Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Episodes 1-13 Streaming
“It is a pleasure to meet you. I will travel anywhere to meet your request. Auto Memory Doll Violet Evergarden, at your service.” So says the strange girl with the mechanical hands, unfolding her typewriter and beginning her transcription. As an orphan of war, Violet once knew nothing more than the orders of her adopted father and killed without a second thought. Now, in the ambiguity of an uneasy peace, Violet works to transcribe the letters of those who cannot write their own. This work is difficult, and the feelings of others are strange to her, but Violet has nowhere else to turn. All she has now is the artificial arms she was given and the final words of her absent father.
Kyoto Animation have established a firm reputation as an animation powerhouse. From their breakout hits like Haruhi Suzumiya and K-ON! to more recent highlights like Sound! Euphonium and A Silent Voice, their works boast a fluidity and expressiveness of animation that is nearly unparalleled within the industry. Their unusual choice to fully employ a staff of in-house animators, as well as their roster of top notch directors like Naoko Yamada and Yasuhiro Takemoto, means their works maintain a remarkable consistency of execution. The studio tends to prioritize quiet and intimate storytelling, and the story of Violet Evergarden feels like a natural extension of all they have done before.
As Violet Evergarden begins, we are introduced to our title character, a soft-spoken girl with mechanical hands. Violet's affectation actually goes far beyond “soft-spoken;” she seems almost incapable of expressing herself emotionally at all, or even recognizing herself as a person who possesses emotions. Instead, Violet desires orders. Discovered as a child in a brutal war zone, Violet was raised as a strange kind of subordinate by an officer named Gilbert, and the life of a soldier is all she knows. But now the war is over, Gilbert is gone, and Violet is left with her adopted father's old friend Hodgins, who sighs and puts her to work at his own postal company.
The early episodes of Violet Evergarden center on Violet awkwardly integrating into her new life, as she attempts to square her own apparent lack of feelings with the empathy necessary to take someone's raw thoughts and turn them into a heartfelt letter. Hodgins' employees don't just directly dictate spoken text—as “Auto Memory Dolls,” they are renowned for taking imperfect words and elevating them into a letter that expresses their client's true feelings. And someone who still can't understand what her adoptive father meant by “I love you,” Violet is far from equipped to handle such duties.
The extreme nature of Violet's emotional trauma makes her a difficult character to sympathize with across the show's early episodes, but that's probably intentional. Instead, Violet's nature shines a light on those around her. Her determination to continue being a Doll in spite of her unsuitability inspires her similarly afflicted coworker, while her blunt and direct manner of expression allows her to break through to another friend's deeply self-hating brother. In the illustration of these conflicts, Violet Evergarden demonstrates a firm certainty that in spite of the individual quirks that separate us, there are commonalities to our experience that often make understanding the joy and pain of others the best way to come to grips with our own feelings. And as Violet's journey continues, this process begins for her as well. Through cataloging the trials and triumphs of a thousand scattered customers, Violet comes to embrace their sorrows and find her own road home.
After those introductory episodes, Violet Evergarden shifts to an episodic structure based around Violet traveling to write letters for various new customers. The issue of Violet's relatability fades quickly; it's clear by the third and fourth episodes that Violet is just incapable of expressing her emotions rather than truly lacking them, and by the fifth episode, she's internalized the language of emotion well enough to be extremely good at her job, despite still being stiff in her self-expression. Violet quickly becomes the show's most compelling asset, as her compassion, vibrancy, and ultimate desire to live start waging war with her guilt, self-hatred, and other scars of war. As episode after episode swings for the emotional fences with their new focus characters, Violet's own development comes one small victory at a time, from a half-smile to an unexpected tear.
Violet's journey is elevated through some of the most stunning visual work in any anime series, even rivaling many theatrical productions. Kyoto Animation have been dabbling with the dramatic flexibility afforded by camera tricks like rack focus and heavy bokeh for years, and Violet Evergarden benefits greatly from the results of these experiments. Its use of soft focus might seem overbearing at times, but the ultimate result is a gorgeous mirage of reality, stellar art design elevated through evocative framing tricks. The show's background art and color work are already gorgeous, and when you couple that with its clever post-production work and astonishingly fluid animation, you end up with one of the most beautiful productions of this or any year.
Of course, beauty without dramatic purpose can only do so much. Fortunately, Violet Evergarden is also one of the most effectively character-animated and purposefully directed shows Kyoto Animation have ever produced, establishing Taichi Ishidate as a director to be reckoned with. Violet herself feels like a natural fit for KyoAni, burdened with such heavy emotional trauma and such an inexpressive nature. But Violet's natural inexpressiveness ultimately makes the series' careful articulation of her journey that much more rewarding. From the first episode, where she screams that she'd rather be thrown away than no longer used as a tool, to the fourth, where in response to being told “you still don't understand emotions at all,” she turns with a crestfallen look, clearly disappointed in her own progress. By the seventh, her empathy for a character in a children's play leads her to help its writer rediscover joy in life, and so on into greater developments. Violet grows and grows across this narrative, and her inspiring journey is captured beautifully through the series' consistent, careful, and utterly gorgeous animation.
Along with the energy and polish of its character acting, Violet Evergarden is also alive with clever details of visual storytelling, from its constant visual mirroring and flower motifs to tricks as subtle as the tempo of the river matching Violet's emotional shifts. The soundtrack is equally distinctive, offering a rich stable of orchestral arrangements ranging from nervous flute melodies to crashing horns, giving every episode its own tonal identity. The series presents a unique combination of melodramatic storytelling and incredibly refined cinematic visuals that combines bombast and nuance into an arresting package.
Netflix's dub for Violet Evergarden will likely inspire some polarization, as tends to happen for anime centered on characters like Violet. Erika Harlacher's take on the heroine is far more expressive from the start than Yui Ishikawa's nearly monotone original take, with even her first scenes demonstrating a tonal range far greater than the original. In some ways, this makes Violet more relatable up front. Unfortunately, it also somewhat undercuts her journey and makes the ways others react to her behavior less understandable. Beyond Violet herself, some of the other characters also felt miscast—many of the army officers sounded too young for their in-universe ages, including key characters like Hodgins. It's not a bad dub, but I felt it missed the tone of the original in enough ways that I recommend sticking with subs for this one.
Violet Evergarden is certainly not a perfect show. The show's often archetypal and unabashedly melodramatic vignettes won't appeal to everyone, and Violet's dialogue can occasionally feel clumsy or unbelievable. On top of that, while the show's final act works perfectly in a thematic sense, it also presents an unexpected and ill-fitting genre shift for the show overall, meaning the show both begins and ends on its weakest notes. And yet, in spite of those structural complaints, I could not be more stunned by the success of this remarkable production.
From its articulation of the lingering effects of war to its vividly realized illustration of how our emotions reach out to others, Violet Evergarden is a poignant and brilliantly realized vision. From its gorgeous animation and art design to its consistently thoughtful application of those strengths, Violet Evergarden is a visual wonder. And from her own beginnings as a discarded tool to her final emergence as an abundantly compassionate hero, Violet is a terrific protagonist. Violet Evergarden stumbles in ways I rarely felt diminished the whole and succeeds in ways that brought me to tears again and again. I loved this show, and I look forward to revisiting it for many years to come.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A-
Animation : A+
Art : A+
Music : A
+ Inspiring story of Violet discovering her own self-worth, poignant reflections on the tragedy of war and the universality of human emotion, beautiful in every way an anime can be
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