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Elfen Lied - Sad Story

Friday, August 1, 2008 |

The essentials of Elfen Lied are as follows. A teenage girl, having suffered horrible abuse and deprivation for most of her life, develops multiple personality disorder. One personality is a gentle, pre-verbal little girl who communicates entirely by meowing like a cat. The other is older and has lost all ability to empathize with most humans. She can talk, but rarely does, and seems incapable of dealing with others without lashing out at them.

Of course, her abusive family is not really a family, it's a shady, top secret government project. And she doesn't exactly live at home, it's more like a hidden fortress. And when I said she "lashes out," well, she mostly does this with her uncanny ability to decapitate people from a distance just by thinking about it. As she's understandably a bit angry at the world by now, she does this quite often.

Elfen Lied is extremely well made and very effective, but it's not quite a work of high-minded seriousness. When this girl runs away from home (i.e., lays waste to the government fortress she's imprisoned in) she is eventually taken in, while in her cat-girl incarnation, by a boy who, for some reason, owns a large house. This house is apparently a magnet for girls, because two already live there with him.h

Any seasoned anime aficionado will instantly recognize the genre which Elfen Lied is playing on here: the clueless young man surrounded by adoring young women who are all in love with him. American fans unceremoniously call this the "harem" genre. But Elfen Lied's use of this genre isn't entirely gratuitous, because this situation provides the main character with a family of sorts. Without the attendant "comic relief" (a misnomer, since it actually serves to heighten the tension, not relieve it), and without this opportunity to develop what is essentially a mute character, Elfen Lied would be a thin exercise in violence. What at first seems gratuitously tacked-on turns out to be the emotional core of the series. This is Elfen Lied's greatest strength, in fact: it follows convention but its apparently gratuitous elements are carefully aligned to serve the subtext of the story, which is simply the tragic tale of an angry little girl.

There seems to be a tradition in anime of thinly-veiled stories of abuse like Elfen Lied (another recent example is Gunslinger Girl), in which an abused child is given extraordinary powers with which to express her anger in suitably exciting and often gruesome style. The best of these stories, and Elfen Lied is probably one of them, are nearly allegorical; the distance between the mundane (and therefore more awful) and the fantastical (and therefore more gruesome) images of the story are so separate from each other that one has the sense of watching two stories unfold simultaneously.

Elfen Lied is a very violent show, but it is also a sad, emotionally raw story rendered in extremely beautiful visuals and with an excellent, atmospheric soundtrack. The stark contrast between its generous empathy for an abused girl and its gory expression makes for an intense and visceral experience.

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