Elfen Lied review, feature image

Review: Elfen Lied Complete Series (Blu-Ray)

Elfen Lied Complete Series captures the full TV series and OVA release into a single high definition package. But with 17 years on the clock, how does this production hold up?

Elfen Lied is set in modern day Kamakura (well, early ’00s Kamakura) where two young residents, Kouta and his cousin Yuka, stumble across a young woman on a beach and unable to communicate. The two take her in amidst a flurry of covert military activity intending to capture the young woman in question, who has escaped a research facility and possesses supernatural powers as a result of her mutation into a Diclonius. The show follows Nyu’s journey with the friends she makes in Kamakura, floating between her innocent conscious mind and her vicious subconscious. All the while she needs to work hard to live a normal existence despite the relentless pursuit of her captors, often dragging along her new friends through the fray.

Elfen Lied review, Nyu and Kouta

I feel that Elfen Lied had a groundswell of interest back when the anime first hit Japanese airwaves during it’s original run in 2004, combining evocative imagery and ultra violence in a well-animated digital production for the time.

Despite my interest though, his is my first time sitting down to watch it in its entirety. What transpired was an interesting and often challenging journey through an anime series that tries hard to grapple with many themes with degrees of success.

There are two competing (or possibly complementary?) areas of the production – on one hand, Elfen Lied Complete Series seems to revel in the volume of on-screen gore and frequent nudity in a way that feels reminiscent of the bubble era of anime, albeit in the cleaner style inherent in digital productions. The other area it works hard to explore are the complex themes of mental health, the morality of manipulating science for military uses in the construction of child soldiers, isolation, loneliness and childhood trauma.

Elfen Lied review, Lucy and Nana fighting near the graveyard

Watching this now, as opposed to when it first came out, means my lens has shifted considerably. My role as a parent is incredibly central to my core values these days, so it was with a sense of conflict that I took this in. Using violence as a tool to shock or engage isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself as a form of expression, but if it’s meant to be hyperbolic this undermines some of the important themes Elfen Lied Complete Series is trying to explore.

I’m unsure if the comedic moments or the spots of fan service were placed in there to ease the dramatic tension, but the fluctuations seem to break up the rhythm rather than provide a sense of pause when you’re viewing it. The same can be said for the way it looks at the relationship between Kouta and Yuka – at times it tries to explore the tension between the two of them quite successfully, but in others it flips it into rom-com territory. The gradual drawing in of the broader cast as the series continues on sees it on the edge of being a harem anime, but then changes pace to explore its more mature themes amongst the female characters.

Elfen Lied review, Kouta and Yuka

It’s a bit messy in practice as a result. This doesn’t make it a bad anime by any stretch, but it does highlight the problems when you’re trying to juggle a lot of competing elements in the constraints of a 13 (+1) episode anime series produced back in 2004.

It’s a shame because there are some really important and heart-wrenching points of interest in Elfen Lied Complete Series. There’s commentary on the state of humanity, nature versus nurture, the huge impacts of childhood neglect and presents some highly emotive scenes that really hit home, especially as a dad. The action sequences could be brutal and extremely well animated, and those occasions where it gives into some revenge fantasy could be satisfyingly cathartic. Its influence has also been quite broad, extending all the way to Stranger Things of all places.

Perhaps the mashing of these elements reflect the nature of the production environment at the time rather than purely narrative problems. But if the anime was working hard to get you to think more broadly and to challenge your expectations of what can be explored through an animated production, in this sense it was successful.

For the local release, Madman have bundled all the TV episodes and the OVA into a single package. Encoding is solid, it’s bilingual and includes a handful of bonus features. While not superlative, it’s well-featured and the price means it’s a good value proposaition.

Elfen Lied revieElfen Lied review, three Dicloniusesw, three Diclonius'

Taken on the whole, Elfen Lied Complete Series is an interesting anime that has the right intention in exploring complicated themes with solid production values for its time. While it’s had a decent crack at pulling these threads together, on a personal level I found myself challenged and a bit conflicted with the journey. I’m allowing some subjectivity in my review based on this – others are more than welcome to disagree, but I’m happy to find myself sitting in this semi-definitive state and glad I took the time to check it out.

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A review copy was provided by Madman Entertainment to the author for the purpose of this review.