No two ways about it: it's guro meets haremy moe*. The frequency of dismemberment and disembowelment are a pretty good indicator of the former and the show's referral to Sister Princess, the growing number of girls moving in with the male protagonist, and everyone having this weirdly protective and infatuated attitude towards the protagonist pretty much make a no-brainer of the latter. Unfortunately I'm not very charmed by either genre and the combination is, uh, tricky to do without failing horribly. Elfen Lied started out strong, and I thought it was actually going to work. Shouldn't have been surprised it didn't.
The two opposite genres could work, assuming that:
1) The guro was good, which it mostly wasn't.
2) The moe worked as a good unicorn chaser for the heavy physical and psychological violence, which it didn't.
Splattering gore and body parts all over the place is shocking for only so long, and after that you don't pay much attention to it. The light moe segments could've been good counterweights for the grim violence, but instead they ended up only underlining the illogical way everything worked in the series and made the already irrational characters seem even more random. The result is a series that has two elements that take up momentum from each other instead of adding to it.
About the characters: I didn't find a single interesting character from the whole show. I liked none of them, connected emotionally with none of them and was entertained by none of them. Elfen Lied is one of those very few series in which I've felt no sympathy or interest towards any of the characters.
Before we delve further into the characters, I think it's useful to explain the relevant terminology first. Or term, rather. A diclonius or the diclonii are essentially a race of humanlike creatures with horns on their heads and the ability to manipulate immensely powerful invisible hands called vectors. In the picture below, the pink-haired girls are both diclonii. Mostly the diclonius race is used in Elfen Lied's storytelling as a way for writing cute girls with super-powerful killing abilities and malformed personalities. The introduction of a fictional race also allows the story to examine concepts like racial segregation and some manner of eugenics. Not that the series manages to do any of that in an interesting (or tactful) way, but the potential is there nevertheless.
Girl on the left with the puppy is Mayu the Homeless Shy Girl, the brown-haired girl next to her is Yuka the Childhood Friend and Love Interest, the girl in the center is Lucy/Nyuu the Sociopath/Infantile Moeblob, and the girl on the right is Nana the Sweet Kind Loli.
While Lucy, the female protagonist, was kind of cool for a couple of fleeting moments, Nyuu (her childlike alternative personality) was continuously intolerable. I wished for more from the two personalities. Maybe Nyuu's facade could've been teared down more subtly, instead of the full-on reversals to Lucy. Or Lucy could've exhibited some actual emotions instead of flat out lunacy. Now it was pure black and white. Some grays would've been a nice compliment. It would've made Lucy at least a bit more interesting to follow.
I've seen people blog and comment about how they "relate with Lucy" and how they "totally know how she's feeling". Uhh, really? She's a sociopath tempered into a merciless killing tool, having either too much or not enough emotions, and a mental landscape that is inhumanely fucked up. And people fawn over her delicate personality. Which apparently was really brought into light by her affection towards animals. Um. Yes. Killing everything that moves except a couple of dogs is very nice, but if that's the apex of her characterization, I'd say we're not talking about a very well-designed character. Lucy is a one-dimensional character that isn't very interesting to begin with, and the "oh, actually I just want love, let's hug sob sob" stunt at the end of the series did nothing to make things better. And don't get me started on the whole Lucy/Nyuu thing. It isn't a "touching portrayal of a mental illness", people. It's a cheap shot at combining moeblobs with serial killers in a way that avoids having to worry about creating truly complex or conflicting characters. And even if it had worked it wouldn't have been a good depiction of a frail and ill mind. It's like using amnesia as a plot element: it's hard to do really well, and even if you succeed it still feels a little old.
Kouta the Boring Male Protagonist
Unlike Lucy, the male protagonist, Kouta, is liked by everyone. Actually, he's liked to the degree of Lucy's/Nyuu's love towards him being one of the central plot elements in the series. Yuka (the Childhood Love Interest) and Mayu (the Kind and Shy Loli Who Enjoys Housekeeping) even spend a whole scene contemplating on why and how Kouta is so incredibly nice to all girls (Because of a trauma, of course! Not because it's common decency to try and not to be a jerk!)
Yet Kouta is an irritating character with only a little more personality than your average empty and dull doormat-type harem story protagonist. What little character he has is really annoying. He's mule-headed, for one, and has this weird way of switching back and forth between the Nicest Guy Ever and a total douche. There's not enough character to make him likable and more than enough flaws to make him irritating. If you incorporate haremy stuff into your anime, please at least avoid using the bland protagonist stereotype. Essentially, Kouta is nothing.
And what's with this business with Kouta getting so attached to Lucy at the end of the series? Lucy killed his father and sister, causing him emotional trauma strong enough to hospitalize him for a full year, and when he recognizes Lucy as the killer, they hug, sob and he declares that he can't forgive her but that, uh... that things are good between them anyway. How about a little emotional havoc right there? Or some conflict. Or... I don't know. Anything other than that lukewarm "Oh well, I guess it wasn't a big deal after all, hur hur hur." They build the tension of Kouta's traumatic past for like 10 episodes, and when it's finally revealed and the audience is all "Shit, man, that's some pretty fucked up stuff, like, with Kouta's little sister getting chopped in half at the same time as she's crying for Kouta to love her, or not to be angry at her.", the series makes a total U-turn and has Kouta go all benevolent on Lucy. Sure, Lucy killed his kid sister while the poor child was crying for Kouta's love and acceptance, but who cares, Lucy's sort of hot anyway, right? RIGHT? I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing that Kouta forgave Lucy, just that, you know, there should've been some drama wank in between the revelation and the forgiving.
As for the supporting cast, I kind of digged Nana for a while, but her character never really went anywhere. And her initial charm only lasted for so long. When I realized she wasn't going to flip, go crazy or do anything interesting, she quickly lost her allure. I mean, she starts out as this goody-goody girl and remains like that through torture, maiming and setbacks. There's nothing going on with her. Her function is to be this sickly sweet diclonius pining for papa. Which is a shame since she really had potential I would've wanted to see tapped.
Director Kurama and badass glasses
And speaking of papa, I was sort of intrigued by Kurama, the head scientist at the diclonius facility. He actually has some backstory, a little drama, goals, a plan (I guess) of some kind and he's among the only only characters in the series who actually changes the slightest bit during the story. This isn't to say he's a good character, just that in the company he's in, Kurama is way more interesting than most of the others. Still, though, he's a typical extra in a harem series: the mystical influential person who has very little screen time and threatens the integrity of the harem in some way, but isn't exactly a "bad guy" as such. Or even if he is, he's more noble than the "bad" bad guys.
Discussing the characters of Elfen Lied on a more general note, was it just me or were the female characters really getting the shorter end of the stick? I mean, sure, men got butchered more (because the standard redshirt guard was always vanilla male) but being killed notwithstanding, women were assistants and subordinates, followers, admirers and bystanders. Women pined for lost love and couldn't really act on their own. The most independent non-diclonius female was probably Mayu, the homeless child who prior to her independence was mostly just fucked by her stepfather, and pretty much lost her free will once she got picked for Kouta's harem (and her period of freedom contained, of course, a scene of her being maltreated by that psycho male soldier on the beach, so even at the peak of her freedom, she was getting strangled by a burly man). After being adopted(!) by Kouta, she spends the rest of the series as this housewifey type. She seems to really like staying in the kitchen -_-'
I'm not saying Elfen Lied is the best example of male dominance, or indeed even any kind of an example of male dominance. What I'm saying is women had it pretty bad in Elfen Lied. The most accomplished female character being, I guess, the lady in the bakery shop. She wasn't incompetent or a subordinate to a male boss. Or a slaughtering superkiller (who were made to be that by the evil science men, of course.) She was, however, on screen for the total duration of something like 10 seconds, tops, so I'm not sure she really counts. That leaves us with Mayu, whose independence was really just a transitional phase between states of dependence.
And while the female diclonii seemed to be a little better off after escaping confinement, they too had their own share of disappointing moments. It irked me how they, in theory, needed to be confined because otherwise they would do what they wanted and that would be bad. Because the female diclonii are, again in theory, the only women who actually stand up and fight the fucked up hegemony (which created them in the first place). However, in practice things are even more frustrating: all of the female diclonii want daddy-love (or man-love anyway) and a shoulder to cry on, and not much else. One diclonius after another turns out to be just as limp and wispy as any other female character in the series. And, of course, the male diclonii are totally in control: they run the goddamn diclonius research institute and are the very pictures of virility. Though I still suspect they had just bits of plastic glued onto their heads. No way did those two men have real horns. Either that, or the writers really didn't know what to do with male diclonii. Whereas the female diclonii were all telekinetic vectors and shit, the males were just bald men with horns and wigs and a ruling position.
For an example of the female diclonii clinging to men see Nana, the "good diclonius", who is so dependant on her "papa" that it's not even funny. Nana's loyalty never falters and she's never portrayed as anything but a girl who's totally committed to her father. She's seriously obsessed with papa, and the narrative sketches her out as being a very, very good girl. The parallels between dependency and being a "good girl" are striking.
And then there's of course the infantile Nyuu, submitting to and depending on Kouta. She is obviously regarded as a "good" person, as opposed to the somewhat independent Lucy: even the special ops team that is so keen on ridding the world of Lucy once and for all hesitates to shoot Nyuu because "she's not Lucy", and is thus obviously good and harmless. This from the same bunch of people who routinely kill diclonii, who know that girls+horns=trouble, and who released the unstoppable, outrageously dangerous mega-diclonius in order to kill Lucy. These same people have to pause and think about pulling the trigger, just because Lucy's/Nyuu's having a bit of a moe moment?** Sheesh.
In the end, even Lucy, the diehard badass diclonius, degenerates into a quivering emotional puddle who just wants to be loved. Even Lucy. And in the final episode, no less! What the hell? I am disappoint! Sure, the series was all about how the real monsters are us humans, and the diclonii were treated horribly and ended up being twisted because of that and boohoo, cry me a river. But after all that emotional tugging (who's gonna die, who loves whom, everybody is miserable), I would've respected a sadder ending a lot more. And it was hard to miss that when Lucy's sociopathic personality started to give way to a more reasonable, less murderous Lucy, it was expressed solely by having her attach to Kouta the Doormat both physically and emotionally.
Elfen Lied isn't a glaring, obvious misrepresentation of women, but it is a horribly astute example of what happens to a series when you try to maximize moe on the expense of all other character traits. You end up with flat characters that all feel like a variant of the same otaku-appealing moeblob. I admit, my reading might be a needlessly critical one. Still, the small details in storytelling sure don't evoke any real respect towards any of the female characters. For example, Arakawa, the young and awkward researcher maintains some dignity (even if she is bossed by men, shot by men and ordered by men), until even she is placed in this weird scene where she's on the phone, complaining to her superiors how she wants to change her clothes and take a shower because she's starting to "itch down there". Why are we told that? Surely it must be in order to make her an interesting, well-rounded character. It must be!
Everything in Elfen Lied seems to operate on the level of the most awkward otaku, to whom all female characters must be chewed soft and simple. Of course, the show was probably targeted at that demographic, so maybe I shouldn't act surprised. Knowing that didn't help my irritation in the least, though. Captain obvious is obvious, but also very disappointed.
As it is, Elfen Lied is a show with a demographic and main focus of a harem moe series and the secondary content elements of a dark and violent guro story. That is to say, the moe is ubiquitous while the guro is there just to spice things up. By changing the focus of the series from moe-primary, guro-secondary to guro-primary, moe-secondary, or at least balancing the two out, I think I could've gotten more out of it. Now Elfen Lied remains a boring pseudo-harem story with dark highlights that don't get an opportunity to shine from under all the moe. It's a match that could work, but doesn't.
Then again, I've understood Elfen Lied has a very enthusiastic following. I'm tempted to guess that the harem series demographic was eager to try something that was decidedly different from the generic "I inherited my uncle's mansion filled with girls" type of story, and was delighted to find that Elfen Lied is a bit different and still retains all the, uh, charm of a moe-riddled harem series - complete with docile and repressed women, vaguely sketched doormat protagonist, bright visuals and a love story that masquerades as complex and engaging but is mostly just emotional flailing for 12 episodes and then a climax where the boy gets the girl and everything is either happy and good (the boy gets the obviously best match for him) or a little melancholy but still pretty good (the boy loses the best match and settles for the second best, who may or may not be the real best match). I'm also tempted to guess much of Elfen Lied's fans come from the younger teen segment, for whom the darker setting and shocking imagery might be more than enough to tease out a very enthusiastic reaction. I'm also tempted to guess this is where I should put my monocle on.
Maybe Elfen Lied had content and charm I didn't pick up, or maybe the standards of your average harem-series-consuming otaku aren't especially high. I don't know. What I do know is that even trying to objectively see Elfen Lied's merits, I couldn't find too many. Gods know I have enjoyed my share of harem series back in the day, so I think I'd have some potential for picking up at least some positive aspects from a harem show if there ever was any. But no. For me, Elfen Lied remains an awkward attempt at combining two very different genres. An attempt that conjures up a product that is a lot less than the sum of its parts.
I'm baffled by the comments I've read on anime blogs that laud Elfen Lied as one of the most interesting, engaging and important series of the last decade. Elfen Lied's only merit was merging fluffy harem conventions into a story that was about nasty stuff. I would applaud it had the series actually pulled the thing off, but I find it hard to award compliments for only trying.
After all my griping, here's me attempting to end this rambling on a positive note: The opening song was nice. Can't say if it was actually sung well or not, but the melody sure is catchy, and the video is rather beautiful.
* I'm going to paint with a wide brush here. Within this text, by moe I mean elements meant to be enjoyed by the very stereotypical mouth-breathing otaku. This compliments neither otaku nor moe, but writing "moe" is so much easier than writing "optimized for the enjoyment of the stereotypical hetero anime fan who is into very simple and stress-free female characters." Intellectually lazy, I know, but if you want intelligent analysis, this post might not be for you :P
** I do have to note that I guess Lucy's horns were hidden at that time and she had cut her hair, so maybe the team mistook her for a normal person who just happened to look like Lucy really really much. However, that doesn't change the fact that Nyuu is, in all of her childishness, on more than one occasion lauded as being a honestly good person, whereas the independent Lucy meets with resistance everywhere she goes.