Saving Private Kouta


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That is the song of warmth and elves, like a fleeting song of sadness.

The anime Elfen Lied by Mamoru Kanbe, 2004, reviewed by Everard Cunion in February 2010

Photo of the broken grandfather clock

Broken grandfather clock in Elfen Lied

Introduction

In a secure chamber accessed via machined blast doors a severed arm lies in a pool of blood, the fingers twitching. Armed guards stare terrified at a figure in a strait-jacket harnessed to wall inside a metal cage, its head encased in a steel helmet…

Elfen Lied is a dark tale based on a fictional viral mutation in Japan. Cute young women with big eyes feature in this tale of schizophrenia and other extreme states along with just plain old miscommunication and its sometimes dire results. This adult anime generated a great deal of publicity and comment after its release in 2004. Most reviewers raved about it while a smaller contingent panned it. It does include some weak humour and I know of no scientific underpinning for the genetic mutation on which the story is based. However, the artistic and emotional power of this anime in total renders its faults insignificant, in my view.

Screenshot from episode 2

Screenshot from episode 2

The title Elfen Lied (pronounced Elfen Leed) is German for Song of the Elves. Based on the manga by Linn Okamoto, it is directed by Mamoru Kanbe and distributed by ADV Films. It consists of 13 episodes. You can buy it on DVD (it comes on two discs) and you can see it (in low quality) in various uploads to video share web sites.

Theme Tune

The theme tune is Lilium, sung in Latin. As an opening theme it is sung by a woman (soprano Kumiko Noma). When the mutant girls (the diclonius) are in action, it is sung in the background by a male voice choir to great effect. That incongruous musical backdrop inhabits the anime so thoroughly it is part of its fabric.

Punctuated Equilibrium
During this scene, a male voice choir sings the Latin theme Lilium, occasionally drowned out by automatic rifle fire. That sombre accompaniment portends the fate of these men as early casualties in what could be the next quantum jump in the evolution of mankind. Punctuated equilibrium with a vengeance… Elfen Lied screenshot

The tune has become popular with musicians. Notable renditions include those of a school choir in Sweden and a duet by violinist Ayako Ishikawa and pianist Marcello Maio in a 2006 concert by the Eminence Symphony Orchestra in Sydney. For an exceptional piano rendition by TheIshter, search Google videos for ‘Elfen Lied – Lilium (Piano and Full Version)’. For a similarly outstanding guitar version by watercolour, search Google videos for ‘Elfen Lied: Lilium on classical guitar by Da Vynci’.

Story Telling

Despite the simplistic anime format, the story-telling is compelling. It is complex enough that I found it became more logical the more times I watched it. The ending, however, is open to interpretation; as the several online forum discussions about it attest. (Some of the largest Elfen Lied topics on anime forums are dedicated solely to the ending.) However, that openness consists only of possible variations on the same conclusion, so the story is complete whichever variation you choose.

Elfen Lied screenshot

Elfen Lied screenshot

The depth of the characterisation exceeds that in most films and television series’. For example, Bando, a special assault team operative of the counter-terrorist unit of the National Police Agency of Japan, initially appears to be a simple psychopath. Yet he always engages his victims in conversation, often on the pretext of ‘having some fun’. The story gradually reveals that he observes an honour code that even those whom he has vowed to kill can rely on. This seems to be a strong thing in Japan; possibly exceeding that predicted by the currently accepted ‘reciprocity’ model of cooperation. (If you are about to kill someone, what does it matter that you failed to keep a promise to them?) One can argue that this national characteristic accounts for the commitment to quality exhibited by products made in Japan, of which Elfen Lied is a prime example in my opinion.

Fiction Factory
Whereas Chobits (another remarkable anime) includes a ‘fictional’ story interwoven throughout the main story, Elfen Lied contains an imagined narrative in the last episode. Portrayed as a rapid succession of stills in about two seconds, you could easily miss it, except that is constitutes the final thoughts of one of the chief characters in the story. Elfen Lied screenshot

The arachnids in Starship Troopers have no variation; they are all simple killers. In contrast, the diclonius (diclonii?) while capable of extreme violence, all exhibit varying temperaments and other differences in character. (One of them kills any human who is in her way—although she harbours ‘inner feelings’ that often mitigate that tendency—while another, the product of an equally brutal childhood, cannot kill anyone, human or diclonius, and a third exhibits an insatiable need to inflict as much pain on her victims as possible before dispatching them.) After all, they are variations on the human type, not a different species. Of course, as is always the case in sci-fi/fantasy, these extreme protagonists serve as a vehicle for displaying—in an exaggerated way—those human characteristics that most concern us.

Its position as regards the ‘nature versus nurture debate’ is in broad alignment with the science, it seems to me. That does not prevent one of the main characters, overcome with remorse about his involvement with an organisation that carries out cruel experiments on the dangerous yet vulnerable diclonius, from sacrificing his own life in the mistaken belief that his abdication of his role as a parent created the problem child.

It tugs at the proverbial heart-strings. A despairing young girl has run away from home. Her spirits rise when, with sunshine having evaporated morning mist, she sees the sea for the first time. She heads straight for it…

Provenance

Lied is a German term meaning a poetic song or art song. Like the secessionist art movement led by Gustav Klimt, the type faded from popularity with the advent of the First World War (1914-18). (See Lied on Answers.com.) They often have sad endings, but, like many ancient forms of story telling, they generally leave room for re-interpreting the sad ending. Elfen Lied is such a story.

 

This story—a study of what can happen when we do not exercise care in trying to improve the human race, along with mankind’s inhumanity switching instantly to the opposite—was created in Japan, has a German title, and was first translated into German. Among the several elements it includes are the damaging consequences of unquestioning obedience to ‘orders from above’. Both those nations gained a reputation for brutality in World War Two (1939-45) arguably in part as a result of that culture. I find that interesting, is all.

 

The simplified visuals with pastel colours of this genre, showing detail where needed combined with convincing facial expressions, remind me of Destination Moon (1953) by Hergé. The interior of the institute, including its personnel and security features, resembles the headquarters building in the 1960s television spy series The Man from Uncle, but on a grander scale. Some of the beach scenes resemble those in the 1988 animated film Grave of the Fireflies, which depicts the after effects of the B-29 raids on Japan in World War II.

 

In the movie Saving Private Ryan (1998) an ordinary young guy is bereft of most of his family and a small team is sent on a mission to find him and bring him out of danger. While the equivalent young fellow in Elfen Lied is not a soldier and the rescuer is one individual, there are striking similarities between these two stories, a congruence facilitated by the fortified coastal setting.

Saving Private Kouta
An anti-tank round fired from a coastal bunker strikes the steel helmet of an invader who, although concussed and bleeding, succeeds in wading ashore. Elfen Lied screenshot

The depiction of the immunity to bullets of a diclonius in the first episode is an exact copy of the same phenomenon in The Matrix (1999). The child-like character of Nyuu is similar to that of Chii in the 2001 anime Chobits. Even the way they acquire those names is identical.

Elfen Lied might be passing on its own memes: The sound effects at the start of the live action movie version of Grave of the Fireflies (2008), based on the previously mentioned animated film, bear a striking resemblance to those in episode 1 of Elfen Lied.

Subtitles and Translated Text

The English-subtitled versions (there are also at least two English dubbed versions) gave me enough time to appreciate the visuals and read the subtitles without feeling rushed, which is more than can be said of some animes I looked at.

Arrival
The earth works at far right have since been completed and the steep slope is faced in grey stone. Elfen Lied screenshot

The online versions (many of which strike me as of dubious copyright legality) are of much poorer visual quality and they lack the exceptional stereo sound of the DVD. One online version I have seen is better in one respect, however: Japanese signs, of which there are many in this visual feast of urbanised ancient Japan, are translated by adding English text in a font that blends subtly with the original art, so you might not always notice it. (Conserve water; this is an island.) In contrast, on the DVD such translations are slapped on similar fashion to the translated dialog, in garish white text.

Other differences between the translations include different interpretations of the dialogue. Additionally, in the online version the central characters live at the Maple Inn, whereas in the DVD version it is called Kaede House. Kouta is renamed Kohta in the DVD version. (The American woman who, on the DVD, speaks the dubbed voice of Yuka pronounces Kohta as “Coder“—Aaargh!)

Artwork

The images that accompany both the introductory and ending songs are based on works by Gustav Klimt. Together with the Latin lyrics, they seem to me to reinforce the idea that the stuff of this futuristic story—morality, genes, and the usually civilising effect on our behavior that reasoned dialog brings to bear—are as old as humanity.

The detail and variety of the backdrops is extraordinary. I quickly gained the impression that either the creators of this anime are familiar with the intricacies of civil engineering, monuments to the dead in Japan, railway engineering, and ancient temples (to mention a few) or—could it be a real place?

Elfen Lied screenshot

Screenshot from episode 13

It is a real place; Kamakura and Enoshima island. Satellite photos show the distinctive markings on the coast highway, including the road bridge. (See this Google Maps satellite view.) More photos taken by people on the ground show the colored brickwork of the footbridge…

Both DVDs include ‘extras’. As well as endless sketches of all the characters (there are many, many of them!) there are early designs, much modified in the final production, of the secure chambers. There are also street layouts, interior and exterior views of the Maple Inn (Kaede House), Nana’s high-tech landing craft (is it a submarine?), an annotated aerial view of the light tower (“Let the monsters fight among themselves”), the detailed mechanisms of Bando’s artificial arm, the disassembled grandfather clock, Mariko’s wheelchair… And on and on and on…

Elfen Lied screenshot

Screenshot: View of Kamakura from Enoshima

Criticisms

Other reviewers have pointed out the weak humour in places and the absence of a soundly scientific underpinning for the genetic mutation on which the story is based. It seems to me that there are more important faults.

The diclonius’ vectors are invisible in at least the first episode. While some subsequent scenes would need to be presented differently, I feel it would have been better if, in later episodes, the clumsily depicted vectors remained invisible.

Several important characters die part way through—or they appear to—and then they reappear alive; with blood running down their faces or with Barbie-doll plug-in arms and legs, which are also fully functional. Like the change in the vectors, this imparts the impression that the story was rewritten while it was being made. (It wasn’t. The manga version, which preceded the anime, shows the same thing.)

The version I have on DVD offers English (US) dubbing and, alternatively, English subtitles over the Japanese original voices. Although I am a Brit, I generally favour US English spelling and American accents. However, in this case, I feel it would have been better to employ British voice actors because the more formal tones achievable by Brits provide a better match to the formal aspects of the culture of Japan. And when Mayu and Nana (both young girls) converse, the result is strained. It even sounds like the same woman doing both voices. For that reason I prefer the original Japanese sound track with English subtitles, which is an option you can select on the DVD menu. (Tip: If you are having difficulty finding the last three episodes on the DVD menu, take out disc 1 and insert disk 2. Doh!)

On a couple of occasions clouds move by as the wind blows people’s hair about. However, other items impinging on the sky, such as the tops of lamp posts, slide sideways along with the clouds. Oddly, although in a literal sense it is incorrect, this strange effect arguably magnifies the drama of those moments.

Danaë

The Danae is no longer deadly, no longer a decapitator of heads.

—Quoted from Gustav Klimt, Art Nouveau Visionary by Eva di Stefano, Sterling, New York and London, 2008.

Elfen Lied screenshot

Screenshot: Danaë

The theme song at the end of every episode (except the last) is Be Your Girl, sung by Chieko Kawabe. Its lyrics tell one of the sub-plots of the story (if you understand Japanese, of course) from the point of view of Lucy. In so doing, those lyrics provide insight into the reason for Lucy’s final act. However, its melody might be an upbeat counterbalance to Lilium, but it does not really work, at least for me.

Assessment

Despite its faults, which would impact heavily on a lesser production, this anime is so emotive and spectacular it renders such ordinary considerations insignificant. I would guess this effect results from the combination of a strong story, the extraordinary musical accompaniment, and facial expressions that change so quickly and subtly that few (if any) real actors could replicate them—particularly those of the young Lucy. The beautifully rendered setting of Kamakura in the cherry blossom season seems to contribute to the ambience too.

I needed to watch the series several times over for it to make sense. (I was never any good at following a story with flashbacks and other references.) I thought I found a fault. See my plot spoiler: Lucy Hums Lilium.

Elfen Lied screenshot

Screenshot

Together with Chobits, it is about the best visual story, whether motion picture or animation, I have ever seen.

Related

Saving Major Tom, my review of the 1967 James Bond movie You Only Live Twice, which is mostly set in Japan

See Also

Brutally Innocent; a review by Amos Wong

Elfen Lied Anime Pilgrimage including location photographs compared with screenshots from Elfen Lied, and travel directions for visitors to those locations

Elfen Lied in Wikipedia

English translation of geography section from Spanish version of Elfen Lied in Wikipedia

Japanese site about Elfen Lied (the second from last link is to a zip file containing location photos)

Reasons Why Elfen Lied Rules by brikhaus

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