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Learning to love: A tribute to KyoAni and Violet Evergarden

On July 18, 2019, anime studio Kyoto Animation was set ablaze in what appeared to be arson. By the time the fire was put out, 33 people had died and a few dozen were injured. It was the worst mass killing in Japan since World War II. Prime minister Shinzo Abe said the incident was “so horrifying [he was] at a loss for words.” The loss of life is undeniably tragic, and so is the loss of art and culture that stemmed from these brilliant minds at the studio, now gone forever.

Kyoto Animation, or KyoAni as it’s called by fans, is truly special. Most of their creative team are composed of women, and they strive to pay their employees fair wages in an industry where the average animator makes less than a convenience store employee. They’ve produced some absolute treasures over the years, such as K-On!, Clannad, and A Silent Voice, that celebrate the small moments and showcase the beauty of everyday life. Talking about all the amazing work they’ve done over the years would be difficult for me to do in just one blog post, so I just wanted to focus on the KyoAni production that’s meant the most for me: 2018’s Violet Evergarden.

Violet Evergarden is a quasi-historical coming-of-age drama about a young girl trying to understand love. The show takes place in a fictional setting inspired by Europe at the dawn of the 20th Century. The protagonist, Violet, is a former child soldier who lost both her arms and the life of her commanding officer in a continent-spanning war. Now, with the world at peace, Violet struggles to adapt to civilian life and finds a job writing letters for people to send to their loved ones – all so she can find out what Major Gilbert’s last words to her, the words “I love you”, truly mean.

What makes Violet Evergarden truly special is not any of the technical aspects, although all of them are excellent. The animation is spectacular, with even the simplest moments shown in loving detail and jaw-dropping clarity. The voice acting is excellent (both in the original Japanese and the English dub) and the musical score has an impressionistic quality that perfectly fits the mood of each scene. But what makes this show matter to me, the part that made me bawl my eyes out at practically every episode, is how much Violet grows throughout the story and the impact she leaves on every single person she meets.

The opening of Violet Evergarden

At the beginning of the series, Violet seems remarkably closed off from the world. Having lived her whole life only knowing how to fight and follow orders, she doesn’t understand what people mean when they communicate their thoughts, desires, and emotions. She’s technically competent at her job, but her letters come off as overly clinical, saying the words her clients tell her without showing the emotions behind them. Violet learns one of the harsh paradoxes about humanity: despite all the talking we do as a species, most of us don’t always express how we truly feel on the inside.

Gradually, over the course of each episode, Violet learns a little more about the people she meets, and tries to figure out what they truly want to say with each letter. Almost all the letters are written to someone the client loves – a family member, a friend, or a romantic interest. Almost every client turns out to be as traumatized as Violet herself. And when she finally figures out what to write, when she finally understands what each person she meets truly wants to say deep within their heart, it changes both of their lives forever. It’s a simultaneously inspiring and heart-wrenching series, showing both the difficulties of carrying on in a world shaken by war and the importance of communicating and connecting with others.

Violet’s brooch, which she keeps as a memory of Major Gilbert

In this day and age, so much of our communication is done through digital media, and it can be easy to become overwhelmed by all the noise. When I scroll through post after post on social media or turn on the news and hear about another national crisis spawned by a certain politician’s Twitter feed, it’s easy for me to feel like everyone is talking a lot without actually saying anything of value or substance. By turning back the clock. Violet Evergarden shows us how important human communication truly is. It helps us express our feelings, have empathy with one another, and grow stronger as people. It also illustrates how much every person in the world is struggling with things that most of us don’t even know about. Violet Evergarden puts this powerful message into a story that is visually stunning and emotionally resonant for any era, and the fact that many of the people who made it are now gone from us forever is an absolute travesty.

Right after the fire broke out, anime producer Sentai Filmworks put up a GoFundMe page to help KyoAni recover and support those whose lives were devastated in the blaze. It raised over a million dollars in its first day. If you can, I think it would be great to help donate to the campaign and support the immense creative talent at KyoAni in this trying time.

And if anything I’ve written here resonates with you, go watch Violet Evergarden the next time you’re scrolling through Netflix. Even if you don’t normally watch anime, give it three episodes and let this series work its magic. It’s an absolutely masterful show and there is nothing else I’ve seen like it. Life is so fleeting and precious, and meaningful art is especially so. After a horrific tragedy like this, we all owe it to KyoAni to make sure their work and their lives will never be forgotten.

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Violet at the end of Season 1

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