Originally published in Nov 2006 Issue of NewtypeUSA.
Text by Amos Wong.
Director Mamoru Kanbe pulls no punches in bringing the violence and tragic tenderness of Elfen Lied to the screen.
It’s a common sight in anime: a clueless young man finds himself surrounded by a bevy of lovely ladies, sometimes of the naughty-but-nice persuasion. Few works, however, are able to propel the setup into a fragrantly shocking yet griping bloodbath like Elfen Lied (complete collection now available from ADV Films). Childhood friends Kouta and Yuka are reunited as young adults, but barely have time to become reacquainted before they’re drawn into a dark conspiracy involving a shapely telekinetic killer who recently escaped from her nefarious keepers. After the pair encounter the amnesia-stricken girl, benign, though prone to violent relapses-and take her in, deadly agents arrive on a search-and-retrieve mission. The quaint seaside town of Kamakura has never seen such a maelstrom of carnage.
If the opening volley of graphic violence doesn’t send you reeling, the edgy series goes on to unflinchingly portray some of the uglier aspects of human nature-abuse, discrimination and deceit, to name a few-and the psychological scars they leave. More than a few of the shows plot twists are guaranteed to leave you stunned with disbelief. Director Mamoru Kanbe was certainly astonished by Linn Okamoto’s original manga when he was approached to adapt it for television: “People you might think are the main characters-or at least would be very important for the story,-are suddenly killed off.” In Okamoto’s world, no one is safe from being decapitated, dismembered, or even detonated in the most sudden of manners.
“Some people criticize the story for its lack of consistency,” continues the director-but Kanbe saw its narrative core and set out to make Elfen Lied into a heart-breaking love story. After eight years apart, Yuka hopes to finally profess her welled-up, more than platonic feelings toward Kouta. Unfortunately, all she gets to vent is jealousy frustration. In her docile state, the mysterious guest they’ve christened Nyu (whose real name is Lucy) tends to command Kouta’s complete attention through displays of affection, innocent exhibitionism, and, more worryingly, sudden disappearances. Although Kouta is oblivious to Yuka’s subtle hints, he’s not completely to blame. Due to a childhood tragedy that included his sister’s death, the reserved Kouta suffers from memory lapses, becoming almost pathologically protective of girls in peril. As all hell eventually breaks loose across the quiet town, he discovers that Nyu’s feelings toward him are deeper than mere puppy love. Beyond the graphic mayhem, unashamed nudity and disarming comedy, Kanbe observes, the manga is underpinned by strong characterization. “I felt that the portrayal of character emotion was what really made it compelling; the emotions are presented so honestly and unpretentiously.” Its something he captures and builds in the anime to a climax of tear-jerking poignancy.
One thing the director didn’t want was for viewers to think he’d “copped out on the tough stuff.” As he puts it, Okamoto treated extraordinary events on the same level as the ordinary. “Horrific scenes of violence are depicted on about the same level as something like a meal, for example.” Kanbe set out to emphasize the juxtaposition even further, because he felt the very contrast was one of the main themes. “I wanted to make sure that came across.” This explains why the gore is presented in such detail that it doesn’t require the pause button to examine. The portrayal of emotional violence is equally raw, particularly when it comes to the plight of Mayu, a teenage runaway who also winds up at the Kouta residence. She’s far from an emotional wreck, however upon coming across one of Lucy’s victims left to die in one scene; she calmly administers a tourniquet and addresses the screaming and writhing victim in the manner of a slightly stern nurse. Exactly how much “tough stuff” could be shown on the satellite channel AT-X was an unknown factor during production; Kanbe’s approach was to take it as far as possible until he was told to do otherwise. “Once I’d decided to go in that direction, I don’t think I had much difficulty with it.” On the other hand, he admits that creating such a work with such a concentrated barrage of brutal scenes was philologically straining. “It starts to numb you, in a way. That’s what was hard for me.”
Thankfully, Elfen Lied also allowed Kanbe to fully represent the scenic beauty of its setting. “Personally, I really like Kamakura as a place,” he says. The area, southwest of Tokyo, is a popular urban escape that boasts a slew of traditional sights and rustic charm. “It suits me on some kind of emotional level,” Kanbe notes. “Every time I go to Kamakura, I get this big boost of optimism and a feeling of incredible well-being at the same time.” Kanbe reveals that he went all out this time because he was discouraged from displaying the area’s most appealing charms in a past project. The reason, he explains, is that “they wanted the title to have a better chance of making money abroad. I wasn’t able to show any tile roofs, tatami mats, temples, shrines, or anything that seemed the slightest bit ‘Japanese.’” Without them, he laments, “Kamakura really isn’t Kamakura anymore. That always bothered me.” When the Elfen Lied project came to him, Kanbe recalls: “The production climate was such that I knew I’d be able to do the setting right this time.” Attention has clearly been lavished on the beautiful background artwork. Lingering atmospheric shots of the railway, waterways, and temples in the midst of cherry blossom season evoke an air of romance, which strikingly offsets the turbulent events that unfold.
When it came to refining the manga’s cast for the purposes of animation, Kanbe simply instructed character designer Seiji Kishimoto “to make the characters easy for him to draw.” He adds: “Kishimoto’s art has a real beauty about it. I asked him to shoot for elegantly stylized designs, like you see in girl’s comics. I wanted that over a more realistic, picture-perfect look.” Happy with the results, Kanbe was nevertheless surprised: “I originally had the impression that girl-manga-style art wasn’t really Kishimoto’s fort’e.” The director incorporated the main characters in an arresting opening title sequence notably embellished with lush, golden hues and dense, abstract symbols. Accompanied by vocals reminiscent of a Georgian chant, it is at once strikingly beautiful, deeply mournful, and distinctly memorable. Surprisingly, Kanbe asserts that he’s not usually adept at producing openings, grumbling that they “always call for something bright and powerful, with lots of speed and momentum…They’re invariably these really loud, garish affairs, which is why I’ve always disliked doing them.” Elfen Lied, on the other hand, afforded him the opportunity to design a languid opening based on the sensual, ethereal paintings of Austrian artist Gustav Klimt., something Kanbe had wanted to do for some time: “It was so far removed typically required in an opening sequence, so I’d never had the chance to do it.” Thanks to experimental environment, he took a shot this time “in case it was the last chance I ever got. I think it’s pretty rare to have everything come together like that.”
So exactly who is after Lucy/Nyu? Simple: A nameless yet diabolically evil institution headquartered on an island off the Kamakura coast. Its president, Kakuzawa, is the thoroughly ruthless kind of character-with-an-evil-plan you love to hate. Arguably worse is Bando, a Special Forces Operative dispatched to capture Lucy. He’s malicious to sociopath levels, and it’s not just his prey that receives the brunt of his violent behavior. In charge of research and detainment of the telekinetic females called Diclonius (yes, there are more than one) is Chief Kurama, who openly admits he killed his own daughter, though slightly redeemable qualities surface later on. Judging by the coding system, at least 35 Diclonius have been held at the facility. Only one of them, Nana, has been tamed of violent instincts, via some decidedly inhumane treatment. Ironically, her kindness creates much confusion, not to mention intense pain for herself after she’s sent to Kamakura to track Lucy down. The most lethal and cruelest Diclonius of all, Mariko, is also the youngest. As situations escalate, the show takes the opportunity to explore some of the back-story behind these baddies.
Since the manga was still being serialized during the time of production, Kanbe and series composer Takao Yoshioka took pains to craft a fitting denouement. The script required several passes to get right, and Kanbe reveals that it was initially going to be wham-bam stuff-Lucy was captured, requiring Kouta and company to dash to the island and save her. However, as they already spent considerable time fleshing out Lucy’s emotional state-suggesting that Diclonius aren’t inherently evil, but made so by their treatment in society-an alternate ending arose: “We discussed the possibility of shifting the focus toward resolving emotional issues, instead of tying up all the loose plot-level stuff.” There was also the matter of a certain character’s death in the manga, which inspired a final scene where Nana would be crying over a bowl of noodles while remembering the tragic moment. “We went through quite a few starts and stops before we found a way to thread those ideas together in a way that worked.” So how does it all pan out? Although there is no grand island rescue in the last episode, a thrilling battle is steeped in tragedy, followed by a heartfelt, emotional exchange in the moonlight. The slightly ambiguous yet uplifting conclusion eloquently illustrates the series’ most important theme for Kanbe.