Kyoto Animation is back, and with beautiful abandon. After dominating Winter 2017 with Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, they seem set on taking the belt for Winter 2018 as well. This time they’ve heaped their adaptive magic upon Violet Evergarden, the light novel series written by Kana Akatsuki and illustrated by Akiko Takase. I have never read the source material, but this first episode has convicted me enough to possibly crest that wave. I now understand why the anime community has been so ravenously anticipating this series. We’ve got some serious emotional firepower on our hands, ladies and gentlemen.
I am going to do my best to convey the appeal of this pilot while keeping spoilers under wraps, though please understand, much of what makes Violet Evergarden remarkable is the subtext, nuance, and expressive nature of the characters and setting. My review, for as much justice as I will try to dole out, cannot capture these things and maintain a spoiler-free territory, so at this time I will favor the latter over the former. (Perhaps that will change in the seasonal review.)
At its core, Violet Evergarden, presents itself as a case study in human emotion and the different modes of love. Violet, the titular protagonist, is an automaton of sorts—a synthetic doll made to perfectly resemble a human. With the curtains having recently closed on an immense war in which she participated, her mind is partially fractured. She remembers most, but not all of the circumstances which lead to her waking up in a hospital bed, physically weak and arms wrapped in bandages. What she does remember is a man, and it’s quickly evident this man was special to her in some way—so much so that before fully recovering, she makes an appeal to return to the field.
It is at this point we are introduced to a handful of other characters, one of whom has been charged with the noteworthy task of providing Violet a means of finding herself. Having only ever known the landscape of war, Violet is fundamentally unaware of how to exist in a world of peace, and the results are as heartbreaking for those around her as they are for the audience. These problems only continue to stack as, over the course of the first episode, we begin piecing together Violet’s memories and learn the war might have ended with a few more casualties than she’d originally believed.
Now tasked with seemingly arbitrary postal service responsibilities, Violet has learned of an opportunity to become a ghostwriter: specifically, an opportunity to write down the messages and stories of the emotionally-laden, as they try to communicate the depths of their hearts to those who live far away. It is in this Violet might find purpose—to help pass along joyful or painful messages for those who cannot do so themselves, and along the way figure out the meaning of the last words from the man lost in her memories.
This narrative respects the depth of its audience and may be slightly polarizing if you’re not ready for a series racked with literary tones. The few characters we’ve had a chance to meet all feel balanced and wholesome, each possessing a complex blueprint for their motives and the actions that grow out of those motives. In other words, they feel less like walking-talking bundles of tropes, and more like honest-to-God people. Violet, especially, has all the makings to transcend our customary traditions of yelling out “best girl” and labelling her as “waifu material”—to instead invoke thoughts more closely resembling the way we think of people in our own lives.
In terms of scripting, Violet Evergarden is not lacking in coordination. As I mentioned during the introduction, this series has set itself up to be delivered in its fullest only if you can dig into the details. You won’t miss anything critical if you perform a casual viewing, but you also won’t be able to embrace the depth, either. Questions and answers are frequently communicated without words—revealed to us through bodily gestures (watch for the salute), a quick shift of the eyes, or the ominous placement of a character beside something in their surroundings (such as seeing somebody distorted through the heat of nearby flames). Violet Evergarden is as determined to tell a story with its images as with its words. Even then, if you are wont for series that show rather than tell when exposition is necessary, it is kept brief and justified, the way exposition ought to be. Characters do not shed convenient details for our sake, yet we don’t feel like we’re watching something obscure or confusing, either.
Violet Evergarden is gushing with aesthetic masterstrokes, though this is only expected of Kyoto Animation. Still, something must be mentioned about the grade of this production value. There is no OP or ED for the pilot, yet every scene has the level of value one would expect of a feature film. Shot composition is wide and varied, showing no trace of laziness; the visual narrative—placement of characters in shots, use of lighting, timing of edits—are all of a caliber rare in seasonal shows; and rarely is any character model idle for more than one or two seconds. Everything moves, all of the time. And that early shot where we follow the paper being carried by the wind? A fantastic way to quickly build expectation for the setting of the story.
Yui Ishikawa and Takehito Koyasu give throttling performances for the two main characters, with a strong accessory of voice actors to round out the rest of the cast. My only complaint is they don’t go through a large range of emotion, though given the overall tone of the episode that would have been inappropriate.
In an unexpected, but healthy twist for this industry, the musical composer is actually American and a relatively new name, at that. Helmed by Evan Call of Lincoln, California, Violet Evergarden has one of those soundtracks that makes you clutch at your chest. The synergy it shares with the narrative only lends to make each individual element stronger, being engineered with heart and pain and love. From the outset, the music has no interest in playing coy with its subject material, entrenching itself in the ache behind the characters themselves and using that ache as a weapon against the viewer. I almost cried at the end. I don’t think I’ve cried at the end of any first episode, but I was close on this one.
My only real reservation is the first sixty seconds. It is clearly setup for something we aren’t yet intended to understand, and because of that, it comes off as feeling a little contrived and random. Beautiful yes, and tonally on-point, but otherwise a bit jarring.
With how poignant and advanced Violet Evergarden has shown itself capable of being in this first episode, I wouldn’t be surprised if, by the end of the series, we have a final product rivaling emotional juggernauts in the vein of Clannad: After Story and Full Moon wo Sagashite (I’m not sure if this comment will inspire more intrigue or skepticism). But it’s equally possible Kyoto Animation also set the bar too high to keep up with for a full 14-episode run, and runs the risk of petering out before the finish line. At any rate, if the series holds true to this pace, it’s going to be a strong contender for Anime of the Year once the dust settles.
Spiritual Content: None.
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. One soldier is skewered with a bayonet.
Language/Crude Humor: Two instances of the word “hell” being used as an expletive, both from the same character.
Sexual Content: We see Violet’s lower back as she just starts to undress before the camera cuts away. A character introduced at the end of the episode is notably busty and wears a short skirt.
Drug/Alcohol Use: None.
Other Negative Themes: The series has a generally bittersweet 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.