The problem with Violet Evergarden is not that it's a bad show, but that it's a good one that tries too hard and in the wrong ways. It gives us a character and a dilemma that I was curious about and wanted to see unfolded, and delivers it with gorgeous production values that's a hallmark of both Kyoto Animation generally and much of Netflix's co-sponsored anime in particular. But the show tries to stack the deck in favor of us needing to adore and pity that character, to the point where I wanted to walk out of the casino altogether.
Après la guerre
Violet is set in a parallel instance of recent history — think Izetta: The Last Witch, although in this case we're at the end of what amounted to World War I. The world is in the process of pulling itself together and trying to figure out how to live again after the devastation of the war, although pockets of violent resistance still exist.
Out of the fog of that war comes a young woman, the Violet of the title. She is essentially a former child soldier. Once an urchin who had no discernible abilities save for combat, she was picked up and shaped by an officer named Gilbert Bougainville. He doted on her, and his death in combat left Violet an emotional and physical husk. The former, because he was ostensibly the only human being she's ever formed any kind of feeings for; the latter, because she lost both her arms in the battle where she also lost him.
Medical technology equips Violet with a pair of prosthetic arms, and while at first she is clumsy with them, she in time finds something she can do with them: type. There's a need for people who can scribe-on-demand, whether as letter-writers or as preservers of information slowly being lost to time. I liked this element for two reasons: One, it's an echo of actual history, albeit one fading away. Two, her path into that profession reminded me of author Hubert Selby, Jr'.s own path into being a writer; he took up letter-writing for his ward-mates as a pastime when he ended up hospitalized for tuberculosis.
Violet finds work through a former army associate of Gilbert's, Claudia Hodgins, who now runs a commercial postal delivery and letter-writing service. Giving Violet something like this to do is a sort of absolution for both of them. Hodgins was deeply uneasy about the way the emotionally stunted Violet was exploited during wartime, and so maybe this can be a way to bring her all the more back to humanity. It's clear Violet's emotionless, detached demeanor is a coping mechanism born of trauma. The only times she lets her guard down are when anything involving Gilbert — like the brooch he gave her — comes into her life.
That emotional block doesn't just make Violet socially awkward. It also makes it harder for her to do her job, since one of the functions of typists like her (the show calls them "Auto Memory Dolls") is to take the often ineloquent words of others and shape them in an aesthetically proper way. That requires empathy for her customers; that requires emotional effort she can't or won't show.
A career in connecting others
But the only way out is through, and so the work Violet does to bring other people together eventually becomes the means by which she confronts her own lack of connection. Some of the missions (as she calls them, being army to the core) are more light-hearted, as when she writes part of a series of publicly published love letters between a royal couple-to-be that become a cause célèbre. Some are more wistful, as when Violet aids an emotionally embittered astronomer in transcribing a set of observations about a comet, and each comes away from the experience with an incrementally better understanding of their feelings. And some are straight-up tearjerkers: Violet composes a set of letters for an ill woman while at the same time trying to keep her little daughter entertained; we find the letters are to be read by the girl at each major stage of her life long after her mother has died.
At some point, I theorized, Violet is going to have two things happen to her. The first would be a way for her to come to terms with her dammed-up emotions (if ya feel, ya heal); the second would be a full-on confrontation with the fact that at one point she was a killer. Both of those things come to pass. I was positive we'd see the first one, but I wasn't so sure if the show would try to deal with the second one, since it's trickier territory. The past can't be erased, and may not even be atoned for, but it may be transcended. That and good works do not by themselves guarantee salvation, but then again, maybe it isn't salvation we should be looking for, but freedom.
This is all material I like and admire. One of my favorite themes for any story is self-determination, when someone moves from dependence to autonomy and self-awareness. But I kept thinking that using melodrama as the vehicle to deliver it was in this case a bad choice.
That choice of tone isn't terribly egregious when it involves the things that happen to Violet in the present moment — her retraining for her job, or the way her job eventually allows the river of her emotions to spill through the dam she's built in front of them. It's when we flash back into her past and see how she was picked up by Gilbert as a mute urchin, turned into a tool of battle, and then lost her arms trying to save Gilbert 's life.
One problem I had with these scenes was that they made Violet into a superhero who can wade into a whole platoon of soldiers and take them apart with her bare hands. That's always a bad idea in any story about war, because all it does is make the other soldiers look like wimps. But the other problem is the near-pornographic way it lingers on Violet's emotional and physical torment. The net result is the show feels like it's doing more work to fetishize her suffering than to celebrate her transcendence of it.
Mellowing out the melodrama
I'm not saying the show shouldn't have dealt with those things at all. We do need to know where Violet came from and what shaped her; without that, her trajectory doesn't have as much heft. But having those things also delivered by way of melodrama makes them feel exploitative rather than explanatory. I don't object to something simply because it's sentimental or manipulative, but I do have a problem when it's used unwisely or becomes self-defeating.
These problems didn't kill Violet Evergarden outright for me, but they got in the way of me enjoying it as much as I might have. I had an analogous problem with the otherwise excellent Descending Stories: the show was unabashedly melodramatic, and it made good on a lot of that material. But a key incident in the story, one called back to several times and made into the nexus of future events, is so eye-rollingly ludicrous that it threatens to become a deal-breaker.
I mentioned how one of the things the show seemed fated to do was bring Violet back into confrontation with her martial past. That happens in the climax, with mixed results. It involves Violet on board a train faced with a gang of insurgents who know her reputation, and her urge to not take lives is in conflict with the fact that they very much do want to do that, starting with her. I guess the larger aim here is not so much what happens but the motive — that she defeats them her way out of her own volition, not as a tool of the army or any one person in it, that she's reached a point where she has realized her own authority and autonomy. (There's also a Ghost In The Shell tribute of sorts in this climax, for those keeping score at home, one that also functions here as a nod towards Violet's own earlier travails.) And there's a concluding bit involving Gilbert Bougainville's mother and brother that help put a bow on Violet's feelings about herself, and put words to them, too — if maybe a little too neatly.
I looked back just now over what I've written, and it occurs to me that the overall sweep of the story — where it starts, where it wants to go, where it ends up — is spot-on. It's many of the individual steps along the way, and how they were delivered, that bugged me. That the show picked melodrama as its main storytelling mode isn't itself fatal. Think of Douglas Sirk, or, later, Todd Haynes, or the hallucinatory, transcendent melodrama of something like Utena. But here, that got in the way about as often as it gave the story its needed weight and propulsion. Violet's situation and the way she finds a path out of it are strong enough that they didn't need to be front-loaded with emotional cues all the way through. The creators wanted to make us love Violet and care about her, but they didn't need to try that hard. She had us at hello.