Welcome to the first of what’s intended to be a series of short reviews of my favorite works of popular art; in this case, the Netflix anime, Violet Evergarden. Whether they be books, movies, television shows, anime, music, or video games, I want to record and highlight those creations I think stand above the rest and are worth your time to seek out and enjoy.
Of each work I’ll be asking and answering six simple questions I think are essential—and hopefully intriguing enough—to pique your interest. These pieces won’t be complete reviews; think of them more as a thoughtful recommendation from a friend. I know you probably won’t love everything I do, but more than anything else I love that feeling when you discover a work that captures your imagination, stirs your passion, and inspires you to share it with someone else. If I can light that fire even once I’ll consider this project a worthy endeavor.
Thanks for reading and enjoy!
1. What is it?
Violet Evergarden is a 13-episode anime based on an award-winning series of light novels written by Japanese author Kana Akatsuki and illustrated by Akiko Takase. The anime was released for American audiences in 2018 on Netflix and is available to watch with an English voice cast or Japanese voice cast with English subtitles. You can watch the trailer here.
The show follows a year in the life of “Violet Evergarden,” an extremely capable, but emotionally stunted, young soldier, as she tries to reintegrate into society and overcome severe emotional and physical trauma. With the exception of one minor science fiction element, Violet’s world is a realistic one that resembles post-World War I Western Europe and features technology such as typewriters, trains, and airplanes.
Because of the constant state of war, illiteracy is still widespread and writing is an afterthought. Therefore, individuals with something important to say rely on “Auto Memory Dolls”—the professional title for individuals with special training in dictation, legal guidelines, and most importantly, creative writing—to put their thoughts, feelings, and desires to paper. “Dolls” are well respected and act in a variety of functions, from ghost writing love letters to constructing contracts, and their work takes them all over the continent. Having been recently discharged from the military, Violet is employed by a sympathetic former officer at his Auto Memory Doll business and begins her journey to becoming one of these vaunted writers.
As Violet builds relationships with dozens of people and addresses their unique circumstances through her writing, she learns to cope with her past, seek meaning in her future, and come to grips with the feelings she must understand to express her clients’ deepest, honest wishes. The plot is a slow burn, taking its time with the episodic stories of its side characters while gradually building Violet’s personal journey one moment of romance, intrigue, or passion at a time.
2. Who should watch?
I’d recommend Violet Evergarden for an adolescent and older audience. Most episodes are predominantly dramatic and sometimes light-hearted, but because it’s set during a war, the show does feature some stylized action violence and disturbing imagery. However, I felt every moment was handled in a tasteful manner and that even the most intense sequences were absolutely integral to the realistic depiction of Violet’s inner struggles and transformation.
Because this show dispenses with the cliched humor and in-jokes common to many popular anime in favor of a more sober, cinematic presentation, I’d also consider this to be an excellent entry point for anyone interested in learning more about the genre. It affirms that anime can offer reflective and thoughtful experiences while also presenting a gripping visual feast.
For fans of live action television, SundanceTV’s series, Rectify, and the BBC’s series, Top of the Lake (season one), are both excellent and reflect this show’s tone, themes, and structure in many ways. On the other hand, fans of beloved anime such as Kino’s Journey, Mushi-Shi, or Death Parade will feel right at home with Violet Evergarden.
3. How did it grab me?
While many of Violet’s adventures range from melodramatic to amusing, her personal journey from psychological devastation to self-realization is raw, heartbreaking, and relatable. Violet struggles to pick up the pieces of her life and untangle emotions she didn’t think herself capable of feeling, all while learning how much trauma she’s caused others through her actions as a soldier.
There is one pivotal moment about midway through the series that, for me, transformed this show from a pretty, endearing anime with delusions of grandeur, to a work of great artistic expression with an aching heart at its core. After an especially trying encounter, Violet is forced to confront a hard truth of her history, and at the lowest point in her story the show does not flinch at realistically portraying the ravaging effects this truth has on her character. It is destructive and authentic and earned. This gradual admission and acceptance of truth is the theme that makes the show; without honesty, there can be no meaningful communication, no meaningful growth, no humanity.
4. Why should you care?
Even if you’re an anime novice, the first thing you’ll likely notice about Violet Evergarden is that it’s gorgeous. Every frame is vibrant and detailed; each facial expression, environment, and action sequence is brought to life by experts in their craft, employing a deft combination of traditional, hand-drawn animation and modern computer-generated graphics to create a living world full of rich characters.
But what’s truly captivating about this show is that it’s beautiful both inside and out. The visual artistry of the series stands in stark contrast with the messy emotions roiling within. This show tackles complex, important ideas, to the point of questioning how one defines themself and how relationships make a person whole. And because the visuals are so well realized, a character’s demenaor or the way a shot is framed can carry tremendous weight. The show believes strongly in the redemptive power of honest communication, which I’m sad to say is too uncommon a sentiment nowadays. In the world of Violet Evergarden, every person’s message deserves to be delivered.
Is this a perfect series? Absolutely not. As I’ve alluded to, there are plenty of over-the-top moments of high drama and unbelievable feats. Violet herself can be difficult at first to understand or empathize with given her past. Several characters are definitively gray and their behavior raises questions about the nature of abuse and pain that aren’t as clearly address as I’d have liked.
Still, when you’re watching this show, you feel like you’re in the hands of a wizened old storyteller, sitting beside a fireplace as they look back on the highs and lows of their life to write an idealized tale of past struggles. Sure, the visuals derived from those memories are reconstructed, invented, maybe too good to be true, but the emotions are impossible to forget or ignore.
5. When should you jump in?
Over the course of watching with my wife there were more than a few occasions when both of us needed to pause and dry some tears, so I can’t recommend this for casual viewing. It’s a show that demands your attention and will at times grab you in ways you don’t expect. Many of the stories told are of people trying to make the best of bad situations, so although it can be a bit of a downer sometimes, it’s more often uplifting, and even inspiring.
In my opinion, the best time to watch Violet Evergarden is on a rainy Sunday morning, wrapped in a blanket and sitting beside someone you love. Although it can be melodramatic and whimsical to the point of sappiness, and the premise at times stretches the limits of credulity, if you approach it in the same earnest, open-hearted spirit as its creators, this show might make you want to go out, meet someone new, and bring a smile to their face.
6. Where can you watch?
This show is available on Netflix exclusively and you can check out its page here: Violet Evergarden. A note regarding the audio: I don’t typically mind watching anime with English voice cast dubs and think this one is well done, but I’d recommend watching with the original Japanese voice cast and English subtitles if you can manage.
The show’s premise and impact depend strongly on the emotional resonance of the characters, and I found the Japanese voice cast far more convincing. Violet’s Japanese voice actor is especially effective. There’s also something satisfying about watching a love letter of a show created a world away and concerned with the power of communication in a foreign language while reading translated text. It just felt right.