I forgot a lot during the decade that I wasn’t watching anime. Naoki Urasawa’s
Monsterreminded me of
the emotional heights that Japanese animation can reach. A few months later,
2021’s Belle reminded me that it
doesn’t necessarily take some 24 hours of
storytelling to get
there. 2017’s Erased1 reminded me
that not every series has such lofty goals, and it taught me that my interests
have changed. These days, I’m less excited by sci-fi gimmicks and more
interested in artistic range and emotional depth. A few oblique forum
references made me think Violet Evergarden might fit the bill.
The series follows a kind of “monster of the week” format, where Violet meets,
struggles with, and delivers for a new ghostwriting client in each episode. On
the one hand, this structure is maladapted to developing an emotional
connection with the clients, and it even distracts from the supporting cast.
That’s most apparent in the finale of the television series. We’re clearly
intended to derive some emotional payoff when the cast celebrates a holiday
together, yet the emptiness of the moment only serves to remind that we never
really explored these relationships in the first place.2
On the other hand, an episodic ghost-writing premise is a great vehicle for a
troubled orphan’s coming-of-age. It’s downright delightful to watch Violet
learn from her clients, and the series’ emotional sensitivity allows it to
depict Violet as a traumatized child rather than a goofy fish-out-of-water. The
mood frequently approaches saccharine, though, which is a little harder for
this Western male and first-time josei-viewer to take.
Now, that might be an identifying characteristic rather than an unintentional
trope; maybe saying the Violet Evergarden is “too sentimental” is like
complaining that the robots in Gurren Lagann are “too big.” While I wonder to
what extent the series trivializes PTSD3, it absolutely refuses to glorify
violence. Where a million other cartoons would delight in reminding viewers of
the protagonist’s “badass” training, Violet Evergarden only reluctantly
implies the girl’s skill in combat.
Violet Evergarden enjoyed popular and critical success as a series of novels
before Kyoto Animation adapted it into a collection of animated works (a
12-part miniseries, an OVA, and two feature-length films). That context primed
me to expect strong story and dialogue, but it promised nothing about the
visuals. The gorgeous scenery and imaginative costuming therefore came as
particularly pleasant surprises.
Despite a scarcity of action sequences, the series also finds plenty of
opportunities for impressive animation. From hair movement and lighting
dynamics to body language and particle effects, motion routinely adds a
dimension to the experience that justifies the adaptation.
The same goes for the score. In a typical derivate work, one might expect the
producers to check the box for “music” with a merely serviceable soundtrack.
Here again, the adaptation goes above and beyond with some truly memorable
pieces–The Voice in My Heart
still gets me every time I hear it.
Overall, the original television series along with the OVA and Eternity and
the Auto Memory Doll make for a consistently entertaining and often touching
frame story–one that I could recommend without hesitation (particularly if
folks watch in chronological order).
Unfortunately, we have to talk about Violet Evergarden: The Movie.
In attempting to (spoiler alert) fulfill the forgone relationship between
Violet and Major Gilbert Bougainvillea, the movie struggles to downplay an
awkward truth: this guy fell in love with a traumatized child. While the movie
seems to believe audiences will accept Gilbert as a tragic hero (tragic for his
upbringing, heroic for his treatment of Violet), viewers will find themselves
questioning the more flimsy aspects of the premise. Was his wariness about
exploiting Violet’s fighting talents really all that remarkable? How did he
develop a romantic interest in a detached and brutal youth? Was it delusional
to harbor unrequited (maybe unrequite-able) love for so many years? Isn’t this
celebrating the worst parts of chivalry?
This interrupted relationship worked as Violet’s driving force throughout the
series because it’s a compelling obsession for a confused child. Its resumption
isn’t just melodramatic or unnecessary; it’s kind of inappropriate. Add in
another tragic ghostwriting client, a bit of lazy rumination on job
displacement, and some irrelevant granddaughter bookends; and you’ve got
yourself a feature-length mess.
Maybe you can hear me hyperventilating at this point. To get a grip, I remind
myself that “The Movie” is only frustrating because the series is so
well-executed. I can (and do) endorse the latter without the former. Violet
deserves a little more closure than that cut affords her, but the deficiency is
easily preferable to the alternative.
It’s a shame that the more substantial entries (an OVA titled “Surely,
Someday, You Will Understand Love” and a film titled “Eternity and the
Auto Memory Doll”) were published out-of-sequence. I imagine they would
help mitigate this deficiency if viewed in chronological order. ↩︎
There’s no denying trauma’s impact on Violet’s emotional well-being and
her ability to enjoy life, and she does at least nominally wrestle with
guilt. Still, her experience did not compromise her ability to function
in society, and her recovery didn’t require any sort of professional
treatment. I’m fortunate enough to have no personal experience with PTSD,
so I leave judgement about the validity of all this to others. ↩︎