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.



  1. I’d like to comment on several points you made.

    The male dominated society
    The concept of the enlisted mindset
    The purpose of the dolls as well and their role I society.
    I also have my few criticisms of the show as well

    Male Dominated: This is a bit of a historical fiction piece. Male dominated societies are a thing, that’s just how it is no more no less. Also to add, despite your disagreement on child marriages, that was also a reality that young women in royalty faced. Historically speaking.

    Enlisted mindset: When going to boot camp the enlisted are trained to follow a single mindset of “the willingness to obey all orders” therefore Violet become the “perfect soldier”. She is also a child soldier which would make her more impressionable to this idea.

    Roles of Dolls: Their roles as dolls is a lot more than just for those who can’t read. They’ve become linguistic experts. They’ve become aficionados in official documents and treaties, making them some of the most powerful figures in their history. They were also available to the rest of society. For instance, despite her writings for royalty she still continued to do her job. She went to the north was able to take a job for a common soldier. This also included delivering the letter herself to what could be said as the blue collared people.

    My only criticism of this show would be the inventions present during their time line. Freaking Panzer 2-3 on the battlefield with bore loading artillery. If we look at the specials, electricity and radio technology happened. It could have been on a much smaller scale and not as widespread as it was in the original series, however the continuity is still rather confusing.

    In conclusion, the show has its faults but your arguement against the show, I can describe as irrelevant simply due to:
    The time period
    Mindset of the enlisted
    And the dolls purpose

    1. Thank you for a thoughtful comment and another way of looking at the show. I do agree with your faults about the technology which actually factors in a bit to why I didn't like some of the other aspects.

      I completely understand your points about some of my concerns and this being rooted in historical fiction. I think if this were set in a real place in a real time period, then of course a lot of my criticism wouldn't make sense. For instance, I'm not going to complain that 16th Century Spain shouldn't be a patriarchal (for instance, I actually know nothing about 16th century Spain, so who knows) because I'm sure it was patriarchal, that's just fact. I might, however, point out that it is male dominated as part of understanding things that weren't equitable and critiquing that society. But that critique of inequity is different than saying the writer of historical fiction shouldn't be truthful to the nature of the society it is set in (again, in a real time and place).

      However, since Violet Evergarden was set in a made up country (or world for all we know) in some non-descript time period, AND has advanced technology - that suggests to me that the writers COULD have chosen to make it less male dominated because it wasn't depicting a completely true historical time and place. Doesn't mean they should, but the fact that they didn't is where my criticism/critique comes from.

      I also recognize that just because I would like more modern fiction to explore and critique places of social inequity and power imbalances doesn't mean that all authors/creators want to do that. After all, it is their work, not mine. So the choice they made to replicate the male domination that mirrors similar time periods in reality was just something I wanted to highlight in this piece because the whole show teetered between the edge of female empowerment and female subjugation in a sometimes awkward way. Again, doesn't make it right or wrong, just highlighting one set of feelings I had while watching it so that we'd have something to talk about (and we did!)- not that everyone watching it would experience it the way I did. Hearing how others experienced it differently is part of the fun of writing these, it connects me to people I wouldn't get to discuss with otherwise. In no way am I trying to prove myself right or anyone else wrong, just exploring my impression and glad to hear about others' differing impressions.

      It sounds like you liked the show, and overall, I actually did too. Thanks for your comment and willingness to talk through it. Please keep reading and commenting and providing alternate perspectives. It makes this all richer for everyone! >_<

    2. I really appreciate the reply. I can totally see your point of view and I agree. I like having these conversations as we kinda get to know each other more in our society.

      I can only wish you the best of luck, and have a good rest of your year :D
      Thank you

    3. Thank you and to you as well! I love having dialogue as it does expand all our views, mine included. I'm a very different person now in life because of all the people I've met and all the ways they've challenged what I think. Being able to keep growing is awesome and I love hearing from other people because it helps me grow and reconsider my own ideas. Best of wishes to you!

  2. I'm not sure about the show's creators, but the writer of the Violet Evergarden books is a woman: Kana Akatsuki

    1. Hmmm, that's really interesting. There are certainly parts of the show I liked, but others that I found problematic. Do you know how close the show hews to the books? Also, I couldn't find much online about Kana Akatsuki, is it her real name?


Remember: please talk about the work, and offer counter points to others' analyses but DO NOT ATTACK THE PERSON whose analysis you are countering. (no ad hominem comments) Thanks! <3