As I began my viewing of the two-hour emotional ride that was Violet Evergarden: The Movie, I found that it was not easy to disconnect my thoughts from the recent and unfortunate circumstances of Kyoto Animation.
A renowned animation studio in Japan known not just for its quality projects, but because it was an outlier in the cutthroat industry of anime, with a workplace that was sustainable as it was gender-diverse. Unlike many of its competitors, Kyoto Animation (KyoAni) often pursued ownership and cultivation of its own creative properties, as well as paid its employees by salary rather than relying on freelance contractors.
The staff at KyoAni regularly rotated on projects but were constantly present, and that they had stayed with the company for so long not only provided the studio with an efficient production pipeline rarely in need of outsourcing, but also a unique and bespoke style of storytelling that strongly contributed to the identity of KyoAni.
The brutal arson attack in June 2019 resulted in the passing of 36 employees and the injury of a further 33, many of whom were women and key staff in KyoAni’s creative process. It was a harrowing time that left fans worldwide devastated, as well as burdened hopeful animators who envisioned a better life in the industry’s future. The talent of KyoAni is experienced, specifically trained by its own schools to meet the standards of the company. To lose so much of that effort in a single day is staggering.
Incidentally, the arson incident took place only a while after KyoAni had performed the finishing touches on its latest project. This project was Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll, a film and side story in its Violet Evergarden series of works, which would be the final showcase of the studio as it once was.
As of writing this review, it has been roughly two years since the tragedy. The studio has had to face the challenges of rebuilding from the ground up. The 3.3 billion yen ($30 million) received in donations are being nobly distributed to the victims instead of being invested into business recovery, while the onset of a global pandemic has also no doubt caused some friction.
Yet, from the ashes that formed from one person’s senseless malice, Violet Evergarden: The Movie exists now as our first look into the studio since that tragedy, and it is a beautiful story that is cathartic as it is unwaveringly about love.
The Many Facets Of Love
Violet Evergarden: The Movie takes place after the events of the TV series, and is set as the conclusion to the character arc of the titular Violet. A former child soldier who understood nothing but violence, Violet was taken in by army major Gilbert Bougainvillea, a man of whom she would refer to simply as the “Major.”
During her time under his care, Gilbert taught Violet how to read and speak, and gave as much love and empathy as could be given. Although Gilbert wished to provide her with a better life, his circumstances inevitably nudged him into using her as a tool of war.
At the climax of the war, Violet lost both her arms in the crossfires, while Gilbert himself was killed, but not before he managed to profess his love to her. The world went on to transition into more peaceful times, with Violet taking up a new profession as an Auto Memory Doll in an effort to better understand his final words.
As an Auto Memory Doll, Violet works as a ghostwriter in a time period when much of the population is fairly illiterate. She packages the words of these people into heartfelt messages for their loved ones, and these letters are then delivered in the hopes of getting one’s innermost feelings across. Despite Violet’s seemingly lack of empathy or social awareness, she eventually proves to be excellent at this task, to the point that her services become heavily sought after by the time the story of this film comes around.
The TV series focused on the stories of individual people and how their unique lives touched Violet. In the film, we can see that she has matured from these stories and now understands the world a little better than before.
Yet, the movie is quick to let us know that despite all of this, a certain part inside her still rings hollow. Gilbert, the man who was the catalyst for this life of hers is still missing. Though all evidence points to him being dead, she believes him to be alive, to the extent that she still writes her own personal letters to him.
In the TV series, parallels can be found between Violet and that of a dog, which posits her as an individual who, in her naivety, blindly follows the beck and call of her master, Gilbert. Like a loyal dog, she is depicted as seeing Gilbert as her everything, consequently losing her life’s purpose when he is no longer around. It’s a demeaning comparison but is nonetheless something that tests Violet.
Violet’s yearning to see Gilbert again and her devotion to her job are two aspects that are depicted in tandem. While the story is about Violet and her bond with Gilbert, it also follows a terminally ill boy named Yuris who tasks her with preparing letters to his family after he passes away.
For a while, these stories exist independent of each other but eventually intertwine at a moment that’s crucial to Violet’s character. The film portrays Violet in her most vulnerable state, and the choice she makes here frames her independence and growth as an individual.
Time, Both Fleeting And Eternal
On a broader scale, societal change is also afoot. Telephones are becoming more widely used, and as more people learn to read and write, the need for ghostwriting has slowly diminished. Soon enough, the film notes, there won’t be a need for people like Violet anymore.
It’s an aspect that gives us a sense of the fleetingness of time, and how everything eventually comes to an end. The story makes occasional shifts to the perspective of a young lady named Daisy, who seeks to learn more about the writer of her great grandmother’s letters. This writer was Violet, and we witness throughout the film the impact that a generation has had on her legacy. Like the clients she wrote for, she too has lived a full life.
This is perhaps where the film feels most grand. The Violet Evergarden franchise has often focused on the self-contained stories of other people. Sometimes Violet has a hand in these stories, but often she is the bystander. In this film, she sits at the heart of the tale in its entirety. The facade of an emotionless soldier crumbles and reveals a vulnerable human whose motivations are complex and conflicted.
One of the film’s first few scenes involves a view of the vast ocean, one that metaphorically speaks of the separation between people. Humans often struggle to express their feelings on the spot, layered by anxieties that cause them to push away the people that they love the most. Though Violet has often worked to connect these moments of separation for others, she eventually finds her own self in need of such a connection.
There is a scene in the film where Violet, feet submerged in the sea, tries to voice her feelings but fails to find the strength to do so. It’s a beautifully animated sequence filled with expressiveness that embodies the emotions at the moment. And yet, no words are necessary because, like how she has written letters for other people, she too has written a letter for herself.
Words can be expressed in many forms, transcending even the sea to reach the ones we love. Over time, technological advancements will only make these efforts easier.
And yet, a vast sea continues to exist and separate people. Even in the distant future, Daisy struggles to express her appreciation to her parents, just as Yuris and Violet struggled to connect with those they loved. There is something to be said here about who we are as humans and how ease of communication doesn’t always translate to sincerity in our interpersonal relationships.
Difficulty In Sincerity
Sincerity. “Sincerely,” is the first line you see before the film begins. The film also emphasizes the line that Gilbert tells Violet before his death, “I love you.” These are the words that the movie revolves around, and are tenets that we as people often have trouble expressing.
Violet Evergarden: The Movie makes it clear that time is never at a standstill, and that you will lose your chance to convey your true feelings to the person you love. If not now, tomorrow. The fear of showing our vulnerable sides to others is only natural, but if telling it to someone’s face is too much to bear, then perhaps a written letter, sincerely from the heart, would also do just fine.
Unsurprisingly, the film is a beautiful piece for the eyes. A close shot of Violet’s back in her darker moments, her braids and buns neatly tied – an elegance even in adversity. Her prosthetics click and then falter, and as she leans away from her typewriter to repair them, one aspect of her daily life becomes apparent.
The animation varies in intensity, pulling back during its dull moments but ramping up dramatically in detail as the scene demands, creating an emphasis on key story beats. Elements of closeness that hone in on characters’ eyes, lips, and hands as they stare, tighten, or quiver, also exist to subtly convey emotion.
The film is filled with these nuances that help sell the characters and atmosphere. A kind of artistry that also makes revisiting the film a worthwhile endeavour. However, though the cinematography excels most of the time, it doesn’t quite share the consistency and effectiveness that films such as A Silent Voice or Liz and the Blue Bird absolutely nailed.
Likewise, the film’s musical score is an excellent mood-setter. Entirely orchestrated, the score is beautiful, melancholic, and at times hopeful. The music integrates exceptionally well with the scenes to match the film’s crucial emotional highs and manages to evoke a sense of nostalgia that fits effortlessly with the film’s themes and its early 20th-century-like setting.
A number of tracks are orchestrated in ways that faintly call back to the original soundtrack of the anime series, making this a boon for those who have watched Violet Evergarden before.
An Inspiring Achievement
Violet Evergarden: The Movie is a satisfying tear-jerker of a finale for fans of the series, and one that holds steadfast to the heartwarming message of love that the series embodies as a whole. The film does a great job at getting newcomers acclimated to Violet’s past and circumstances, but some may struggle to observe her emotional growth without having invested in the anime series.
For the most part, the film delivers and executes everything that it needs to get right. It sets an extremely positive outlook for KyoAni’s recovery and future. In spite of all odds, the studio is adamant about maintaining its high standard of quality in the animation industry, and we can see this ethos shine throughout the film.
The film is a sincere love letter that is worthy of the studio’s legacy and the Violet Evergarden story, as well as an obviously painstaking effort amidst great hardship that I hope fans of anime will wholeheartedly support.
Final Score: 100/100