I have no idea if I’ll do Kyoto Animation justice after all that happened this year, so here goes nothing.
I like pretty things.
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.
The visual opulence and melodramatic vignettes of Violet Evergarden — the meta of the production itself — are resonant with the Victorian-era trappings in which the series revels. This, above all else, is what kept me watching week after week.
The finale of Violet Evergarden is superfluous to the emotional narrative of the series. Violet’s personal journey towards understanding what love means — and learning empathy in the process — ends in the tenth episode, “A Loved One Will Always Watch Over You.” The moment Violet bursts into tears and admits to fellow auto memoir doll Cattleya Baudelaire the difficulty of remaining emotionally detached from Anne Magnolia is the perfect bookend to her first disastrous letter attempt. Not only is she then one of the best in her field at CH Postal Company, but she is a more introspective, aware person — a person who not only recognizes her own emotions, but wields them to help others overcome their own personal problems.
Yet, the series doesn’t end with Episode 10, and continues for three more episodes that include extraneous action and fight sequences in addition to a somewhat hilarious festival that involves dropping letters from airplanes. Violet Evergarden wants to say something about the value of the written word and it’s rarely subtle in its emotional machinations, regardless of how affecting they are to a viewer (yes, I cried at various points throughout the series too) so perhaps the letter festival is, in its own way, a fitting end as well. The series doesn’t need to be subtle to tell its story, but some of Violet Evergarden‘s background subtleties and details tell their own story at the periphery of Violet’s.
“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.
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.