Violet Evergarden is a contradiction of an anime; it is easy on the eyes, and yet unimaginably difficult to watch. Kyoto Animation’s exploration of the human condition through the eyes of a girl who has never been treated as a proper human is equal parts breathtaking and heartbreaking. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading the light novels on which its based on, though anyone with eyes can tell the animators at KyoAni flawlessly translated the novels’ impeccable illustrations and character designs.
I would not recommend this series to anyone in a sensitive state of mind. Its storytelling is deftly done and emotionally stirring, but it could easily be too raw and overwhelming if you are not in the right place. Its release date in 2018 was far too close to many upsetting times for me personally, which is why I only got around to finishing this bona fide masterpiece a few months ago. If it isn’t the right time for you, this is one to put back on the shelf for better days, and you’ll appreciate that foresight when the time comes.
Violet Evergarden is the kind of story that could not exist outside of anime, and yet stands to elevate the entire medium. Every level of its production is a testament to the power of anime as visceral artistic expression. Its characters are intricately detailed and vibrantly expressive, and yet move so fluidly. Its music grabs you by the heart strings and doesn’t just pull, but runs a marathon until they feel as though they will snap. That is why I am not going to spend a single moment gushing over this series’ immaculate presentation after this.
I could easily go on for a thousand words on why Violet Evergarden makes da Vinci look like a plebian hack, but there’s only so much I can write to tell you it looks pretty. If you are a sakuga snob, you have already seen this show or know you have to. I possess far less expertise in praising animation than I do addressing writing, and while Violet Evergarden’s looks are brilliant, it has an equally impressive script.
Some anime have something to say, some have lessons to teach. This very special show successfully explores the many facets of the grieving process in one of the most authentic experiences I have found in anime.
Violet Evergarden takes place on a continent ravaged by a long war only recently concluded. Violet was a young girl found alone on an island before passing handlers and ending with the Major of the Leidenschaftlich Army, Gilbert. Violet was prized for her ability to fight and tear apart groups of adults twice her size, but she found a sympathetic teacher in Gilbert, who taught the girl how to read, write, and gave her the name Violet.
In the final battle of the war, Violet loses both of her arms, and Gilbert urges her to leave the Army and be free. As he lays bleeding out in an alley, Gilbert gives her his final orders, and tells her he loves her, though the emotionally numb Violet doesn’t seem to understand what he means. After the battle, the two are separated and Violet is given two mechanical prosthetic arms, and is entrusted to Gilbert’s former Army friend, Claudia.
Claudia runs a postal service, and offers Violet a job as an Auto Memory Doll, a profession in which the Doll writes letters on the behalf of their customers, usually due to the country’s rampant illiteracy or disability i the wake of the war. Violet ought to have a knack for the job, considering her rigorous attention to detail and blinding typing speed, but the best dolls are capable of taking their clients’ words and refining them, something she is simply incapable of.
Despite this, Violet uses the job as an opportunity to understand Gilbert’s last words to her, to live and be free, and find out exactly what he meant by “I love you”. She takes many jobs in many different places, becoming a respected Doll and meeting a variety of people. These experiences help teach Violet the full range of meaning in loving someone and being loved in return. It’s enough to make the coldest person shed a tear, and I would if I were not the ironclad fortress of masculinity that all my viewers to be.
Violet Evergarden possesses a simple formula that allows for its protagonist to be inserted in any number of emotionally resonant stories with cathartic climaxes. She can stand as a mere witness to the drama unfolding in her clients’ lives, though more often she is an agent of change in them. Violet doesn’t quite know it yet, but she has a unique talent for cutting to the heart of situations that other people don’t have the stomach for, and getting even the most stubborn of topics out of her customers.
Now, the five stages of grief have largely been debunked as far as monitoring progress of grief, but it is an effective metric here. Violet has to process the death of the most important person in her life, as well as learn from these experiences and become emotionally intelligent. Most people experience only some of the stages, and often out of order, so it’s only fitting that Violet does to. This series doesn’t look like it, but it is actually an excellent coming of age story.
The first stage, denial, is one of the last things we see Violet display. She is unaware that Gilbert has died for most of the season, and only learns that his wounds proved fatal after speaking to his family. She had been operating under the assumption he was alive, though her unwillingness to realize everyone was skirting the truth around her is a form of denial.
The second, anger, is not quite appropriate to Violet’s condition. She’s often put into stressful situations, and has had a few outbursts, but anger seems to be a foreign concept to her. She treats antagonism with blank-faced stoicism, seems confused when anyone around her is angry, and responds to physical threats with brutal yet mechanical tact. She’s a trained soldier and a deadly weapon in her own right, but the act seems to be robotic, more muscle memory than borne from vitriol.
Bargaining is mostly explored in how the series handles her learning to communicate. Her job as a Doll is rooted in trying to understand Gilbert’s last words to her, and she seems to believe she will meet him again once she learns. At the very least, she wants to know their meaning before they do meet again.
The fourth stage, depression, is self-explanatory. Violet struggles with herself after leaving the Army, and cannot abandon the formal speech and adherence to authority that defined that period of her life. However, after becoming a Doll, she finds greater fulfillment than her detached behavior as a weapon of war. Once she learns of Gilbert’s demise, however, she retreats from the world, only emerging from her depression after receiving a letter left for her by Gilbert.
The final stage, acceptance, is quite simple. The last two episodes center on Violet defeating a pro-war group seeking to derail the tenuous peace talks, while she does so without killing anyone. It is a challenge issued directly to Dietfried, Gilbert’s brother, and the one who first “gifted” Violet to him. He believes Violet is no more than a tool for ending human life, and Violet completes her character arc and story by preserving the peace Gilbert died to create, and rejecting the violent methods that defined her early life.
She spends the last moments of the episode composing her own letter to Gilbert.
Violet’s journey is not just one of working through grief and growing stronger for it, but learning the entire range of human emotion. Isolated as a child and raised up to be a killing machine, Violet has long since buried any feelings under a cold and insensitive mask. She’s still a young girl, and didn’t purposefully bury her emotions, but it came as a byproduct of the circumstances in which she was raised. It’s why Gilbert is surprised when she matter-of-factly informs him that an emerald pendant is the exact same shade of green as his eyes. Girls her age might adore jewelry, but Violet’s nature isn’t just selfless, it’s disregarding of herself.
Selfless isn’t a word that gets analyzed enough. Violet’s behavior early in the series isn’t necessarily magnanimous or charitable, it merely lacks a sense of self. She discounts herself at every opportunity, part the result of military training and partly her asocial childhood. She considers her needs and self as less than, and building a healthy self-esteem is just as important to growing up as learning to communicate or treat others fairly. It’s why her ability to take slander and aggression from others isn’t commendable, it’s demonstrative of her dismissal of her own self-worth.
Violet’s journey is divided into two parts that occasionally overlap: moving past the death of Gilbert, and moving past her life as a soldier. She helps a playwright who has been struck by writer’s block since the death of his daughter, but she also goes into a warzone to write letters for a dying soldier trapped behind enemy lines. She acts as a proxy for the prince and princess of the two warring nations to write love letters and solidify the peace deal through a marriage.
One of the series’ most poignant episodes (even though they’re all contenders for that particular title) is when Violet writes a series of letters on the behalf of an ailing war widow. The letters are to be delivered to her daughter, one at a time, on her birthday, for the next fifty years. It’s the kind of communication to your loved ones that any grieving person would yearn for, and it’s no coincidence that this episode immediately follows Violet receiving the letter left to her by the Major.
Violet Evergarden is an immensely personal series to me, both as someone who has experienced their fair share of loss, and someone who appreciates the power of writing to transcend place and time. Writing is one of the few things anyone can leave behind, and its ability to maintain communication with friends and family long past the arbitrary end lines of life is not given the respect it deserves.
Though we live in an age that has all but abandoned letters, I urge everyone to hold on to those voicemails and texts that continue to exist even when we don’t. They’re precious, and the delete button is easy to hit before you have the chance to realize their worth.
If I haven’t spoiled too much of Violet Evergarden, I hope you’ll give the series a try if you haven’t seen it. If you’re worried about knowing too much, there’s an OVA and two movies, the events of which I have not referenced at all. I could have, but the single season stands on its own well enough without spoiling the entire franchise.
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