Due to what are apparently masochistic tendencies, I've subjected myself to a lot of bad anime. This got me thinking. I asked myself "what is the worst anime I've ever seen?" I thought this over for a few moments, and gave myself this answer: "Elfen Lied. Elfen Lied is the worst anime I've ever seen."
Elfen Lied is essentially about monster girls with psychic powers behaving violently in response to humans being shit. One monster girl tries escaping and actually manages to succeed, but loses her memory in the process, reducing her to a vegetable who only goes "Nyu!" She winds up in the care of a boy and his female cousin, whose names I've forgotten and can't be assed to look up.
There are a few things to like about Elfen Lied. The first is the soundtrack. By this, I mean that there's a good song (used for the OP) that is repeated through the soundtrack ad nauseum in slightly different ways. The second is the potential it had. There were a few themes that could have been fairly solid. But we'll get to those when we talk about what was bad. Which happens to be now!
Any good of Elfen Lied is far outweighed by what's bad. I could be wrong since I don't really have an eye for animation or direction, but I don't remember it being particularly impressive. In fact, I think I remember laughing at how poorly things were animated at a few points. The English voice acting is lackluster, even by dub standards, and I've heard the Japanese acting isn't all that impressive either. Maybe not bad, but certainly not any points in the show's favor. Let's talk about things I can more definitively say are bad.
I hate to throw around buzzwords, but I can't think of a way to describe Elfen Lied's shortcomings without saying that it tries way too hard to be edgy. There is plenty of gratuitous violence, gore, and nudity, as well as themes relating to the darkness of human nature. It is possible for these elements to make a show good. Elfen Lied, however, utterly fails on that account. It assumes that these things are inherently good, so it makes no further effort. There are many stories in various forms of media that have combined sex and violence in ways that make both more appealing. Elfen Lied seems to be vaguely aware of this idea and has tried to emulate it to ill effect. Instead of having these two elements emphasize each other, they are simply thrown together so that hey both exist. The result is that they cancel each other out. The nudity makes the violence ridiculous, and the gore makes the nudity unsexy.
Worse than that is the theme, which weaves through the plot. Elfen Lied is about monster girls called Diclonii who can kill people with their brains. The government experiments on these Diclonii, because humans are scumbags. This bit is important, we'll come back to it later. One Diclonius, named Lucy, attempts to escape. She succeeds, brutally murdering half the facility in the process, but a sniper shoots her in the head. Not fatally, mind you. Only enough to give her brain damage, because the plot requires that she become literally retarded for a while in order to work. She is found and taken in by a boy named Kohta and his female cousin Yuka.
The government is not fond of Lucy escaping and murdering, so they send a bunch of Diclonius after her. Her murderous side conveniently reemerges when she is in danger. As the series progresses, the government continues to try to bring Lucy down, while flashbacks slowly reveal Lucy's past. Spoilers follow:
It is revealed that, as a child, Lucy was bullied for being a Diclonius. We see a scene in an orphanage where, after Lucy makes friends with a puppy, a bunch of children beat it to death in front of her. She then uses her mind-explodey powers and reduces them to strawberry jam. Later, it turns out that Lucy and Khota ended up meeting each other, and he was about the only human who was ever nice to her. Then, one day, Khota's like "Sorry, can't hang out with you today. I've made plans with my cousin to go to a festival" and Lucy's all "Is this cousin a boy or a girl?" and for whatever reason, Khota lies and says that she's a boy. Lucy finds out about the lie and murders Khota's father and sister in revenge. Because even as a child she wanted his dick and was apparently terrified that he'd fall for a blood relative instead of her. Though in fairness, he and his cousin totally do start falling for each other over the course of the season, because incest is edgy and that's how Elfen Lied rolls.
Ultimately, the series hammers in how much life sucked for Lucy and how horribly everyone always treated her, and how that turned her into a murderous monster. Because humans are trash, you see. We're cruel to anything that's different from us. This on its own isn't an inherently bad idea to explore. There are plenty of ways it can be handled well. But once again, Elfen Lied fails on that front. Instead of showing realistic human cruelty, it subjects us to the most blatant, over-the-top, cartoon villain evil it can find. Men abusing women isn't funny, but when a man randomly backhands a woman in an early episode, entirely unprovoked, I can't help but laugh. It's such a hamfisted way of attempting to show that a character is evil. There were so many times that I didn't know whether I should be laughing or whether I should just be disgusted at how much Elfen Lied was insulting my intelligence. There's making a point, and then there's flat-out misanthropy. Guess which side of that line Elfen Lied is on?
Elfen Lied is an anime that not only failed to do anything correctly, it flat-out insulted my intelligence and insulted me as a person by implicating that, as a human being, I was terrible simply for existing. Maybe, in the hands of someone more talented, Elfen Lied could have become an average series. If that were the case, it would have at least had the decency to be forgettable. But no, it decided that if it couldn't achieve greatness, it would at least manage to succeed at being terrible enough to be remembered, dammit! And the worst part is, because this was one of the first "edgy" anime to gain relative success in the West, there are a lot of people who are actually under the mistaken impression that this is good. It's not. Worst anime I've seen. One star.