Contradicting Heroism in Elfen Lied
Written by Niko on June 4, 2019
When a piece of entertainment modifies the way you think, the way you feel, two things happen. Your way of looking at the world changes, and you develop a personal connection with that story. I’ve seen it happen during The Office when Jim and Pam get married, and the first episode of The Simpsons when they adopt an abandoned greyhound. Not only do we experience the image, but also our emotional states. From within originates warmth as the Simpsons hug Santa’s Little Helper on Christmas Eve, or even an aching desire for the kind of romance Jim and Pam share at Niagara Falls.
These stories mold our character. I invite you to check out the studies at the bottom of the page, they discuss in what ways entertainment informs opinion. Though emotionally consumed a story can be broken down into its component parts; just as can be done in any scientific field, political position, or form of sporting activity. When composed the elements of any object, event, idea, or person, can morally inform and emotionally captivate the spectator. To say one subject is more real or valid for discussion than another logistically makes sense, Damian Lillard has a professional basketball career while Jim Halpert is just a character, yet as individuals each of us pay attention to what we value most. That interest may be a person we look up to, an ideology, a band or genre of music, an addiction, a study, or a lifestyle.
My issue when discussing the topic of anime, especially those elements an average progressive viewer may find questionable, is the graphic, insensitive, and derogatory elements of a beloved program may be dismissed by its fans as having little to no influence on the audience. It’s fine to ignore the commentary made by a product, but don’t pretend it doesn’t adjust the way its viewers think. No one has full control over their consciousness, every one of our lives informed by our relationships, daily life within a national culture or cultures, our religion, education, and entertainment.
By its design, a product like Elfen Lied attempts to play the heart strings, undercutting the logical criticisms an audience might have through dramatic storytelling. This seems obvious, so why mention it at all. Well, Elfen Lied composes its drama much the same way The Office communicates Jim and Pam’s romance. As a comparison, in Elfen Lied a young woman and man struggle to face their shared history and preserve an environment where their love for each other can flourish. Kouta hides Lucy from an evil government agency, placing himself in constant danger despite being a weak, average person. In The Office, Pam and Jim have known each other for years, they work together every day, but Jim pursues Pam despite the potential for conflict presented by her boyfriend. The drama comes from the buildup in emotional intensity as this unrequited love momentarily overwhelms both romantic couples in the final episodes of their respective first seasons.
Such an emotional conclusion allows the audience to experience hope for what could be, of the future just around the corner. It drives us to anticipate a positive resolution, a happily ever-after. In the case of The Office, we want Jim and Pam to date because they seem to truly understand each other. Elfen Lied flows along similar lines, even the ending suggests that Kouta and Lucy will be reunited after she disappears in a confrontation with the agency. The next day, during lunch Kouta gets up to check the front entrance; their dog was barking and they weren’t expecting Lucy to return. When their grandfather clock starts ticking, Kouta stops in his tracks. The clock had been broken since he started living there. Earlier in the series, Lucy was fascinated with the old clock, then in later episodes she begins its repair. Memory and the image work together in this conclusory scene, haunting the viewer suspended in hopeful uncertainty. Such an emotional impact drives a desire in dedicated fans to learn more about Elfen Lied, to see if the manga ends the same way. Well, the manga is far more complicated narratively, and compromised sexually, than the anime. That said, this works to the benefit of the producers of the Elfen Lied anime. The cliffhanger ending in the first and only season leaves the audience wanting more, fans like myself searching reddit and other discussion forums for answers regarding its similarities to the manga source material. From a business standpoint, such a dramatic ending improves the re-watchability of the show and draws fans of the anime to purchase the manga as well.
Other improvements the anime made over the manga include: not pairing up damaged loli side characters with older men, erasing the cousin romance plot dominating the last half of the manga, no intentional sexual abuse from Kouta, no Lucy twins, and no diclonii doomsday missile. If the anime remained loyal to these aspects of the manga, chances are Elfen Lied would have been a much more polarizing show than it was in the mid-2000s. It makes you wonder just what was going on in that production office when their team was reviewing the manga-inspired script. The second season might have been too difficult to create without replacing entire plotlines, or perhaps a second season was not expected by the production. Despite these challenges, Elfen Lied worked for the market. During the 2000s in Japan, stories focused on characters gaining supernatural powers through extreme abuse became popular in seinen manga. The nature of the supernatural and the abuse within the plot acts as a tool for creating fan service, tying neatly into Elfen Lied’s plot devoted to unrequited love and a malevolent government seeking to disrupt this romance.
In the Elfen Lied manga, the supernatural element creates a balanced romantic dichotomy; monster girlfriend Lucy portrayed as outcast abnormality versus the average unassuming female protagonist Yuka. Lucy sacrifices herself to save Kouta during the manga conclusion, who then marries his cousin Yuka as part of a general return to normalcy in their narrative universe. This conclusion may be analyzed as simply a conclusion, nothing more, which could very well be the case. Manga artist and creator Lynn Okamoto describes his use of psychological states and social messaging as a means of furthering the plot through character development. His concerns were not with following/speaking on/defying/defining social expectations but in creating a compelling story, check the bottom of this review for a link to the complete interview. That said, a moral and social message can be communicated from any work of fiction or nonfiction, intended or not. Death of the author, a term coined by theorist Roland Barthes, denies the concept that the intention of the author matters when interpreting their work. To Barthes, the content and form of a piece of art should speak for itself. Lucy, being a significant threat to the human race as the diclonii queen (the only diclonii that can procreate), must die in the manga to save Kouta and humanity from her mutation. Also in the manga, cousin Yuka acts as the safer romantic option over Lucy because of her generally less complicated past and acceptably bland personality. Yuka’s image as the best romantic option for Kouta is justified by this lack of character and absence of physical/sexual trauma, despite Kouta’s passion for Lucy.
The anime explains this love triangle much differently, possibly because the producers were constructing the plot in the context of an anime likely to be consumed internationally and produced for only one season. While this is just speculation, how significantly the narrative of Elfen Lied was changed speaks to how different the expected audiences were going to be. In the anime, Yuka does not become Kouta’s wife or a symbol of what an acceptable wife should be; instead she fantasizes about being with Kouta and though he kisses her, Lucy becomes the main romantic interest anyway. Why he kisses Yuka, because he sort of likes her, without admitting that he loves someone else is never explained. Kouta could have even mentioned his change of heart, or arguably his true feelings all along, later in the season. But instead, scenes of Yuka crying at home alone, frustrated that Kouta loves someone else, creates an image of an obsessive cousin that should know her place. Instead of acknowledging the fact Kouta acted immaturely by avoiding confrontation with Yuka about how he felt, the narrative becomes, “Yuka is just a crazy immature girl who can’t handle rejection.”
When discussing death of the author, the messaging that defines a character becomes crucial in understanding who bears responsibility for a problem or solution in the narrative. Because these scenes focus completely on Yuka’s humiliation and obsessive impulse while omitting that Kouta had been dishonest, the only reaction the audience can have for her sadness is contempt for her being so annoying and self-centered. Kouta says he loves her in Episode 6: Innermost Feelings, yet in the very next episode titled Confrontation he kisses Lucy. And yet Yuka is the one the audience detests. I mean come on Yuka go cut a car in half with a pair of invisible hands like your romantic competition Lucy, blow off some steam for christ’s sake.
The anime may have glossed over the more questionable elements of the manga, but it does not do Yuka’s character justice especially when she is portrayed as always behaving subordinate to Kouta. Even though Kouta lives in her abandoned restaurant for free, Yuka defers to his decisions whenever they face a difficult choice. For example, when allowing homeless girls to stay in the restaurant, deciding if they should call the police after finding a naked girl who can’t remember her name and doesn’t speak Japanese by the way what are those weird horns and pink eyes. Kouta doesn’t realize this is Lucy, the girl he knew from his childhood, but that doesn’t stop him from slowly growing fond of her once again.
When Yuka catches Kouta taking off Lucy’s panties while changing her, and the other time when Lucy presses her breasts against Kouta, Yuka is characterized as overreacting about the situation while Kouta, in the eyes of the audience, is freed from responsibility. The show creates this effect by including Kouta’s internal dialogue through narration, in which we learn his thoughts have been free of malicious intent and sexually-charged desire the whole time. With our emotional connection with Kouta unrestricted by criticism of his deviancy, these scenes can be played as charming, quaint, harmless, and even cute in their youthful indecency. The story in general compares the positivity of a sexually open environment with the hateful sexual domination of Lucy by diclonii scientist Kurozawa. Yet, despite this separation between “good” and “bad” sexual conduct, in reality even the conduct portrayed as “good” would be considered questionable at best. In reality, we don’t have the benefit of hearing the internal dialogue of the young man as he strips off the underwear of a mentally compromised young woman who doesn’t know where she is and can’t even remember her name.
This is just one example but I’d like to be brief with you, please watch the show to get the best possible understanding for what I’m saying. It’s entertainment, and don’t get me wrong I don’t think Elfen Lied is the absolute worst show ever. Watching army asshole Bando punch a doctor with his robot replacement arms, jump out a window then remark about picking up some weapons before the military police figure out what happened, was incredible. The Terminator fan in me found this visceral display of power not only appealing, but breathtaking. I don’t know where else I could’ve seen something so over-the-top, and yet here it is in Elfen Lied. The diclonii fights held real tension, characters have clear motives, and the bittersweet conclusion to the series keeps old fans coming back.
Upon watching it again however, especially noticing how poorly characters like Yuka are portrayed, it upsets me to consider that even this show, while trying to share a positive message about sexuality, still comes off smelling pretty filthy. Some scenes could be way too much; even while portraying sexual abuse as a deviant, criminal behavior, the show still presents the events in graphic detail. Elfen Lied says childhood sexual abuse is bad, yet allows a voyeuristic participation through the screen in a tastelessly long flashback. This backstory for Mayu’s character, a homeless girl that Kouta and Yuka invite to stay in the restaurant, ties into the sexual abuse themes of the show. How this connection is formed however makes me question just what the intentions of the producers actually were. Does this show use sex in the same way as A Handmaid’s Tale allowing for an ultimately positive message, or does sex become just another aspect of Elfen Lied’s overall entertainment value. At best the show is morally compromised, the fact it portrays Kouta as this shining savior for women completely hollows out the romantic emotions built up throughout. There was a time when this show touched my heart, but in retrospect I’m glad I took the time to review it more critically.
While a few pieces of information here and there help the audience emotionally connect with the victims of abuse, Elfen Lied represents every victim solely through their abuse and emotional fragility. I wouldn’t call this story a positive or introspective account of the experiences of abuse victims. Instead victims are represented as just that, victims, lacking character or substance or dreams for the future. In the eyes of Elfen Lied, the sole desire of abuse victims is finding a man like Kouta who simply won’t continue their suffering. And while building positive relationships is part of the process of recovering from any form of trauma, glorifying Kouta’s role in this process only damages the credibility of this story as being about the victims. Is it about the victims or is it about Kouta putting himself in danger for victims and being rewarded with romance and positive relationships. Elfen Lied basically turns sexual abuse into a videogame, something for the audience to experience purely for entertainment with the illusion of a deeper message. Though enchanting and at times awe-inspiring, I cannot recommend this program as a diligent depiction of the realities of abuse, the insidious nature of power structures, or the potential solutions to these real-world problems even if this is the way the producers of Elfen Lied would like you to perceive its story.