Elfen Lied (2004)
Directed by Mamoru Kanbe

Artistic Value: * * * ½
Entertainment Value: * * * * ½

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After using apparently supernatural powers to gruesomely kill numerous guards during an attempt to escape from the island research station wherein she is being confined, Lucy, a pink haired young woman with small horns that resemble a cat's ears, is shot in the head and falls into the ocean. Having forgotten who she is, Lucy is washed up onto a beach, where she is found by a pair of young college students, Kota and Yuka. They take this girl, whom they call Nyu, back to their home and allow her to live with them. What they do not know is that Lucy/Nyu is a diclonius, a mutation with a number of invisible arms that she can use to attack others. Within a short time, Kota and Yuka also encounter Mayu, a young runaway with a tragic past, and another diclonius, the sweet-natured but still potentially dangerous Nana. As complicated as the lives of these persons are with their own worries and sad histories, they are made even more difficult by the efforts of the scientists who had imprisoned Lucy and Nana - and used them as subjects for their experiments - to recapture those two.

Mamoru Kanbe's thirteen part animated television series Elfen Lied is both shockingly grisly and charmingly sweet. Fortunately, these divergent elements are actually made to complement each other, and the narrative is consistently engaging. In fact, the story the director tells is nicely paced, interspersing scenes of terrible savagery or sadistic cruelty with gentler moments revealing the hopes, melancholy memories, and loves of his characters.

Elfen Lied is often wildly gory. There are numerous episodes filled with bloody eviscerations, beheadings, and dismemberments, but these are presented in such a way that the sufferings of those killed are effectively emphasized. From the program's first scene, the viewer is made aware of sadness of violence, but, should he ever forget this, virtually any of Elfen Lied's later action sequences will remind him. At different points, the viewer is shown a teenaged girl's limbs being severed from her torso, a man being similarly treated before his eyes are gouged out, and a young woman being decapitated and her corpse being used as a shield.

The series' depictions of violence do not provide its only grim moments, however. The director reveals, with painful realism, how Mayu was sexually abused by her step-father, how Kota's parents and sister were viciously murdered in front of him, and how Nana and Lucy are subjected to grotesquely cruel experiments. Elfen Lied is, thanks to such elements, a difficult program to watch and one that is likely to affect the viewer profoundly.

Despite the prevalence of such dark themes, Elfen Lied is not unremittingly depressing. Kanbe has included a fair number of scenes delineating Yuka's affection for Kota and her jealous reactions to the presence of so many other females in her and Kota's household. He has managed to include a few genuinely humorous moments when Nyu, who is mentally little more than a small child, explores the world around her, and he has managed to bring out the sweetness of Mayu and Nana's developing friendship. All these elements allow the viewer to engage himself in the lives of the story's characters and experience their emotions with a surprising poignancy.

Lastly, I should note that the quality of the animation, if never actually stunning, is consistently high. The character designs are, without exception, appealing, especially those used for young women, who are always absolutely adorable to look at, and the backdrops are often lavishly realized and filled with charming or ominous buildings, quaint temples, and dark forests of trees with twisting trunks topped with masses of brightly colored blossoms.

While Elfen Lied is not, by any means the best anime program I have encountered, it is among the most memorable. It is brutal, lovely, distinctive, and captivating.

Review by Keith Allen

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