Daisuke NamikawaYui IshikawaKouki UchiyamaMinori Chihara
Violet Evergarden
Medium: TV, series
Year: 2018
Director: Haruka Fujita, Taichi Ishidate
Writer: Reiko Yoshida
Actor: Yui Ishikawa, Aya Endo, Aya Saitou, Daisuke Namikawa, Haruka Tomatsu, Kouki Uchiyama, Minori Chihara, Naoya Nosaka, Rie Hikisaka, Takehito Koyasu, Toshiko Sawada
Keywords: anime
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Format: 13 episodes (24 minutes each) plus a 14th OVA (34 minutes)
Url: https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/encyclopedia/anime.php?id=19665
Website category: Anime 2018
Review date: 6 June 2019
Violet-Evergarden
Visually, it's a work of art. It's a beautifully produced series from Kyoto Animation, being basically movie-quality throughout. Its qualities as a story, though, have had a more mixed reception. It's a mature, sombre piece about human communication, the aftermath of war and how well we do (or don't) understand the feelings of ourselves and others. That's all good. What's a bit offbeat is the nature of the title character.
Violet Evergarden (the character) is basically a robot. This is a non-SF show, though, so in fact she's just an odd human in a semi-historical setting. (Think of the war as World War One and this as the 1920s.) Violet lacks awareness of emotions, talks to everyone like a speak-your-weight machine and will give a literal, factually accurate response to all questions, even if she really shouldn't. She also has mechanical arms, after losing her real ones in battle. She used to be a child soldier, found on an island by Dietfried Bougainvillea (who regarded her as a tool and still despises her today) and trained up by Gilbert Bougainvillea (who overloaded her processing ability by treating her as a human). She practically worships Gilbert. Unfortunately he went missing in action.
During the war, Violet had a purpose. Now, though, she has no superior officer, no orders and no role. Gilbert's friend Claudia (who's male, despite his name) is looking after her and has offered to find her employment. Violet eventually decides that she wants to become an Auto Memory Doll, i.e. a letter-writer for people too distraught, embarrassed or illiterate to say what's really in their hearts. The job needs sensitivity and empathy, so it seems insane that Violet's allowed anywhere near it. It's like watching a hippo trying to fly. Nonetheless she sticks at it and, slowly, starts getting a handle on what's required.
Violet is both the show's whole point and its big problem. Your feelings about the show as a whole will depend heavily on your reaction to its protagonist. Is she boring or fascinating? She barely reacts to anything and for a long time it's hard to feel that you've even got to know her. She's so wooden that she can't actually smile. If ordered to do so, she'll use her hands to pull her face into the right shape. One tends to feel that the show's keeping her at arm's length, since we're not being allowed to see her as a protagonist. She's not the point-of-view character. We're not seeing her reactions, because she doesn't have any. We don't see her making any decisions, because there's nothing to see. She simply acts, rationally and dispassionately. Everything she says and does is mechanical and she'll explain that she doesn't understand if anyone tries to press her on a more human level.
She grows, mind you. Over time, she discovers empathy. She cares about her clients and she becomes quite sensitive, underneath. She even improves at her job, perhaps because directness and simplicity often make for good writing. There's some interesting character development in the show's finale, including an action hero role where the whole point is that Violet's become capable of rejecting her action hero role. However for much of this show, she's basically a polite Violet-shaped hole in the script.
What is she? A lot of this is left up to audience interpretation, to be honest. It's never explained. Is she suffering from past trauma in a show that's indifferently trying to be about moving on from war? (Personally I don't think she is, actually. That doesn't look like PTSD to me, or at most that's just part of it. There's something deeper going on there.) Is she autistic, or suffering from some other disorder? Was she raised by wolves? (Emotionlessness is the last thing you'd expect from someone who really was raised by animals, but I think the truth might be something like that.) Is she literally a robot? (That would explain her superhuman physical prowess, including the ability to jump safely out of planes.) Apparently the original novel has some cultists who talk about demigods, which if true wouldn't be a bad explanation either.
Hmmm. Actually, here's another theory. Dietfried called her a tool and treated her as a tool. Maybe what we're seeing here is simply the consequence of being trained and (for at least some period of time) brought up like that?
Other problems include the fact that she's fourteen years old and is called a child by other characters, but unfortunately doesn't look like that to us. Thus when her co-workers treat her as a child... well, yeah. She is. If I'd put this nervous, semi-functional being in a position of responsibility, I'd be nervous as hell and keeping a protective eye on her too. (It also sheds another light on her incomprehension of love.) Nonetheless, in practice, all this can jar a bit for the audience, since Violet looks and talks so much like an adult.
Then we have the Claudia's questionable decision to let Violet believe that Gilbert's still alive. That's "questionable" as pronounced "you'll want to throttle him". In the early episodes, that decision seems flat-out unforgivable. Apart from anything else, Violet's an ex-soldier! She understands death in battle. She's caused lots of it. As the series progresses, though, the situation stops being quite so straightforward as we start to see how dependent she was on Gilbert. (In ep.6, she more or less says that she'd kill herself without him.) Claudia's lie becomes more understandable... but it's still not something I'd have done, if only because Violet won't shut up about wanting to be reunited with Gilbert and that "little white lie" is ultimately cruelty. There are two key factors here, I think. Firstly, bad decisions happen in drama. Claudia himself admits that he made his decisions partly because he's still hurting too. Secondly, there might be ambiguity even about which lie is a lie.
That said, though, Violet herself doesn't always have the spotlight. Half the time, we're watching her do her job as an Auto Memory Doll, with the episode's real story being about her clients. This is probably the show's best material, with lots of lovely, subtle short stories that often pack an emotional punch. Ep.7 has an alcoholic writer who's lost his wife and daughter. ("Where's the alcohol that was here?" "I hid it.") Ep.6 has lots of dolls being recruited to transcribe ancient books, with Violet being paired with a socially awkward translator. That ends up being a pseudo-romance. She inspires him. It's also glorious to see Violet uncomprehendingly engaging with the arguments of sexist snobs. Ep.5 is a charmingly awkward love story between a 24-year-old and a 14-year-old. (It's a royal arranged marriage. The princess had been available for, uh, political alliance since she was ten.) Personally, though, I'd say the two strongest episodes were ep.10-11. (Thematically, you could argue that they're reflecting each other. To/from a mother, etc. I'd say more, but spoilers.)
I'd call this a misleading series. Whenever you start thinking it's a kind of storytelling you can recognise and classify, half the time you'll be wrong. You could write a long essay about Violet's role in the series, with even the generous end of the spectrum having adjectives like "disconcerting" and "distancing". Everyone treats her differently, from the rest of the cast to the show itself. Her emotional growth is both strong and deceptive. The show has an anti-action finale. I wouldn't dare try to predict how different people would react to this.
It's clearly a prestige project, with beautiful animation and mature storytelling. However the first couple of episodes both have big stupid decisions (Claudia's white lie in ep.1 and Violet's colleagues letting her write a love letter in ep.2 and then not proof-reading it as an idiot check before putting it in the post). Nonetheless, I'm sure Kyoto Animation are proud of what they achieved here. They've announced two follow-on movies, for September 2019 and January 2020. I think I'll be watching them.