Reaper's Reviews: 'Violet Evergarden'

Updated on October 15, 2018
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Ilan is a huge fan of anime and video games since he can remember himself. He is also an aspiring author who wishes to write fantasy novels.

Production: Kyoto Animation
Genre: Drama
Format: 13 episodes + OVA
Release: January 11, 2018 - April 5, 2018
Source: Light novel

In all honesty, I wasn’t expecting to watch this series, at least not as early as I thought.

While it did have an interesting concept, I’ve been put off by works from Kyoto Animation (sans A Silent Voice which is a fantastic movie) thanks to series like K-On!, Beyond the Boundary and Phantom World. And while they surely had some damn good projects like Sound! Euphonium and Nichijou, it just didn’t really feel worthwhile to follow the studio again.

And then, over the span of a few days, I got hit by no less than three different reviews about Violet Evergarden from writers and critics that I follow, including the legend himself, Glass Reflection’s Arkada. At their best, they hailed it as a remarkable piece of storytelling among the best of 2018, while at the worst said that it’s still a damn good series to watch.

With that, I decided to give Violet a chance, and boy am I glad for watching it.

Story & Setting

The world of Violet Evergarden takes balant inspirations from early 20th century Europe, which shows in different ways from its culture, to social structure, usage of Germanic languages and, of course, a post-”Great War” atmosphere where partly broken nations attempt to rebuild themselves after years of ruthless, families-tearing struggle.

But really it’s not about the setting itself but rather its effects on certain individual stories. That’s not to say that Violet shies away from showing first-hand the horrors of war, but the bulk of its narrative focuses on the now, or rather, the now as how it was shaped by the past, if that makes any bloody sense.

As would be understandable for an early 20th century society, the majority of the population are illiterate; thus, they require the assistance of Auto-Memory Dolls, female ghostwriters who help their clients with expressing their feelings on paper. One such doll is the titular Violet.

But Violet is not your typical Doll, no; aside from effectively acting like an actual doll, the teenage Violet is a veteran of the Great War, where she was a ruthless killing machine feared and respected by allies and enemies alike. But the war cost her dearly, and she lost both of her arms as well as connection with her commanding officer, Major Gilbert. With expansive prosthetic arms as replacement, Violet is taken to work as a Doll into a former Colonel’s letter penning and mail delivery company.

This is where the plot is fractured into three major plot threads, all intertwined together: the first being Violet searching for the Major, the second being her slow acceptance of her own humanity and emotions, and the final one is the individual emotional story of the week. I guess you can also add the tension caused by the war's end but, really, it’s more of a background aspect for the majority of the series rather than an actual story arc until the final two episodes.

It should be noted that what is perhaps Violet’s greatest fault occurs early on, namely it’s the very slow-paced beginning, spreading over its first four episodes. By no means are those episodes bad, because they’re definitely not, nor do they drag, but their deliberate snail-speed pacing will make it somewhat difficult to enter into Violet Evergarden.

From what I gathered, the first few episodes are anime-original, with no counterpart in the light novel, and their purpose is to both introduce aspects of the setting, as well as cover Violet’s first days as an Auto-Memory Doll. And while they are well-written, their rather subdued nature may test one’s patience before Violet truly opens up to showcase its brilliance.

Violet Evergarden then shifts gears to explore both the repressed humanity of its main heroine and how her job as a Doll aids her rediscovering her lost emotions. The vast majority of episodes tell their own, fairly standalone stories while simultaneously showing how exposure to said stories develops Violet into a more competent ghostwriter, as well as a more emotionally sensitive human being.

The series begins with (relatively) lighthearted affairs like one of Violet’s co-workers having a fallout with her own mother due to her refusal to marry, but as the series continues Violet gets involved in tragic and heartbreaking scenarios like a little girl fearing for her mother’s death from illness or a bitter scriptwriter who lost his daughter.

The episodes follow a definite formula and obviously vary in quality (though none of them is even remotely bad or uninteresting), but in only 20 minutes, they manage to tell a satisfying - often bittersweet - story that has a beginning, middle and end, and to build such emotional connection with the narrative and characters in such a short amount of time is nothing less than masterful.

Despite some of the harsher points of the stories, as well as Violet’s own arc, the series remains an optimistic and idealistic show that deals not only with loss, pain, depression and self-loathing, but also rewards the viewers (and the characters) with acceptance, love, bliss and self-discovery.

Violet shows the vicious reality of both post-war life and personal struggle, but more often than not also decides to end things on a more idealistic note that despite all the sorrow, there is still good to be found in one’s life or legacy, somewhere. And while the cynical in me scratched his head in slight annoyance, the young idealistic me embraced Violet’s themes wholeheartedly.

The final few episodes then decide to continue Violet’s grander plot to find the fate of her superior, and while I was initially taken aback by the change of direction, I think it was a good way to end the story; it builds upon the ideas and plot elements introduced early and leads to a payoff that fell surprisingly well earned and hopeful in line of Violet’s themes and tone.

There is definitely more to the story, but the way Violet Evergarden concludes its first installment is delightfully rewarding and a good finish line to a strong script.

The Characters

I will talk about the titular Violet a bit later as she is a big reason of the series’ appeal, but I just have to start that what I love about the supporting cast is how memorable every character is, even the most minor ones. If the character has any role in the episode, be sure that they are given enough screentime and characterization to make them endearing one way or another.

Of course the supporting cast members that get the most of the series’ script are Violet’s acquaintances in the company she works at, and the focus characters in each of Violet’s jobs. What seems at first as a cookie-cutter selection of one-note characters quickly evolves into something far more genuine.

As I mentioned earlier, Violet Evergarden manages to tell, quite effortlessly for the most part, compelling character-driven stories in just under 20 minutes, and in those 20 minutes, each episodes, the different folks Violet encounters are given varied backstories, different reasons behind their actions and motives, rich characterization and, with the exception of one, utterly tragic example, an heartfelt conclusion that finishes their story on a very satisfying note as their encounter with Violet allows them to reflect upon their lives and move on from past tragedies and old wounds.

The measure of their personal problems may be different, but it doesn’t matter if it is a princess worrying about her marriage to a much older prince of a rival nation or a young man trying to find his way after the abandonment he suffered by his mother; what matters is that they felt human to me. I pitied them when their were at their lowest, and I cheered for them when they rose up thanks to Violet, and by the end of the episode, they felt like good friends I didn’t want to part ways with.

As for the series’ more permanent cast members, Violet’s fellow Auto-Memory Dolls Iris and Erica get their own episodes that see them bonding with their stern and distant partner, as well as delving a bit more into their emotional state and motives behind becoming Dolls, and while they didn’t feel as compelling as other characters, I still found them immensely likable. (Plus, Iris is one hell of a cutie.)

Meanwhile, while none of them is given an episode for themselves, Violet’s superiors Claudia Hodgins (who is a guy), Benedict and Cattleya ended up becoming my favorite supporting characters; Claudia’s affectionate attempt to be a father figure for Violet is both heartwarming and heartwrenching due to him also being a veteran from the Great War, while Benedict and Cattleya’s hilarious banters and sexual tension are balanced by their respective care for a girl they gradually learn to understand.

And finally, we have Violet herself, a war child turned letter writer.

Let me get the one big negative about her character out the way first; it takes a while for Violet’s development to actually kick in. It suffers from the same issue the main plot has: the first three or so episodes are just so slow. That wouldn’t have been such a problem if Violet’s initial personality wasn’t so cold and distant; her robotic, monotone voice and emotionless demeanor make it hard for the viewer to relate and warm up to Violet. With her being the always-featured (and most focused-on) character, this may result in people giving up on the series as a whole.

That said, however, I personally believe that Violet Evergarden had one of the best character arcs in anime in recent years, and those who will stick with the series will be rewarded with a jaw-dropping transformation that may be slow, but is so beautifully and gently constructed that 80 minutes of slow burn are more than a worthy trade.

Violet’s progression from a distant killer to an empathic and sensitive girl who regains her lost innocence is so well done that it may be the one biggest achievement of the series. There is so much care and effort poured into Violet’s development, but it’s never really done in an over-the top, obvious manner, instead utilizing subtle speech changes and body/facial motions that summarize her graduation into a living human rather than… well, a doll. By the end of the series Violet became so endearing and real, and, without getting into spoilers, her arc receives a solid ending.

Animation & Art

As a Kyoto Animation production, Violet Evergarden is a gorgeously animated series. I won’t mince words but it’s not a stretch to say that the series as a whole is on par with many theatrical movies that came out over the last three years, even in comparison to other KyoAni works like 2016’s A Silent Voice (which is a movie, mind you).

The art is clean, detailed, crisp and uses lighting and shadows brilliantly. There is very little dip in the art consistency and even when it occurs (which is extremely rare), the backgrounds more than make up for it with vibrant environments and classic European architecture.

The quality in the animation is simply mind-blowing, and Violet also takes it to the next step with multiple subtle motions and gestures, facial animations and subdued movements to further explore its characters without the use of dialogue. I mention those scenes in particular mainly because animated works, especially anime, tend to skimp over such additions, but KyoAni’s high talent and deep pockets overcome this issue to present a more immersive series.

Oh and the character designs, man. It’s already good that every main and supporting character has their own design, features and attires that separate them from each other while keeping one particular style, but when one episode featured dozens upon dozens of uniquely designed background characters, you gotta admit it’s something special.

Audio & Sound

Violet Evergarden is one of these rare anime that were composed by a non-Japanese composer. The American-born Evan Call may not have the longest career out there (his other big work is on Big Order), but his work on Violet only adds to the sheer beauty of this series.

I love how peaceful and elegant the soundtrack can be; from Violet’s soothing and hopeful theme that grows more intense to the quiet “Unspoken Words”. There is a very Disney-esque vibe to the overall feel of it, and almost every piece can be heard whenever you want some calm afternoon.

Of course with these kind of anime, there will always be that piece that stands above all due to its relevance in emotional scenes, and here it is “Never Coming Back”. Its melancholic music box-like style plays on your heart strings, before moving to a somber violin and piano mixture that culminates with lovely vocals.

The opening theme “Sincerely” by TRUE is a cute if forgettable song, but the ending theme “Michishirube” by Minori Chihara got stuck in my mind due to Chihara’s high-pitched voice and the manner in which the song plays, that being over actual scenes rather than a cinematic drawn specifically for the ending.

Now the dub is pretty good; Erika Harlacher is a wonderful choice for the title character, and conveys Violet’s character development organically as her monotone and flat voice slowly becomes enormed with emotion and depth. While the rest of the cast is good too, the only one I assume people will be familiar with (at least more than others) is Kyle McCarley, who voices Claudia, and both he and his peers are solid performances.

Final Verdict

It’s hard for me to express in words just how much I adore Violet Evergarden; it’s a masterclass in animated storytelling and boasts one of the best character arcs I’ve watched in years. And that doesn’t include the slew of intriguing and immensely relatable characters, many of whom appear for only one episode. It’s not easy to tell a multi-episode story, but it becomes all the more jaw-dropping when you know a writer can bring to life so many emotions with a satisfying conclusion in just twenty or so minutes.

Its idealistic point of view will ask you to turn off your cynical side, and it takes a bit while to get going, but once it gets going, Violet Evergarden just doesn’t stop for a moment; it keeps building upon its premise and main character further and further, culminating in powerful scenes filled with emotions and a finale that, while left somewhat open-ended, delivers just enough to satisfy you. Couple this with Kyoto Animation’s sharpest visuals to date and a gorgeously peaceful soundtrack, and Violet Evergarden is simply a must-watch.

The Good:

  • Powerful stories with human characters
  • Violet's character development is amazing
  • Top-notch animation and soundtrack

The Bad:

  • Slow-paced beginning
  • Violet takes time to warm up to
  • Not for the cynical minded

& the Ugly:

  • My hatred to write reviews that bear the main character's name

As for alternate recommendations, I shall point you towards Letter Bee, which also centers around letter deliveries alongside personal stories. Its main plot does get a bit in the way, however, but overall it's a decent series.

The second recommendation is Mushi-Shi, for its episodic and calm form of story-telling. It boasts impressive animation, art and soundtrack, and a slew of interesting characters.

Between both you may found something you like.

© 2018 Raziel Reaper

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