Violet Evergarden – Anime Review
Synopsis: The war is over, and Violet Evergarden needs a job. Scarred and emotionless, she takes a job as a letter writer to understand herself and her past. (Official Netflix Synopsis)
Review (Warning: Minor Spoilers to Follow):
Violet Evergarden is outwardly stunning. Kyoto Animation again proves their ability with a series that always looks incredible. The art features significant detail, vibrant designs, a great use of color and a lead that just oozes with visual appeal. My only complaint when it comes to artistic direction is that Violet, our title character, is supposedly 14, but looks quite a bit older, pushing 18 at the very, very least. This ‘at odds’ visualization makes any dialogue referring to her actual age jarring, pulling one out of the story. However, it’s a minor issue, and by and large not one of the series grander problems.
Violet Evergarden is all about its title character. The series revolves around her, and generally requires an interest in her story, as there’s no one else to truly latch onto. Additional characters are introduced early on, Violet’s new boss Claudia and his band of postal employees/auto memory dolls (Women who help the illiterate, or others, write well-crafted letters and mail them.) This wealth of characters, five+ in all, each have their own persona, making them fun, lively, and interesting, but by and large abandoned in favor of one off tales and a greater focus on Violet’s own internal struggle to understand what love is.
The series operates in two ways: First is the overarching narrative concerning Violet and her troubled, war-torn past. As the series moves we periodically delve into Violet’s origins, specifically her life under the care of one Major Gilbert, who treated Violet as a person, rather than the weapon of war others used her as. While the war was won, Violet finds herself separated from Major Gilbert, and the last words he said to her “I love you” stick in her mind. While we periodically flashback for greater and greater understanding of that period in Violet’s life, the other half of the series is devoted to one off tales seeking to explore the concept of love. Violet travels as an Auto Memory Doll, helping clients far and wide write letters, or plays, or transcribe works all while learning what it means to love, be loved, to lose love, and the heartache associated. All of these are tied to the major themes guiding each and every episode, the concept of love lost.
Due to these one offs, and a tight focus on Violet’s past, the rest of the cast feels like they’re primarily there as warm bodies to flesh out the present, and help guide Violet in her understanding of herself. These characters never matter more than as much as they’re tied to the plot of the day and aren’t people you can watch the series for. No, you’re either here for Violet herself, or the one off tales.
Because over half the series is dedicated to Violet and her character growth, viewers by and large need to care for her, but certain elements to her character can make that exceedingly difficult, depending upon how tired you are of female characters based upon the men of their past or built with contrived origins. Violet suffers from both.
Violet’s character can be frustrating. Her entire reason for being, and quest to discover what love is, is wrapped up in her feelings and history with this Major Gilbert. Everything comes back to him at all times, and it becomes clear that if you were to remove Major Gilbert as a component to the story, Violet’s character would have little left. Everything that she is, everything about who she is, is wrapped up in this man. He taught her how to read, he tried to teach her emotions, no one else treated her like a human being, her quest is based around understand what he meant when he said “I love you.” It’s often a sign of bad writing. The minute the audience realizes this Violet can suddenly feel extremely thin, underdeveloped, and just plain shoddy. It could even be argued she exists as a damsel in emotional distress for male viewers to fawn over, and wish to rescue from her harrowing emotional turmoil concerning Major Gilbert and his absence from her life. I think personally that might be going a tad too far, but you have to overlook this rather one note characterization of Violet in order to appreciate her as a lead character, and that’s not going to be something every viewer can do.
It doesn’t help that Violet’s backstory by and large feels contrived. We learn early on in the series that Violet Evergarden was used as a tool in the war, almost a super soldier rivaling that of some marvel character in how bad ass she can be on the field of combat. Why Violet was this pint-sized super soldier, how she came to have such abilities, is under explored when it really needs to be addressed. It’s far more fantastical an element than her metal arms, which some viewers have complained about feeling at odds with the technological and illiteracy level of the rest of the nation. I think it’s a far bigger issue that Violet is the only character that displays any kind of super human abilities, and yet we never get an understanding as to why or how. We spend plenty of time wallowing in the rest of her past, all focused on Major Gilbert again, but none of it understanding what came before that meeting. It gives the backstory a really contrived feel, one that further damages an entire half of the series’ focus.
Violet Evergarden is very similar to another of the anime titles in Netflix’s ‘exclusive’ catalogue: Children of the Whales. It’s predicated on generating highly emotional content, and at times rejects logic in order to do so. Children of the Whales has more issues than Violet has, although Violet’s are perhaps grander in scope. But both series are the same in their effort to really make the audience feel. Violet by and large succeeds at that with its one off tales of heartache and struggling love. Whenever the series pulls away from its hard focus on Violet herself, and allows these one offs to explore the meaning of love, the series can be very beautiful.
Narratives focusing on loss, heartache, being left behind, and more work wonders and one episode in particularly, episode 10, stands above the crop, producing one of the saddest tales within this 13-episode anime. Viewers who have trouble enjoying Violet as a character may want to watch Episodes 1-3, to gain an understanding of the stories’ setting, and then skip episode 4, watch episodes 5-7, skip another couple, and end with episode 10. (episode 11 is also a one-off, but suffers from Violet’s contrived, unexplained, super-soldier nature.) It’s one of the few anime where I’d recommend selected viewing over skipping it entirely.
Ultimately I struggled with what to give Violet Evergarden. Do I Recommend the series despite my criticism of how thin its leader character truly is? Do I feel that Violet’s entire persona being built around a male character is backwardly sexist? Is it thin enough to take away from my enjoyment of the other, much stronger, elements to the series? It’s a tough call, but I think ultimately Violet Evergarden is worth watching. Even if Violet’s character contains aspects to it that will disappoint similar viewers as to myself, the handful of one off episodes more than make up for that, and present some truly moving narratives that shine through any of the problems the series contains. Violet isn’t going to upset everyone, and if she works for you then this series perhaps borders on perfect, but even if she doesn’t, I do still believe its worth recommending for the handful of stand alone tales that are truly moving.
Violet Evergarden is available for streaming via Netflix.