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“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.

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The White Camellia Princess and the Red Rose Prince (and Violet Evergarden)

From Episode 1, Violet Evergarden has relished in Victorian-era trappings. Its concern with flower language, and Victorian floriography began in earnest during Episode 2 thanks to Haruka Fujita’s careful direction and continued through Episode 4 with Iris Cannary talking about the iris fields near her childhood home that became her namesake.

In the series’ fifth episode, we see floral messages put into literal action through Naoko Yamada’s storyboards. Yamada previously employed floriography as another, unspoken form of communication throughout the film A Silent Voice. In her episode of Violet Evergarden, flowers are exchanged along with love letters between the heads of two kingdoms. Each kingdom is also represented by a specific flower.

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A person worthy of that name: Violet Evergarden (and more Victorian flower language)

From the Roman name, Aemilia, latin word aemulus meaning rival. Industrious, hard-working, stubborn, obstinate.

When I first looked up my given name, I found something similar to the etymology and list of adjectives above. Yet, none of these explained why my parents decided to name me Emily. After all, they had no way of knowing that this ugly, squalling baby would be a diligent worker, at all stubborn, or competitive in any way. (I assert that I am some, if not all of these things at times.) So, I was named after my great-grandmother whom I never knew. My mother was close with her despite speaking no Italian — my great-grandmother was from Sicily — and my great-grandmother speaking little to no English.

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