Review: Violet Evergarden
Violet Evergarden follows a young girl of the same name who, in the direct aftermath of a fictional war not far removed in nature from World War I, commits herself as an auto-memory doll—a person who ghostwrites important letters.
January 11th 2018—April 5th 2018
Director: Taichi Ishidate (Kyoto Animation)
Writer: Reiko Yoshida (scriptwriter) & Kana Akatsuki (novelist)
Starring: Erika Harlacher (English) & Yui Ishikawa (Japanese)
I hope and suspect everyone has, at least once, been acquainted with the feeling that comes after finishing a book, show, or video game which left them both fulfilled and empty in equal measure. You know, one of those products of entertainment which had so much personality, purpose, or impact that carrying on in the world knowing others hadn’t yet experienced it was somehow a little heartbreaking—where you try to share it with somebody and, when they ask what it’s about, your lips can only grasp at ideas of words as you struggle to articulate such an experience in the imperfect noises of man.
That is how I felt immediately after completing Violet Evergarden. It’s been a couple months since then, so the dramatic, emotional “high” has finally worn off enough that I can talk about it with less bias and a little more clarity. I’ve had time to revisit the series with a sharper, more critical mind—so it’s with the combination of these two experiences I’m at last confident enough to do this series justice without regurgitating mindless applause.
That is not to say Violet Evergarden will be receiving no applause. Far from it. There is much to say on the subject, so let’s stop skirting the issue and move on to the principle subject.
Let’s review Violet Evergarden.
Spiritual Content: No concerning material.
Violence: A variety of blood-stained flashbacks from when Violet was at war. Blood is abundant, but realistic, gathering in pools, leaking from wounds, and smearing across walls. A few brief clips of hand-to-hand combat. Many die to gunfire or explosions.
Language/Crude Humor: Two instances of the word “hell” being used as an expletive, both from the same character. At least three uses of “d**n.”
Sexual Content: We see Violet’s lower back as she just starts to undress before the camera cuts away. One of her coworkers is notably busty and has a reputation for it.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Some characters are seen drinking alcohol at least three times, one of whom at least does it purely as a means of escapism.
Other Negative Themes: The series has a generally contrite tone, rotating around a character’s death as a formative incident. Not necessarily a negative theme, but should be considered based on your viewing preferences.
Positive Content: Strong emotional awareness, with an agenda obviously geared towards deep emotional philosophy. Characters are generally patient and polite, or at least try to be. There’s a heavy amount of sympathetic energy between all involved characters, as they address and realistically combat the gauntlet of trying to help a lost girl find her place in a world she doesn’t understand.
First, a primer. Violet Evergarden follows a young girl of the same name who, in the direct aftermath of a fictional war not far removed in nature from World War I, commits herself as an auto-memory doll—a person who ghostwrites important letters. I will address why she does this shortly. The bulk of Violet Evergarden comes in the form of episodic vignettes, with an overarching character narrative blanketed over the top of each individual story. It is an anime of only thirteen episodes, adapted by Kyoto Animation from the original light novel penned by Kana Akatsuki. At the time of this writing, you can find its single season on Netflix in both dubs and subs.
This series, if granted no other compliment, has heart. Wrestling down an explanation about the appeal is difficult, for by trying to contain it in words, you ultimately betray the nature of it. Violet Evergarden is a case study in nuanced human emotion and a master-class in conveying those emotions through minor expressions or shifts in body language. But this story is not told entirely through dialogue, nor exposition, nor even aforementioned physical communication—alongside these, Violet Evergarden reins in the power of animation as a medium to create a visual dialect as well, something Kyoto Animation has a reputation for being very good at, and because of all these dimensions of conveyance, this anime reads like something which must be watched twice in order to absorb everything it wants to say.
Not that you really miss anything the first time through. As long as you’re paying attention, you’ll gather all the information you need, but the connecting themes and arcs allow the series to be retroactively appreciated in a different light, once all the major details are known to the audience.
With the exception of a tantalizing few seconds at the very end, Violet Evergarden was probably most commendable in that it knew its identity. You can argue how well various aspects of the show were carried out, but nobody can debate what it was trying to be—that is, a story about different kinds of love.
In a quintessential moment of Violet’s history, she is told “I love you,” by somebody who obviously means a lot to her. In an attempt to rectify her naturally emotionless self with these words, she becomes an auto-memory doll. She sees these dolls—girls in a certain, pretty aesthetic who are paid to write letters—have a lot of interaction with the more personal and emotional sides of their clientele. They see heartbreak, struggle, love—and must not only write letters, but often read between what their clients are saying to really get at the meat of it. They compose, organize, and interpret these letters to most truthfully reflect what people want to say, and then deliver it to the intended receiver.
Consciously chasing respite from her emotional naivety, Violet pursues this career with vigor. At first, she is technically adept—fast, concise, articulate—but her letters come off as cold, like military reports. But as Violet continues down this path, she interacts with people each carrying different brands of pain, different nuanced histories, different things she could learn from. And, in bits and pieces, learn she does.
This show is emotionally smart in that it understands feelings and empathy are not neatly compartmentalized. Just because Violet comes to understand the underpinnings of one kind of relationship or pain does not mean she will automatically be able to wrap her head around why somebody else will interact with the same situation in a completely different way. In this, we can see Violet’s progress develop as an emotionally normative human being, “leveling up” in some aspects which carry over into following episodes, without being completely changed in every regard. She doesn’t go from a robotic personality to a master of empathy after a single formative moment, but over months (perhaps more) of intentional, strategically-placed emotional developments.
That, however, is about as far as I’m willing to comment on the characterization and narrative. Frankly, each episode could be broken down at length, as well as the overarching plot fabric of the series as a whole. Everybody I know who has watched the show seems to have different favorite episodes, which speaks to the evenly spaced quality of the series. For me personally, it would be the playwright episode, because I’m a sucker for father-daughter stories (and that song). One of my favorite Youtuber’s said the mother-daughter episode (there’s a few with that qualifier, but if you’ve seen the show you know which one I’m talking about) made him “cry so hard it gave me a headache.” Violet Evergarden tackles heavy things with grace: survivor’s guilt, grief, dying, loneliness, and many forms of pain found in family. It subverts expectations with these things in constant, small ways.
My last comment on this matter would be…have you ever seen the Western television properties of either This is Us or Parenthood? Those are the closest things I can think to compare to Violet Evergarden from our current market. They reside in the same vein of emotionality and narrative direction, with the exception that this is captured in the unique splendor only possible in animation.
But it’s only fair to speak on the aspects of the show which were less than great. The pacing is steady, but steady isn’t good enough in first couple episodes before you fully understand what you’re supposed to be watching. In fact, I’d say you won’t start to “get it” with Violet Evergarden until the conclusion of episode 3, which is too late for some people. Before that, the purpose and ultimate tone of the series is hard to pin down. People often bemoan Violet’s personality in the beginning. While the central conceit of the series is how she changes over time, the pace and direction of her character is disputatious in the fan base. Her change is the Big Idea of the series, and it’s hiding behind a bunch of front-loaded information which can be hard to swallow.
In regards to the larger plot of the series, there are two highly divided camps on whether the sudden end-game villains (rather “villains”) were amazing and insightful, or underwhelmingly generic.
But perhaps worst of all is the unbelievable character design for the character of Violet. Neither we, nor Violet know her true age, but at some point it’s speculated within the series that she’s fourteen years old. If you look at a still shot of her it’s hard enough to believe, even more so once you’ve watched a few episodes. But just being fourteen isn’t as much of an issue as when characters address her as such. There is one scene later on where she’s skydiving, and from his position on the ground (hundreds of feet away), a man says “why is a child coming this way?” It’s immersion-breaking that he could have even been able to tell it was a person, let alone their age.
Speaking to other things, the dub of the series is good. I prefer the subs, as is my nature, but I thought this one was satisfactory, meaning that to the more initiated and familiar with that type of language, it’s probably amazing. In some interviews, we learned that the director disagreed with some aspects about how the light novel progressed, so if you’re familiar with the light novels, expect some differences. There’s one major change that makes me appreciate the direction of the anime even more, knowing the alternative. Read interviews. Interviews are cool.
The music is that rare kind where you’d swear it couldn’t have been made by people. It came from a world all its own. Okay, maybe that’s biased, but I think it’s a fairly popular opinion. The music—and how it’s utilized—is rapturous. In fact, the sound direction is generally masterful. Rarely do I mention something as inconsequential as a footfall…but episode 9 has a scene where Violet does a heel-turn to take a step, and the crispness and echo of the step is good enough to mention. There’s also a strong absence of noise in one particular scene where somebody is screaming which gave me chills all three times I watched it.
In sum, Violet Evergarden is, for me at least, a reminder of why I love anime. A rare, valuable thing I almost don’t deserve to watch. An emotional panacea—much like Anohana—which transfused joy into my heart at a time I needed it. I have no reservations in admitting it’s not for everybody. I’ve heard many opinions, justified at different levels, about why people tremendously disliked this series. To each their own. But for me at least, I’m glad I got to witness Violet transcend herself. She is somebody I want to be, and that’s not something I often admit about characters in my media. I want to be a person who helps others make peace with themselves.
“I love you, and I’m happy you’re alive.”
+ Beautiful Kyoto Animation aesthetic
+ Powerful utilization of music and sound design
+ Emotionally resonant, character-centric narrative
+ Steady pacing
- Character designs are misleading
- Late-narrative antagonists may feel jarring
- Deliberate emotional pandering can turn off some audiences
- Controversial/ambiguous character fates