Warning: This article contains strong language, cartoon depictions of extreme violence, and cartoon depictions of nudity. What the fuck do you expect, it’s Elfen Lied for Lilium’s sake!
Also, I apologize ahead of time for the abundance of images used, and the lack of subtitles. This is a case where a full video format would be really useful, but instead I have to use shots from the show to illustrate my points. I don’t have my own copies of the DVDs on hand, and the only usable video I could find online was not subbed.
Eflen Lied will always hold a special place in my heart as the first anime I ever watched that wasn’t just the only thing on TV. It was the first time I went out of my way to search for something “anime”, before I even understood what that meant. I was young and not very clever back then, and so all the beauty of the show’s opening scene flew over my head, and all my mind picked up on was gratuitous violence and tits. But rewatching this scene now, all I can think is that director Mamoru Kanbe did a damn good job.
For those of you who don’t know, Elfen Lied is an infamously violent anime made by Studio Arms in 2004. Based on the manga of the same name written by Lynn Okamoto (also mangaka of Brynhildr in the Darkness), the show has a cult following, but I’ve never heard anyone seriously call it good. Most people seem to just call it interesting.
Before we get into the scene, let’s start with opening. There are two important things we’re introduced to here, Lucy and Lilium. For Lucy, we’re shown images of this beautiful and serene woman with bright red hair and horns. Though it is an opening, so of course it will show us the main character, it’s still important to the coming scene, and the way Lucy is portrayed –docile, loving, even submissive– that is interesting. In terms of the show as a whole, it’s a two tiered manipulation of expectations, but for just the first scene, it’s a source of intrigue and investment.
As for the song, Lilium, there’s not much to say about it other than that this is the first of MANY times the viewer hears it, and it will come in again during the scene.
We go right from the opening to a shot of a person’s arm, torn from the body, still twitching in a puddle of blood. In the reflection in the blood around the hand you can see something resembling a face. It’s worth noting that this was done very differently in the original manga.
In the manga, the guy who once owned that arm had a name, Sasaki. It wasn’t until quite a few pages in that he died. By then we had exposition on what this facility is, we’d heard the term Diclonius and were told a bit about what they are, we had cut away and met the other main characters, and we met some totally useless character who you’re going to see get decapitated in a little bit.
Despite the exposition, the manga handles this introduction better narratively. That is, from the perspective of a manga. For an anime adaptation, I think this is fine. It’s a massive jolt from the OP, and that’s the point.
The creature in the mask proceeds to blow Sasaki’s mind, seemingly telepathically. It lifts the keys from his body, and the other guard starts shooting. Apparently one revolver isn’t enough though, as the sound of gunfire son stops as we cut back and forth between shots of a big metal door, and of the creature escaping, and destroying the metal bars of its jail cell.
Here was have an interesting shot. Initially this looks like just some more shots of the horror that just ensued, but that’s not right. There are three corpses here, and one living man. But in the Rancor Pit, there were only two guards. Also, the living man is different from anyone we’ve already seen, and if you listen carefully, he presses a button. This is foreshadowing for much later, but at the moment this does just serve to establish the amount of violence currently in play.
As the women begins the slow, ambient walk out of her cell, she hums Lilium. This should make it clear to the viewer that the opening theme isn’t the standard never-appears-in-the-actual-show song. You’re gonna hear Lilium a LOT watching Elfen Lied. It has significance within the narrative.
We cut away to this puppy pretending to be a woman just to establish that, as obnoxiously moe as she may be, she’s a nice person and probably doesn’t deserve to die. The show doesn’t spend a ton of time here, but enough to lead you to believe that this girl is probably going to be at least a minor character who is still important several episodes from now. Again, it’s setting up a misdirect.
We cut back to Lucy killing more guards, which mostly appears to just be a showcase of her power, which is backed by everyone’s favourite kind of expositions, guards reminding each other about what the manual says. But there is a bit more going on here.
Firstly, Lilium has started playing again, but a different, much more somber version of the song. I think by this point it should be clear, Elfen Lied is not a violence for the sake of violence, visceral joy type of anime. The violence is gratuitous, but mood is a far cry from the exploding-head fireworks from Kingsman. As over the top as the blood and human sundering is, I think the director’s intention is for it to be played straight. It looks over the top, but that’s just how dark the top is for this show.
Second, Lucy’s mask. It acts as… well a mask. The same way a mask is used in most media, to keep the identity, and to some extent the humanity, of a character out of the eyes of the viewer. Lucy is heavily dehumanized, and in fact the show itself doesn’t recognize her as human; she is a Diclonious. There is no reason within the story for Lucy to have this mask, she can obviously see through it fine, and it does nothing to restrict her. It is only there for the audience.
The mask here helps protect the image of a monster throughout this sequence, but it’s also conflicted by several things. The first of which is her body. She is a naked woman, an image in media that typically represents one of two things, sexuality, or helplessness/victimhood. The one at play here is obvious. Conflicting with all the murder Lucy is doling out is this feeling that she has been the victim here. But it’s still very hard to entertain that feeling with shots like this, with the mask.
This death right here I think is the second most significant, and leads me to bring up one of my problems with the scene. Up until now, though I don’t think any of the gore has been meant to bring visceral joy, it is so over the top that it is hard to take seriously. But this guard, rather than have his head or torso just explode or be ripped off, his death is, well, not subtle but at least subtle relative to everything else. You can see his neck in that shot, that’s not an animation error, that’s his head slowly sliding off. There’s no psychotic euphoria to it, it’s just grim.
These two shots are interesting, as they present the conflict we’ve seen so far with Lucy, dehumanizing power vs. humanizing victimhood, in two completely different ways. First, the way she’s sitting in the elevator is akin to fetal position, a state people often assume in response to extreme trauma. It is another common symbol of victimhood. Meanwhile, those are bullets on the floor around her. She just caught them all without lifting a finger. While the gun is no longer the most devastating symbol of humanities power, it’s still up there, and Lucy just effortlessly overcame it. She is shown to have power that transcends humanity, dehumanizing power.
In the first shot we had symbolic victimhood and narrative power. In the second shot these roles are reversed so it’s symbolic power and narrative victimhood (sort of). Like before, let’s start with the symbolism, or more accurately, imagery. I think it’s fairly straight forward. The way the shot if framed, Lucy stands over the four armed guards. It looks absolutely menacing, and while we can’t see the front of it, that mask is very prevalent.
As for the victimhood, look at what the mask doesn’t cover. This is the first clear shot (outside of the opening) we get of Lucy’s bright red hair. By now the audience should have some idea that this supposed monster is that gentle, submissive woman.
Another shot like earlier. I can’t convey to you the sound effects at play during this, but just understand that they ain’t pretty. They continue to paint Lucy and a homicidal (or, I guess, hetericidal since she’s not human) monster, while the visuals portray her as a victim. But again, the mask gets in the way.
This one’s mostly narrative, giving a clue about Lucy’s powers. What I will note is that the form of the hand is almost to perfect a match for the symbol for “stop” or “don’t walk”. I get that that sounds like I’m reading too much into this here, but hear me out. Logically, there is no reason Lucy should mark that wall like that. She can control her vectors well enough to grab the lever on her first try, she didn’t have to hit above it then slide down. So, yeah, I think that is another little bit of symbolism.
The most significant death. Unfortunately, it really is nothing but a more effective version of the last one. Let’s start with the obviously. We saw this woman earlier. She was set up like that only to add shock value to this shot. The shot itself is entirely emphasizing Lucy as a monster, which honestly is a little dull. It’s great at what it’s doing here, but so far I think the monster comes through a lot stronger than the victim, and that balance isn’t addressed by the end of the scene.
Of course this woman is not a threat (though, from what we’ve seen nothing is a threat to Lucy), but Lucy kills her anyway. More so, she does it while standing in front of a wall of armed guards, demonstrating that she has no fear of these people, that she is so powerful that they are not a threat.
It’s either senseless violence, or it comes out of a hatred for humans, and if it were clear that it is the latter that would be great. But so far, as far as the viewer can know, Lucy could just be on a senseless killing spree. We need some other hint of her character, maybe even just a brief shot of her face, to humanize and rationalize her. But instead, in this next shot, it just emphasises her lack of empathy, and the mask.
Into the final stretch now, as Lucy continues down the last hall. We get another brief shot of the “stop” hand, though in this case it actually show’s mercy on the part of Lucy. She was fully capable of killing this man, but she didn’t, why? Why would she kill the absolutely harmless secretary, but spare him? Perhaps she’s not entirely a monster.
Finally, the mask comes off. It’s taken off and she’s nearly killed by a sniper who assures us that she has limits. She can’t overpower a strong enough gun. This does two things, it makes her power somehow feel less, now that we can put a cap on it. And it humanizes her in that, she’s outdone by an invention of mankind, meaning Lucy herself isn’t an inventions, but a natural person. Those, mixed with finally seeing her face, shift the monster-human balance. That is, if we did see her face.
The mask comes off, and that’s something, but what little we can see of her face actually makes her look less like the woman in the OP. Those gritted teeth contradict the attributes we identified before. And I want to be angry about this, but I have to admit, this is much more true to Lucy’s character. She is not the woman in the opening. I could see an argument that Nyu is, but I don’t think she fits either. Even the horns, the last identifying feature, we never see here.
As much as Elfen Lied tries to humanize Lucy and all the Dicolius, I think what she’s ultimately supposed to be is all right here in the first scene. There may be some semblance of humanity, and she may be a victim, but she is still a monster. The rest of the series isn’t about disproving that fact. It’s about explaining what made her that way.
I hoped you enjoyed this look at one of my favourite scenes in anime. Until next time,
Don’t Lose Your Way