Reviews of Violet Evergarden (2018) and related work

Violet Evergarden (2018Moving picture, 5.0 hours)

Seen in 2020.

A child soldier, found by the navy on a distant island in a five-year war, distinguishes herself in the army. In her final battle, now aged fourteen and named Violet, she loses her arms protecting her commanding officer. He, too, is badly wounded. The feeling he expresses as he lies bleeding is outside her narrow emotional spectrum.

The story begins when, in a country at peace, Violet meets a friend of her commanding officer. The friend owns a postal company. By the officer’s request, he says, he employs Violet to sort the mail. While waiting for the officer himself to recover, she tries delivery, then gets into typewriting.

The fine mechanical industry that made Violet’s prostheses also makes small automatons, including actual dolls seemingly engaged at tasks like writing. With literacy as one of her unusual skills, Violet joins a trendy profession named after those dolls: She travels around the country, ghostwrites people’s letters on a typewriter, and gradually acquires the emotional register she needs to live.

The concept is strong. Placing a traumatized child soldier in a 1910s Art Nouveau idyll is an interesting premise, better than the similar Gunslinger Girl (2003), and the premise isn’t wasted here. It’s certainly better than Gosick (2011) as far as the writing goes. However, the last few episodes do put Violet back in the war against a villainous general with a melodramatic laugh, and that’s no fun.

Violet’s war is something like the one that starts early in Gosick, being patterned after WW1. However, Violet’s world is further removed from the real Europe. Her new home’s in Leiden, but not in the Netherlands: It’s Leiden in the country of Leidenshaftlich, which is German for “passionate”. Maps show a kidney-shaped continent like Australia, so not Ruritania but an actual secondary world, less different than Uru in Honneamise (1987) and less spectacular than Fullmetal Alchemist (2003).

Even at its peaceful height, Violet Evergarden is a notch too sentimental. Its pathos is unlike Come and See (1985) or Beasts of No Nation (2015) and more like She, the Ultimate Weapon (2002). The expansive green meadows and blue skies of Leidenshaftlich are too intense, the lessons for personal growth too neatly aligned. I wanted more of the clever nuances and visual poetry of Haibane Renmei (2002) to go with the metaphor of ghostwriting as empathy (writing as feeling), and the war bored me, but I appreciate that the dieselpunk tech and ghostwriting motif went nowhere near the pitfalls of Her (2013).

Kyoto Animation’s handiwork is impressive, but in my opinion, Violet did not need to be quite so cute, nor her prostheses as effective as those in Fullmetal Alchemist. The bustle of her dress is there for extradiegetic reasons. It would have made more sense for her to be scarred and good at the things child soldiers do best, rather than every aspect of hand-to-hand fighting. The character’s too much of a nerd ideal, which makes those last few episodes an unwelcome game of “break the cutie”. At its climax, this game repeats Kusanagi tearing herself apart in Ghost in the Shell (1995), to further underline the earnestness of the character. That earnestness is endearing enough without the special skills, the action or the doll-like exterior.

A note on language: The name of Violet’s profession is 「自動手記人形」 (jidō shuki ningyō). In it, the word 「手記」 means a note or memorandum. The phrase translates literally as “note-taking automaton”, but the official rendering is “Auto Memory Doll”.

moving picture animation Japanese production fiction series

“Violet Evergarden: Special” (2018Moving picture, 34 minutes)

Seen in 2020.

Without knowing that Violet herself is a veteran, an opera singer wants her to write lyrics for a modern opera, about a lover lost in the war.

The script is weak. The singer’s request is irrational, inadequately specified, and a poor fit for Violet’s development at this stage in the framing narrative. Even calling Violet to the opera house to do the writing there is questionable. Unsurprisingly, the resulting lyrics are unimpressive: A bad pop song about love, inadequately connected to the cultural currents of WW1 or the European interbellum, to which the fiction corresponds despite the merid as a unit of measuring long distances, and the local alphabet mixing various European influences with kana like The Matrix.

This could easily have been fixed; the writer or composer of the opera could have contacted Roland for access to the wartime dead-letter archive and Violet could have gotten involved from there, without the layers of pointless misunderstanding. The lyrics could have ended up resembling, for example, Brittain’s “Roundel” (1918), which would have been more appropriate even in Violet’s story, albeit at a later stage, as a sequel to the TV series rather than an interquel. This fix would have given Violet herself slightly less screentime, which is probably why it didn’t happen.

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Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll (2019Moving picture, 90 minutes)

Seen in 2020.

Violet befriends two girls separated by a deep class divide, the second of them four years after the war.

Like the one-off special, this is not really about Violet and touches on her development very lightly. She gets to play the part of the tachi in a brief and insincere yuri pairing, then the part of a parent in a brief and insincere on-the-job adoption. These two stories are individually weak and so is their combination, which is apathetic about the possibility of bridging the class divide, despite using it for tragedy. There don’t seem to be any anarchists or socialists in this version of Europe, protesting against the system, nor is there an Ivar Kreuger bringing it down. There is only sentimentality.

Though the writing is poor in outline, the other handiwork is still good on this, the last major Kyoto Animation production completed before the devastating office fire of 2019. I like the naturalistically subtle movements and Benedict’s genderbending motorcycle boots with high heels and bustles. It’s all very relaxing, but completely peripheral.

moving picture sequel animation Japanese production fiction