Anime Reviews: Violet Evergarden
Some Basic Info About the Series
Title: Violet Evergarden
Production: Kyoto Animation
Series Length: 13 episodes + 1 OVA
Air Dates: 1/11/2018 to 4/5/2018
Age Rating: 13+ (some strong violence, mild language)
Summary: The Great War has finally come to an end, but Violet Evergarden remains a soldier without a battle to fight. Raised to serve in the military since childhood, she finds she cannot function in normal society without orders from her commanding officer, Major Gilbert Bougainvillea, who treasured Violet like a daughter. At the war's end, Violet lost her arms and Major Gilbert his life, but the Major's final words to Violet were words of love and hope that she would go on living. After awakening in the hospital, fitted with mechanical prosthetic arms, Violet is greeted by former officer Claudia Hodgins, who gives her lodging and work as part of the Major's last wishes, but he can't bring himself to tell Violet of Major Gilbert's passing. She takes up the job of an Auto Memories Doll, the title for someone who writes letters on behalf of those who cannot do so themselves, in order to learn what the Major's final words, "I love you," truly mean. Now, the emotionally-stunted and socially-awkward Violet Evergarden must learn to live as a civilian while connecting with her inner feelings, as well as the feelings of her clients, to discover her own humanity and reawaken emotions long smothered by war.
The Good: Beautifully atmospheric visuals; gorgeous opening and ending themes; gripping drama contained in thoughtful vignettes with thematic depth
The Bad: Both the story and Violet's character arc suffer from an extremely slow start
The Ugly: Those 1910s prosthetic arms must be excruciatingly painful
Let's fawn over KyoAni some more, shall we?
Yes, we shall. Kyoto Animation have, over the last 12 years, become a juggernaut in the anime industry, and it's easy to see why: they (usually) pick excellent stories to adapt and do so with some of the best animation to be put onto television, and Violet Evergarden is no different. I've been wanting to see this particular title ever since the promotional video back in, like, 2015 or something, and while what I got wasn't exactly what I was expecting, I can't say I'm disappointed. Specifically, I was expecting the show to be made entirely of the stand-alone "letter-writing" episodes, and I wasn't expecting a larger narrative to come packaged with them. But nevertheless, I was hyped going in, and I am hyped right now, talking about it, so let's move on to the breakdown!
What does Violet Evergarden do well?
Something something KyoAni something something gorgeous visuals something something. You know the drill by now--it's Kyoto Animation, it's a big passion project, they threw all their best guys at it, it's stunning to look at, yada yada yada. We've been to this taco stand before, and the tacos are just as amazing as they've always been. The line work is superb, the color design is very stately and old-world with its deep blues and rich browns and luminescent golds, the animation is top-notch and consistent, the lighting is warm and inviting, the post-processing gives everything a mesmerizing sense of atmosphere and realism, and so on. "Kyoto Animation makes a good-looking anime" isn't exactly breaking news, so let's just move right along.
While the series boasts a nice, relaxing collection of orchestral background music and some excellent voice acting in both English and Japanese, it's the opening and ending themes that steal the show in the audio department. Both songs, "Sincerely" by TRUE (who also supplied the fantastic openings for Sound! Euphonium) and "Michishirube" by Minori Chihara, are very low-key and simplistic in their instrumentation, but they convey the tone of the show perfectly--the former with its almost painful earnestness and longing, the latter with its calming, tranquil wistfulness. Any anime where I absolutely refuse to skip either the OP or ED is a rarity, honestly.
But let's be real, aside from the high-quality art and animation, it's the writing that kept my attention all throughout Violet Evergarden. The series takes on the format of episodic stories that are linked by a main thread--the titular Violet and her struggle to regain her long-suppressed humanity through acting as a ghostwriter. It's these individual stories that provide the meat of what many fans have come to love about Violet Evergarden: the feels. Boy, does this anime supply those delicious feels.
There are three main themes running through the show that, coincidentally enough, all arrive at the Feels Station--the ravages of war and how it strips away the humanity of all involved, the fact that human communication is an essential part of coming to develop empathy and understanding, and the ever-present notion of love in all of its forms. It's no accident that Violet's own character arc involves all three of those ideas, in that order. While I could list off all the one-shot characters and how I enjoyed their episodes, and that I found myself growing more and more attached to the main cast, I feel like the more important thing to take away from this anime is those aforementioned thematic elements--after all, the entire purpose of fiction is to help us contextualize the real world through stories we tell each other.
We see right from the very start the first of those ideas--that war is hell itself for the mind and body--with Violet recovering for literal months after the final battle, her position and purpose stripped from her, left to sail adrift in the sea of civilian life. Though Hodgins gets her a job and a place to live, Violet feels empty and listless without Major Gilbert's orders, so she practically begs for the few authority figures around her for their commands. We also see the echoes of war haunt Hodgins, who is the one who tells Violet that she's "covered in burns," that she's "burning up," a clear metaphor for the horrors of war eating away at her soul. Given that Violet was raised as a child soldier, it's no wonder that she is out of place in a peaceful environment, and when you remember that this kind of thing happens in the real world all the time to both adults and children, you can really feel for her.
Which leads nicely into that second theme: learning empathy through human contact, as Violet is nonplussed by Hodgins' statement about her being covered in burns. She has feelings only for the Major--her commanding officer to whom she is endlessly loyal, the first person to have ever treated her like a human being--and so she takes up the ghostwriting job, becoming an Auto Memories Doll, to learn that valuable social skill, "empathy." And as such, we the audience are invited to share in her journey with a revolving door of sympathetic characters and their circumstances. Through this organic process, we begin to see Violet develop those emotions and feelings that had long been suppressed by war, and, inevitably, she'll have to contend with the fact that, in that Great War, she had taken at least several dozen human lives.
And all throughout, connecting the threads of the narrative, just as integral as the title character herself, is love. The Major's final words to Violet were words of love, the final farewell of a man to his surrogate daughter. Luculia wants to learn to write so that she can write a letter to give love and support to her brother, who is trapped in a death spiral of depression and despair. Iris must deal with facing a man she had loved as a young girl and was rejected by, trapped between wanting to see him again and wanting to run away from it all. Oscar Webster is a once-prolific playwright who has turned to drinking since the death of his daughter, but now seeks to write one last play in her honor. Every new story presents a variation on these themes, and they are perfectly woven not only to be satisfying 20-minute stories, but also to flesh out our main heroine in her quest for her own emotional awakening, and that's a sure sign of masterful storytelling.
Where does Violet Evergarden fall short?
Well, to put it frankly, getting through the first three episodes is pure pain--not because the material is bad (it isn't), but because the pacing is downright glacial. I went through the series twice, partially because I wanted to see if this perception of these early episodes was just me being impatient with a series I was so hyped up for (and partially because I just wanted to watch it again), but sure enough, the pacing issues persisted on the second viewing. I feel like too much time is devoted to the characters voicing things we can safely infer ourselves, which gives Violet Evergarden's slow start the atmosphere of it being excessively worried about leaving you in the dark on very simple things--just cut to the chase, already!
The other issue with these early episodes isn't exactly what I'd call a mistake or a flaw, but rather an intentional creative choice that might turn people off: Violet herself. Violet is an emotionally-stunted and distant person at the start of the story, and while she quickly opens up and becomes more sympathetic and relatable despite her inflexible exterior, it doesn't change the fact that she, for all intents and purposes, spends the first 2-3 episodes acting like some kind of weird robot person. It's obviously just to set up the stark contrast between the two ends of her character arc, but if you came into the series not knowing she undergoes that change, you would be instantly turned off. And that's always a risk when doing stoic characters like Violet.
So...another feather in KyoAni's cap, then?
Damn straight, son. A lot of time and a lot of effort...some amount of eff...ort...well, a lot of time went into writing this review, because I wanted to make sure I gave this great series its due diligence. No, it was not because episode 10 left me weeping like a lost child both times I watched it, so you can dismiss that silly notion right now! Of course, it should go without saying that Violet Evergarden has my blessing and my recommendation, and if you like some good old-fashioned character-based drama and faux-historical aesthetics in your anime, then you have no excuse to pass this one up. If you can stand a bit of a slow start, you're in for a real treat.
Final Score: 9 out of 10. Violet Evergarden is yet another resounding success from the hallowed halls of Kyoto Animation, boasting some of the most beautiful animation and hard-hitting episodic storylines to grace your television screen, even if its opening episodes might test your patience more than you'd like.