yet, so there’s no need to splurge right into straight up spooky stuff. Which brought me to…
I’ve been putting this off and quietly avoiding it literally since it was released, as both the materials I had seen and the general anime community reaction to it set off a number of alarm bells in my head that essentially told me I wasn’t going to like it. It’s been almost a decade since then. It’s now the sixth overall most popular anime on MyAnimeList.net. So I feel I should write a bit about this one.
I get what it wants to do. I understand what it is trying to reach for. I know the themes it aims to be about.
But holy saltine cracker cupcakes, it has all of the constructive and narrative finesse of pouring a bucket of hammers on the table, with how loud and obnoxious it is.
I found it to generally gun for cheap “feels” moments rather than actual emotional resonance and characterization build up. For all the damage they have, we have a cast of mostly one and two dimensional characters, because it needs to still shoehorn itself into a harem setup where everyone can fit into a slotted stereotype and merchandising role. They need to be safe and able to pander. It has copious blood and gore, but it’s all too squeaky clean; everything looks like someone spilled fresh cranberry juice on the walls and people die via the Photoshop lasso tool in such a way where they look like delicious steaks meant to accompany it.
Now, I can understand how this series can appeal to some folks. I do. It wants to have this theme of “family” and “belonging”, with a focus on characters who in various ways are in situations of being misunderstood, hurt, lonely, bullied, scared and abused. And it’s not uncommon for folks to latch on to something like this if they feel it resonate with their own past somehow. I’ve got some stuff in my background too. I get it. But I also see the smoke and mirrors game Elfen Lied is playing; this is not a series operating with any kind of emotional honesty, because it’s rigged all these manipulation traps it’s praying you’ll fall into before you realize what’s going on or otherwise get to the end of the ride. The viewer is treated as an enemy to be baited, conquered, and captured rather than a friend it wants to lead someplace interesting, thoughtful, or special.
Alternatively, I can also see it being remembered fondly if this is one of the earlier / first anime gore productions someone has seen. It’s on all the various Hulu / Netflix / Etc streaming services and thus easy to locate, so it’d be the best primed to blow their mind, in a manner of speaking. In that respect, I’d liken it a lot to something akin to the anime version of Hot Topic. It can speak to someone at a very particular life state and outlook, where it feels like “Yeah, this gets me.” It might feel extreme, rebellious, and different from all those other things around it. This is real and hardcore, and whatnot and such and such. But, there are hundreds of Hot Topic’s in malls all over America, so how extreme is it really? The series popularity ranking of Elfen Lied reinforces this. It’s still engineered to be safely marketable, just with a different target and approach.
It’s very unfortunate, really, as I think there is a space where this story could have been done in such a way to have been far more rich and compelling. As I mentioned, I see very clearly the kinds of themes it wants to have in the narrative, and I would have loved to see the places the setup would have gone if it had only been able to shake off the clichés, market demographic statistics, cheap storyline “feels” over substance and everything else that makes so much of it fall flat at best and badly off the mark at other times. It could have been well and truly visceral in several ways, be it in the personal psychological character nightmares, the actual gore, the mechanics of a humanity that is rapidly approaching a point of serious evolutionary threat, etc.
Blood and tears are themselves not emotions or content. They are byproducts of something else that happens in a story. Something that causes them to be, something that specifically gives them their weight, impact, and substance.
Elfen Lied is a series of byproducts, effects in need of an honest narrative cause.