October 20, 2021

Violet Evergarden

Kyoto Animation's gorgeously animated Violet Evergarden, based on the light novels by Kana Akatsuki, begins with a premise I didn't expect, then takes off in a different direction from that, and finally ends up in a pleasantly familiar place, albeit with an unusual main character.

The story takes place in an alternate universe Leiden (Holland) shortly after the end of a Great War. As revealed in brief flashbacks, Violet Evergarden was a kind of Wonder Woman during the conflict, a teenage super-soldier paired with her handler, Major Gilbert Bougainvillea.

Although a strategic victory, their last mission leaves Violet without her arms and Major Bougainvillea missing in action and presumed dead. Discharged and fitted with artificial limbs, Violet is handed over to Gilbert's friend and commanding officer, the affable Claudia Hodgins.

The first episode resembles the early chapters of Anne of Green Gables, as Claudia tries to get one of Gilbert's relatives to take in this odd and socially maladroit girl. Like Marilla, Claudia concludes that he is in a better position to look after Violet's interests than anybody else.

Also retired from the military, Claudia runs the CH Postal Company, a secretarial service that makes the most of the word processor of the day, the typewriter. But its real forte is not simply transcribing but composing correspondence for clients who can't write or don't know what to say.

This particular line of business struck another note of familiarity.

In the NHK drama Tsubaki Stationery Store, when her grandmother dies, Hatoko (Mikako Tabe) inherits her stationery store. The store never sold much actual stationery. Rather, her grandmother wrote letters for people who couldn't find the right words to write what they really meant.

For Hatoko, estranged from her grandmother in the years before her death, picking up where she left off results in an emotional struggle that constitutes the core of the drama.

The demands of such a job present a seemingly insurmountably high hurdle for Violet, not because of her prosthetic hands, with which she can type faster than any of the other "Auto Memory Dolls" (as the typists are known). But because of her complete lack of emotional intelligence.

She is basically a female version of Data from Star Trek. She interprets language literally. Common circumlocutions confuse her. She reflexively salutes her superiors and answers "Ryoukai" to casual requests (the military equivalent of "Aye aye, sir").

It's no surprise that her first attempt to communicate a client's intentions—and not her literal words—ends badly. So why does she insist on pursuing an occupation she is manifestly unqualified for? Because of Gilbert's last words to her, the words of the most important person in her world.

"I love you." And she has no idea what that means. (Yeah, I know, cue Foreigner.)

At this point, director Taichi Ishidate extracts the story from the stalemate with some narrative slight of hand. He basically hits the fast forward button and levels her up to experienced Auto Memory Doll mode in two episodes.

Utterly implausible from a mental health point of view. But Ishidate is correct that letting Violet "find herself" through work, by getting her out of the house and going on adventures, is infinitely more interesting than her spending the next half-dozen episodes in psychoanalysis.

Violet gets another Wonder Woman moment when she takes an assignment in the country of her old enemy and runs into a gang of insurrectionists out to scuttle the peace talks. (It's hard not to note a few resemblances to the ending of Ghost in the Shell.) But she's not going back to that life.

Her character arc thus takes her from a soulless war machine to a soulful Kwai Chang Caine with killer secretarial skills. Sort of as if Sandy in the classic British sit-com As Time Goes By had previously worked for Judi Dench when Judi Dench was M in the James Bond films.

I reminded of Kate's observation that Dean Cain's Clark Kent in Lois & Clark is his default self (in Japanese, his honne). Superman is the costume (his tatemae). Similarly, Violet Evergarden is about a superhero shedding the costume and finding her real "normal" self.

As noted, the setting is an alternate universe version of early 20th century Europe. The orthography is not recognizably Roman. The typewriters resemble the vintage manual I grew up with (before my dad brought home a used electric IBM Model D).

Violet's artificial arms are more sophisticated than any modern prosthetic.

That along with the anachronistic fashions that pop up here and there lend Violet Evergarden a steam punk ambiance that brings to mind the worlds of Masaki Tachibana's Princess Principal, Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy, and Hayao Miyazaki's Porco Rosso. It's a world with a lot of room for growth.

The special and the first movie serve more as additional episodes that fit into the latter third of the series.

In the special, Violet is tasked to write a letter to a soldier lost on the battlefield. As it turns out, the soldier's fiancée, a famous singer, intends to use the contents of the letter as the lyrics in an opera about the war she is producing along with the soldier's father, who is the conductor of the orchestra.

The two movies are wide-screen theatrical releases, starting chronologically with Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll.

An aristocrat hires Violet to tutor his illegitimate daughter (the war having depleted the family's pool of marriageable heirs). During the war, the daughter took an orphaned girl under her wing. Several years later, that girl tracks down Violet and asks her to reunite her with her "big sister."

The second movie begins in the present day with the descendant of one of Violet's clients from the series. This framing device takes us back to the events following the first movie, while reviewing all of the major plot points to date. And then concludes with Violet's search for Gilbert.

Both theatrical films are rip-your-heart-out tearjerkers. The former is far more effective in this regard than the latter, as the latter tries to cover too much material in too little time. Gilbert's inner conflict alone is so complex that doing it justice would require considerably more screen time.

Taichi Ishidate should have used the framing device to structure the entire story or left it out. Doing both doesn't really work.

So despite running over two hours, the ending feels rushed. Violet Evergarden deserved another cour. Nevertheless, it delivers an emotional payoff that (almost) persuades me to overlook its other faults, and both movies conclude on life-affirming notes (be sure to sit through the credits).

The entire franchise is available on Netflix.

Violet Evergarden (the series)
Violet Evergarden Special
Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll
Violet Evergarden: The Movie

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