It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the work of Naoko Yamada that flowers and flower language have their place in her latest film: Liz and the Blue Bird. For Yamada, flowers take the place of things left unsaid when people are unable to express their feelings for each other due to a physical disability (A Silent Voice), mental illnesses or internal fear (also A Silent Voice), societal expectations (her episode of Violet Evergarden), or myriad other reasons. When important context goes unsaid, Yamada frequently turns to flower language to do the emotional heavy lifting.
Her usage of flowers in Liz and the Blue Bird has a defter touch than A Silent Voice and Violet Evergarden‘s camellia princess. Many things go unsaid or unspoken between leads Mizore Yoroizuka and Nozomi Kasaki and Yamada wisely uses what unites them — music — to express most of them. Flowers create a secondary, background context, featured more prominently in the Liz and the Blue Bird storybook — used as another framing device for Mizore and Nozomi’s relationship — with a few flashes to real-life flowers at key moments between the two.
This isn’t a confession or revelation or even a caveat to couch my words. It’s just a statement to preface talking about Violet Evergarden, since I’m still unsure as to how much I actually enjoyed the series. In some moments, I think back on how pretty it was. In other moments I think of narrative gaps and melodrama. If I’m comparing Kyoto Animation series of 2018, Tsurune has already been more emotionally resonant than Violet Evergarden ever was, and it’s not even finished yet with a few production issues.
I was never invested in Violet herself — which is probably why the episodes dedicated to her backstory seemed so sluggish and boring — but I loved the stories of the people she helped, either directly or indirectly, through letter-writing. This series was a test of how much I value aesthetics and animation even when the central storyline doesn’t interest me personally.
Minato Narumiya’s initial introduction is as a wide-eyed child at a kyuudou (the Japanese martial art of archery) event. He asks his mother about the sound that a bowstring makes when an arrow is released. After she answers, the series focuses on his back, turned towards the kyuudou tournament. It then cuts immediately to the broader back of an older Narumiya, rising to take his position in a kyuudou event. He solemnly goes through a series of motions before drawing his bow. Cut to the title screen. The visual transition seems clear. Narumiya, inspired by watching kyuudou with his mother when he was much younger, grew up to become a formidable archer himself.
Yet it was at this very event where Narumiya first failed. After he draws back that bowstring, he misses the target. Since that day, he has continued to suffer from target panic. When we meet him at the start of Tsurune: Kazemai Koukou Kyuudoubu he hasn’t left kyuudou entirely, but is instead torn between leaving entirely due to his target anxiety, and inevitably being drawn back to the art of kyuudou. This opening visual sequence sets up Narumiya’s plight perfectly, slightly subverting expectations while also making his emotional connection clear and strong.
Outside of the gift of a red rose — which has been commercialized and commodified extensively — there are few flowers today whose meanings are widely recognized outside of hobbyist circles or florists. Now, the language of flowers, or floriography, has primarily been relegated to a secondary visual language used (both deftly and clumsily) in art.
In Victorian England, myriad factors led to the development of flowers as a way to send emotionally-charged messages meaning everything from love to sexual desire to hatred. The Victorian Era was one of industrial progress, leading to a rising middle class and more widely-available leisure activities. Victorian morality is commonly described as draconian or puritanical. The reality is a bit more complex. For example, alongside the rise of the novel came the rise of erotica and the expression of sexual desire in written letters. Floriography accompanied this. Through flowers, people could send coded messages to each other — some that they could even wear as fashion accessories — that said what they could not speak aloud due to the morality of the time. As western floriography developed through the Victorian era, so did the varied meanings that could be expressed. One flower could mean something when paired with another flower, and carry an opposing meaning when paired with a different flower. Floriography and the written word also merged together well, with novels of the time period referencing flower language with the expectation that readers would parse their meanings.
Violet Evergarden plays with a Victorian aesthetic and steampunk-like anachronism (which is why discussing Victorian floriography is more appropriate in this case than the iconography or different meanings of Japanese hanakotoba, prevalent in other anime).
“While I was location-hunting in Gifu I started wondering what Shoya was like at that point: a kid who feels invincible but also deals with perhaps unfounded frustration. This song appeared in my mind with a bang.”
Naoko Yamada makes many precise directorial choices in her film adaptation of A Silent Voice, including but not limited to the use of flower language and other non-verbal forms of communication to form emotional snapshots of the lead characters.
The most polarizing choice was her insistence that the film lead off with The Who’s “My Generation.” This naturally created a licensing nightmare, for which Yamada took full responsibility according to multiple interviews prior to the film’s release. “My Generation” also became the primary citation of the movie’s detractors, who said that the use of the song indicated a misunderstanding of the original manga’s meaning.