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Violet Evergarden: Poetry in Motion

Hey y’all, how’s it going? It’s been a while. I want to get back into blogging again. I may not post all that frequently, but I still have a lot of opinions on all the good anime/JRPGs. I also want to write about some of my other interests, such as music and literature, so stay tuned if you’re into that!

The other night, I was mindlessly scrolling YouTube and found an interview with Tom Hanks – not about his legendary film career, but about his most wholesome pastime. The actor owns over 250 antique typewriters, and often sends them as gifts to loved ones and fans. For Hanks, the physicality of these old machines gives the art of communication a level of depth that is often lost in a world of social media and instant gratification. A Tweet or a TikTok video might flash once on a screen and disappear into the ether. But a typewritten work, whether a simple thank-you note or a literary masterpiece, can last forever.

Violet Evergarden is a 2019 Kyoto Animation drama about a shell-shocked veteran who tries to heal and express herself through writing. Orphaned as a child, she is taken in by a young Major Gilbert and trained as a soldier. Tragically, the pair are separated in a climactic battle. Violet loses both of her arms, and the Major is lost, presumed dead. After the war ends, Violet, now with a pair of steampunk robot arms, tries to transition to civilian life as a typist – or, as the show calls it, an “Auto Memories Doll”. In an old world where formal writing education is a rarity, Violet’s skill on the typewriter makes her a local celebrity. She writes love letters for spoiled princesses, apology and thank you notes between friends, and even an operetta. All the while, she tries to figure out what Gilbert’s final word to her — aishteru, or “I love you” — truly meant.

This kind of show is a rarity in modern anime: a fantasy period drama about trauma, tragedy, found family, and, of course, love. Despite the wartime setting, the combat scenes are almost entirely shown as (mercifully) short flashbacks. Instead, the focus is on Violet’s journey after the war: her struggles adjusting to civilian life, her difficulty relating to others, and how her mastery of writing and typing allows her to connect people in ways that spoken words cannot. This kind of character-driven storytelling necessitates a slower pace, but give it a few episodes, and the words and music will undoubtedly work their magic.

Even from the first scene, the artistry of Violet Evergarden is on full display. KyoAni has a reputation for the best character animation in the business, and here you can see the decades they’ve spent honing their craft. The tiniest details, like the way Violet’s hair sways in the breeze, are drawn with as much attention to detail as the rare explosive battle scenes. The setting is absolutely gorgeous: the grand architecture is inspired by early 20th century Europe, but the vibrant greenery gives it a distinctly tropical flair. The score’s elegant piano and string sections swell at just the right moments, without ever feeling overwrought or cheesy. And the opening track, “Sincerity”, is a phenomenal pop ballad whose title alone perfectly encapsulates the series’ themes.

But the real star of the show, of course, is Violet herself. Despite looking a lot like another favorite anime heroine of mine, her characterization is fresh and relatable. She grew up isolated from modern society, and has only ever known life as a tool of war. She has a hard time understanding emotions, which makes judgmental types think she feels no emotion at all. She questions the arbitrary and often contradictory social conventions most take for granted, such as a rich woman rejecting a suitor even though she really wants to be with him. And her battle scars, both physical and mental, keep her trapped in the trenches. I’ve heard real military veterans say that this anime has some of the most relatable depictions of PTSD in media, even compared to more “realistic” historical war movies.

Despite her struggles, though, Violet has the gift of tremendous empathy. She understands the deep, intense emotions that we all feel, but suppress or ignore to be more presentable to others. She knows what people really want to say, even if they don’t always have the words to express it, and she channels these feelings into her writing. Violet’s letters are short and direct, but they bring their (and the audience) to tears. She can put an entire lifetime into a few simple words. (This is one of those anime where I really wish I understood Japanese. Even not knowing the original script, I can tell Netflix’s subtitles don’t do it justice.)

Her awkward smile is the most adorable and relatable thing ever

If there’s one criticism I could give Violet Evergarden, it’s that it almost spends too much time on its titular protagonist to the detriment of its supporting cast. Violet is actually part of a team of writers, led by the freewheeling Claudia and his on/off fling, Cattelya — but these characters don’t get nearly as much development or screentime. There’s an entire episode focusing on Violet’s friend and “rival” Iris (because every anime needs a Shonen-style rivalry, I guess?), but nothing really comes of it after. It seems odd, considering how writing and relationships are central themes of the show, but it’s not as big of a deal as it may seem. Sometimes, all a story needs is one great character.

They even tease a gay relationship in the OVA Eternity and the Auto Memories Doll, but nothing comes of it. Stop doing this to me KyoAni!

There is a wistful nostalgia that permeates this series, a longing for simpler times that never truly existed. Near the end, newfangled technologies — in this case, radio and the telephone — begin to replace the typewriter and the Auto Memory Doll. Soon, Violet’s profession, her raison d’être, will be a relic of the past.

Yet her letters remain, and their beauty is remembered for generations. In one episode, a dying mother asks Violet to write her young daughter dozens of letters to be shared in the future, one for every birthday of her life. Decades later, that woman’s own daughter discovers the letters, and becomes so inspired by them that she becomes a writer of her own. The truth is, Violet never needed anyone to tell her what “I love you” means. She knew the whole time.

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