During the anime boom of the early '90's, anime found itself pigeonholed and condemned as violent pornography by certain sections of the media, and the actual titles being released at the time offered little defence against this view. How times change. Now it is rare that an anime title incurs the wrath of the censors, but if one would then many thought it would be Elfen Lied.
The first volume starts in a military base at night where a naked masked woman named Lucy has escaped from her constraints and is making her way to the exit, leaving a trail of eviscerated corpses behind her. Those who stand in her way are torn apart by invisible forces and even machinegun fire doesn't slow her steady progress. In a last desperate attempt to stop her as she exits the compound the military open fire with an anti-tank gun, the impact of which shatters her mask and sends her tumbling into the sea. Now we cut to morning, where college students Kohta and Yuka encounter a strange naked woman alone on a beach. The woman seems to have a very minor head wound but that's not what's strange about her, for one she has small horns on her head and secondly her adult body seems to harbour the mind of a child. Blissfully unaware of her true nature the pair name her Nyu (which is the only word she ever says) but with the military desperately searching for the psychotic Lucy is it only a matter of time before Nyu becomes her old self?
People who have watched or read Chobits may find the latter half of this synopsis more than a little familiar. Indeed Elfen Lied shares an awful lot of characteristics with CLAMP's popular romantic drama, in which a clueless student ends up living with a mysterious childlike woman who is named after the only word she can say. In Chobits the main character also has a dark alter ego, but whilst her darkness manifests itself through bouts of angst-ridden existentialism, Nyu's dark side manifests itself with bouts of extreme sadistic violence.
The violence in Elfen Lied vol 1 is extreme, frequent and stomach churning. Lucy is a genetically engineered human who has invisible psychic arms known as Vectors, which allow her to lift any object or hideously slaughter anyone who comes within a two metre radius. In the course of the volume you will witness hearts being ripped out, eyes being poked out, countless beheadings and dismemberments and even people being ripped in half, but somehow it was passed uncut by the BBFC with a 15 certificate. How it escaped an 18 certificate I'll never know, Lucy rips people apart with sadistic glee throughout and the violence is so extreme it makes controversial anime like Akira look like Bob the Builder. The violence is a huge and jarring contrast to the Nyu storyline, but then that appears to be the point.
Elfen Lied establishes an extremely dark and hideously violent tone at the outset and then throws you straight into a familiar and ultimately happy situation. The thing is as soon as Kohta turns up you begin to think you know where it will go and imagine comedy shenanigans and romantic misunderstanding, but lurking in the back of your mind is the knowledge that the 'Lucy' persona could emerge at any moment and kill all of the main characters. The series is clever enough to play on this, building up seemingly important characters and then killing them off in nasty ways and allowing Lucy to emerge for murderous rampages, whilst still following the standard conventions of Chobits style anime. It plays on your expectations but throws in a liberal smattering of shocks, which means you are always on edge whilst watching it - you know what should happen, but you are never quite sure if it will.
It's this dichotomy which is at the heart of Elfen Lied, but the same violence that fuels this strength is also to an extent it's downfall. The extreme violence may be a bit much for some and the sadistic glee Lucy takes in torturing her victims is more than a little unsettling. Also, even though the shocks do distract you from it, the Kohta / Nyu storyline is pretty clichéd and formulaic. On the plus side though the animation is great and for once we have a story that challenges convention whilst apparently following the formula. The characters are interesting - if a bit clichéd - and the story has a definitely uncertain ending, if it sticks to the formula then Nyu should overpower the Lucy aspect of herself and live happily ever after with Kohta, but then again she may just get a bump on the head and kill everyone.
At the end of the day Elfen Lied vol 1 makes for challenging and uncomfortable viewing. On one hand it has a clichéd story and obvious characters at it's core, but on the other the violence and shocks keep you on edge and uncertain of the outcome throughout. There are some interesting plot elements being hinted at, it especially seems that Kohta and Nyu have met before, and that this may have had something to do with the death of his sister, but it is yet to be seen if the series will exploit these to the fullest. But it is also a solid action-packed horror series combined with a standard romantic comedy drama storyline, and in this regards it is pretty unique. If you are a horror fan, or want to watch something that is action-packed and will challenge the conventions of anime, then Elfen Lied is for you. However, if you are offended by extreme violence or are looking for an anime series to show to kids then I'd recommend looking elsewhere.
The usual ADV trailers are combined with clean opening and ending sequences and two galleries. Annoyingly the galleries - character art and production art respectively - are presented as rolling demos with music playing over them, which means you have to watch them all fade in and out really slowly rather than be able to skip through them manually. A shame, but still better than the extras on most modern anime releases.