The importance of human communication and the flaws therein. The struggles and conflicts those suffering from PTSD grapple with, both internal and external. Coming to terms with loss and becoming stronger for it. These are all themes and topics that Kyoto Animation’s latest visual spectacle, Violet Evergarden, attempts to address. It does so through the eyes of the young war veteran Violet Evergarden herself as she stumbles through a society reminiscent of post-war Europe when war is all she knows.
Violet Evergarden tries to tackle this through a presentation that is nothing short of a visual masterpiece. Beyond the stunning vistas and sceneries, Kyoto Animation eschewed many of the “shortcuts” normally employed among other studios such as still face conversations, camera pans to mimic character movement, and the ever-increasing usage of CGI. When a show is almost, if not completely, without these techniques it makes a very noticeable difference in the end result that can only be described as stunning.
This extends to the audio design where every door that creaks, every pitter-patter across a floorboard, every clack of the typewriter; they’re all so meticulously executed that they alone are capable of enveloping and pulling the viewer into their world.
Notice a very deliberate choice of words so far, though. Kyoto Animation “attempts to address,” Violet Evergarden “tries to tackle.” That is because despite the blood, sweat, and tears that clearly went into creating this marvel of the animation medium, Violet Evergarden does not achieve the goals it sets out to accomplish. For all the pride Kyoto Animation had in setting its plot points out, they fail to connect them in any meaningful or impactful ways that resonate on a deeper level.
More Than Just Learning a Lesson
Violet Evergarden is a series of vignettes. Each episode is a self-contained short story that often contains new characters for Violet to interact with and fresh facets of life for her to confront in her new role as an Auto Memories Doll, an occupation that translates the emotions of others into the written word as deliverable letters.
The episodic nature of the show isn’t a detriment in and of itself. After all, other anime such as Kino’s Journey that sport an episodic structure manage to pose intriguing moral and societal questions with each short-story that stimulate the audience’s own thoughts. While Violet Evergarden adopts the same style, the main difference is that it has an overarching story, while Kino’s Journey does not. But herein lies one of the fundamental problems with the show, as these tales aren’t contextualized to the greater story that is meant to give them purpose.
Each episode is meant to be a lesson for Violet to learn, a moral for her to gain. The issue is that we rarely see Violet internalize and compartmentalize these lessons. We are left to assume that she has taken these experiences into her heart, but Violet herself shows no indication of having done so. The moments when Violet does show progress are reserved for what are supposed to be pivotal points of the story, but without any evidence that she was developing prior these moments often come across as more disjointed than powerful.
This is compounded by the fact that Violet is supposedly developing off-screen. Months can pass in between episodes and characters will comment on how far Violet’s communication and writing skills have come in that time. However, we don’t see that manifest in the young veteran herself.
It’s not a matter of it being a subtle difference, either. There just isn’t any difference between the Violet from one episode and the Violet of the next, despite what other characters are saying, and that creates this weird disconnect. How did Violet go from barely being able to write a functional letter to a distraught brother to being sought after by the princess of a country to write a love letter of all things? Important progress is supposedly happening in between episodes, but we don’t see that progress manifest in believable ways, not to mention the faulty reasoning behind what little strides are made.
A Major Discrepancy
Violet’s primary motivation is to understand the meaning of her superior’s, often just referred to as “The Major,” dying last words, “I love you.” Many of the lessons Violet learns tend to relate back to that singular moment. The story puts The Major on a pedestal as the only person during the war to think of Violet as a person, rather than just a tool. That’s all well and good, but throughout the many flashbacks during the show we hardly see him actually treat her as a person.
He constantly reminds Violet that she is not a tool; that’s nice. He yells at her that she has feelings; that’s actually kind of mean. Actions speak louder than words, though, and beyond those surface-level interactions, the only action we see him take is the opening scene for the entire show where he buys a brooch that catches Violet’s eye. He doesn’t make any real attempts to save the fourteen-year-old girl from herself. Without that, their connection with each other comes across as weak at best. That, in turn, results in a faulty anchor point for Violet to base her emotions on.
Violet’s fixation on The Major is understandable. He was literally all she had, after all. The show’s fixation on him, however, is not. The Major provides almost nothing of value for Violet to take with her in the future, and that’s ok. They were in the middle of a war after all, and The Major still had an obligation to win it. Don’t raise him to be more than he was then, because he doesn’t deserve it! It trivializes any growth Violet does have in the present as it’s attributed as a result of The Major’s presence in her life, when in actuality he had little to nothing to do with it.
The Major’s last words may be the impetus that drives the whole narrative forward, but as the show progresses it becomes apparent just how weak an impetus it really is. Violet only took them to heart because he was her entire world, the one person who gave her orders and a purpose. Replace The Major with any other superior that treated her in any number of ways and if he said “I love you,” to Violet while on death’s doorstep, the result would arguably be exactly the same.
Quality Materials, Weak Construction
The most frustrating part about Violet Evergarden, however, is that all the building blocks for a truly memorable story are there. The swelling of the music, the animation, the cinematography, the script, the voice acting, the way all of these are presented in pivotal moments is a surefire recipe for tears. Indeed, there are conclusions to some of the individual stories that do resonate on that deep, emotional level. It’s nearly impossible not to shed a tear in the face of a father’s grief over the loss of his daughter, or a mother’s literal undying love for her’s.
When those same elements are applied to the turning points of Violet’s own story, however, they fall flat. They don’t feel earned because they feel sudden and out of place since the sentimental steps to reach that point weren’t conveyed properly. Without that merit, these scenes lack that all-important emotional resonance, despite their execution being near flawless.
Numerous episodes that didn’t relate to Violet in meaningful ways could have been shortened or cut altogether in order to give her more space to grow. Even a simple rearranging of the order of certain episodes would have done wonders for the story’s flow and continuity, particularly after The Major’s brother makes a reappearance. It’s as if Kyoto Animation was suffering from tunnel vision. They were so proud and excited about the emotional payoffs they thought they were going to have that they failed to realize that they weren’t paving a path to those payoffs.
It’s such a shame, because Violet Evergarden had the potential to be a deeply personal story that touches on the many aspects of flawed human interaction and the importance of it despite those flaws. Instead, Violet Evergarden is a lesson in flawed communication with its viewers, its story, its characters, and its morals all suffering for it.
You can watch Violet Evergarden on Netflix.