“Loved ones will always watch over you” — letters in Violet Evergarden and A Place Further than the Universe

“Is this emotionally manipulative?” is a question frequently asked regarding Japanese animation. I first heard it regarding Clannad — particularly in relation to Kotomi Ichinose’s narrative arc, but also about the series as a whole — but this query dogs certain anime, even if the series in question is completely upfront about these goals, like Clannad. The floating teddy bear in the ocean, the empty, overgrown garden, the musical cues, they’re all in service of eliciting tears from the audience. It’s the equivalent of Russell Crowe’s Maximus screaming, “Are you not entertained?” only the unspoken scream is “Cry, damn you!” to the affected viewer.

In the current anime season, two series have fallen into this category according to the community: Violet Evergarden and A Place Further than the Universe. Within the past week, both shows told similar but diverging stories regarding mothers, daughters, and letters that play with ideas of time and transience. These stories offer an easy point of comparison between each other while also pushing carefully constructed emotional buttons.

However, the question shouldn’t be whether something is emotionally manipulative, but whether it works, strings and all. Do these feelings still feel genuine despite obvious cues and pre-existing narrative structures? My definitely-not-dry eyes say yes, but whatever personal conclusion you come to, Violet Evergarden and A Place Further than the Universe offer parallel case studies — nearly a week apart in airtime — in what make letters and messages such emotional sucker-punches.

Violet Evergarden is a series about the written word and the value of letters. It uses anachronistic Victorian-era settings as a purposeful backdrop to Violet’s new job transcribing letters and documents as an auto memoir doll, and goes one step further in showcasing other ways that messages could more slyly be sent through gifts like flowers. In the opening sequence of the first episode, the first thing Violet does after waking up in a hospital is write a “report” to her former commanding officer, Major Gilbert Bougainvillea. The more we learn about Violet, the more we realize that the first act during her recovery is an emotional response, riddled with feelings that she doesn’t yet recognize or understand.

“No letter that could be sent deserves to go undelivered.”

-Violet Evergarden to Anne Magnolia, Violet Evergarden, Episode 10

By the series’ tenth episode, Violet has just overcome the first large hurdle in her emotional maturation: accepting loss. This occurs just in time for her to visit the mother of Anne Magnolia, who commissions Violet in writing fifty letters to be sent to Anne for every birthday following her mother’s death. Even in death, Anne’s mother will always be watching over her. Being seven years-old when Violet arrives, Anne understands only one thing: her mother is dying and spending a significant amount of time on these letters when she could be spending time with Anne instead.

At one point, Anne’s frustrations and despair boil over and she rails out at her mother and the people who will presumably be receiving these letters. People who didn’t have the decency to even be with her mother when she was sick, like Anne was. Imagining the older Anne’s realization that she, the person who was there for her mother the entire time, was the recipient all along is heartbreaking. Because we see Anne’s frustration at her powerlessness and her guilt that grabs hold when Anne tries to wrest some semblance of control of the situation back — “Mom fell sick because I’m a bad girl!” — her mother’s diligence and love is all the more poignant with each passing letter. It also acts not only as a reflection of how much Violet has matured emotionally, but also a parallel story of to Violet’s own post-traumatic-stress.

A Place Further than the Universe does this in reverse.

Like Violet Evergarden, A Place Further than the Universe is concerned with communication. E-mails and social media are constant visual trappings that frame the series as a whole, immortalizing specific moments in time for Mari Tamaki and company to look back upon once the journey is done.

Throughout the series, we’ve watched as Shirase Kobuchizawa has stubbornly badgered her way to Antarctica to seek out her mother, Takako, who passed away there when Shirase was young. Shirase has made friends — each with their own foibles, hangups, and problems — along the way, but for her, this trip was a chance to finally say goodbye to her mother and accept loss. With Antarctica as a stand-in location, the place actually further than the universe is death itself.

Since learning of Takako’s death, Shirase (much like Violet and her reaction to the major’s disappearance) has been in limbo. She periodically is shown with her phone in hand, an email to her mother queued up. We discover in Episode 12 that all of these emails were sent and never read by Takako. Instead, they pop up in a never-ended torrent when Shirase reboots her mother’s laptop, a confirmation that Takako is truly dead.

Every letter to Anne read in her mother’s voice, every unread e-mail notification that pops up in front of Shirase as she hunches over her mom’s laptop screen in the dark is an emotional gut punch. In both cases, what makes these stories rise above accusations of emotional manipulation is the character development that frames Shirase and Anne’s narratives.

Violet’s maturation and struggles with survivor’s guilt, among other things, provide a backdrop for Anne’s raw outburst and later, her healing and moving forward as an adult, guided by her mother’s letters. For Shirase, the e-mails acted as a way for her to connect to her mother and, to some extent, deal with her disappearance at a young age. In both cases, there is added proof that the mothers were always thinking about their daughters at any given moment. Anne’s mother took the time to write her fifty letters, in order to watch over her growth and continue to be a guiding presence in Anne’s life. When booted up for the first time in years, Takako’s laptop is already open to her e-mail account, where she communicated with her daughter Shirase as much as possible. In Takako’s case, there’s also a hint that what she may have gone back for was the laptop itself, unintentionally leading to her death.

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4 comments

  1. Letters, no matter in what form, are written with emotions attatched to them.

    It really, really hurts to acknowledge that our feelings never reached the ones we hold dear and I think that’s the magic which worked me into bawling my eyes out, especially to Shirase reacting to a stack of unanswered emotions.

  2. I still haven’t caught up to sorayori yet, so I can’t particularly comment about the meaning and emotional weight behind the use of communications here, but it’s fair to say that the subject matter dictates the differences in context between both payouts. For me, what drives both series in their emotional complexity and ultimately their authentic payoff, is their episodic structure.

    Violet is shown in episodic adventures that are incidentally disjointed from each other, but nonetheless individually contributing to her gradual discovery of her own emotions. These tableaus add up over time and the show does a phenomenal job at being able to visually show how violet slowly changes in how she interacts with people over the course of the entire show, eventually leading to her breaking down at the end of Anne’s episode.

    There’s a better sense of chronological order with Sora Yori in how the episodes follow the cast’s journey to Antarctica, and how each step is its own incident and experience, which ultimately contributes to the emotional payoff at the end where the characters reflect on the role that they have played in each others’ lives when they face their innermost demons (with Antarctica serving as an exceptional pathetic fallacy to conveying this).

    Both shows, by nature of the episodic medium, build up its emotional weight in bits and pieces, training the viewer to accept situations that, from a superficial viewpoint, can be seen as rather stale or even trite. The idea of a post-war soldier learning to feel emotions and get over the death of her previous commander, as well as that of a high school girl who goes to Antarctica to find her dead mother, is a lot to take in at once. If not handled appropriately, the payoff will either be spot-on or way off the mark, with very little space in between. By nurturing the emotional weight of every moment spent, both shows are set up at this point to pull it off extremely well.

  3. I vividly remember watching these two episodes back to back, entirely coincidentally and not yet aware of their striking similarities. Needless to say, I had a wet face that afternoon. In hindsight, I realized the two shows reduced me to a sniffling mess through eerily similar yet completely opposite uses of a late mother and dozens of temporally disjointed letters. Crying over anime isn’t something I do very frequently, so it got me really thinking about exactly what is effective at tugging at my heart strings and why.

    8 months later, I’m delighted to have read this wonderful essay. I especially appreciate your insight on the effectiveness of media mattering more than its “manipulative” nature. I’d argue all entertainment is manipulative in a sense, and we are complicit in being manipulated as an audience.

    Sorry to bother you by commenting on a rather old entry, but I really enjoyed your analysis on some of my favorite works. I discovered you through your writings on Revue Starlight, my favorite anime of this year, and I’m glad to see you have also covered my two runner-ups in tandem. Stuff like this inspires me to write and flex my creative muscles myself.

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