Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Violet Evergarden Won Me Over Despite Its Flaws (Anime Review)

Violet Evergarden

I took a flyer on Violet Evergarden (streaming on Netflix) as it is not the typical genre of anime I watch. Usually I go for the shoujo romances, slice of life, josei, and other fairly realistic fare. However, I heard good things, the animation looked good, and no commercials on Netflix were all things in its favor. But it was definitely out of my norm to watch a near-history/fantasy anime.

Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised. That said, there are some caveats. The biggest: is it possible to enjoy a show even though a critical lens reveals some significant issues? I think "yes," so long as one is informed and retains the critical understanding and acknowledges that their enjoyment is predicating on supporting a show that does reinforce certain dominant norms. Heavy, I know.

Violet Evergarden takes place in a vaguely 1930's-like time period in a vaguely European continent whose various countries are at war with each other. Violet is a young girl, trained as a killing machine, deprived of all human contact, education, warmth, and humanity. She is placed under the charge of an army Major. Ultimately in battle, she loses her arms and he loses his life. We meet her in the hospital, recovering, and getting used to mechanical prosthetic arms. She is met by a former commander and offered to take up residence in the household of the Major's friends.

She rejects this and ends up employed to the former commander and working in his postal company. There she learns of the Auto Memory Dolls (Dolls for short) who scribe and type letters for the people who seem unable to write (but all of whom seem able to read...). Despite her seemingly cold, emotionless heart, her affect-less personality, and dark past, she is drawn to the work of the dolls. When asked why, she explains that she wants to know what the Major meant when he told her that he loved her. The episodes consist of Violet writing letters for people, learning to understand her own emotions, coming to terms with her bloody past, and grieving for the Major.

The show is beautifully animated. Crisp, clear, detailed backgrounds, intricate character designs, fluid motion, easy to follow editing. In short, a very high level of art and production for an episodic show. Despite many flaws as we will discuss, we ultimately come to identify with the main character and truly empathize with her. Also, her emotional growth proves believable. When she cries, we cry. It's hard not to like a show with a winning lead and beautiful art, even with some concerning narrative choices.

My major concern with the show rests on its largely male perspective of women's emotions. Despite having a strong female lead with eventual agency (although she had none at the start of her life), her sole journey is about understanding a man's love. She is completely devoted to the memory of her lost Major and has seemingly no other purpose in life. However, without spoiling anything, the last few lines of the last episode do resolve that tension to a degree.

Men are clearly the leaders in this society. The few working women we meet are all the Auto Memory Dolls, referred to as "dolls" throughout - not exactly an enlightened label. There are no male dolls. We see one university, all the students are males. Many, but not all, the customers are men who struggle to put their words into feelings on paper and need a "doll" to help them.

Further, Violet is indicated to be between 14 and 15 despite looking like a young adult in her early twenties. There is also an episode with a princess who is also 14, looks younger, and gets married (with an initial betrothal party at age 10). So basically, some young girl fetishism.

One can imagine the premise for this show developed in some mans head: "what if we had a show about a dangerous fighting teenage beauty with blond hair and steam punk robot arms...what should she do...oh, I know...she quests to find the man she loves!" All that was left was to figure out why she has no arms (a very improbable set of battlefield injuries that wouldn't lead to arms literally falling off - oh well, details...).

But if we can both acknowledge that very male perspective and put it aside, there are certainly other problems with the writing. It is a society with cars and planes but no telephones or electricity to speak of. Also, why is she the only one with advanced steampunk robotic prosthesis following a brutal war, shouldn't many other soldiers have been maimed and need them?

Most of the episodes seem contrived to lead her through parts of her emotional journey and the need for a hired letter writer seems pretty frivolous - especially since most of the clients are very educated, wealthy, and have staff who could do it for them (princess, published author, etc..). The purpose of each episode is to give her something that explicitly teaches her some lesson, they are obvious setups with only blatant pathos as their point.

So can we put aside the obvious male needs driving this show and the narrative flaws and still enjoy it? I found that I could because I did end up genuinely caring about Violet. She is very endearing, very sincere, and very earnest. It tugged at my heart strings. But I need to acknowledge that I enjoyed it despite the fact that it was reifying of traditional values and male dominance over women. Even the simple fact that a female child was raised as a killer and given to the military as a weapon and her humanity devalued supports that male-centric world-view.

Put simply, through a critical lens, this show was quite problematic. But it was also beautiful and emotional, things that shouldn't be disregarded to support throwing away the whole show (if we took that approach we'd also lose most of the western literary canon!).

So Violet Evergarden was very flawed, but also enjoyable for what it was. I'm giving it a 7/10 with those heavy caveats. Please go in aware of its flaws and I hope you find something redeeming in it like I did.

🚺



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