Unless you’ve been taking a break from anime for the past three years or so, you’ve probably heard that it’s now cool to like Kyoto Animation again.
Yes, the studio’s output from their very formation to 2014 may have either been lackluster or former classics that have not aged well over time to the point that I was going to toss them into the same “overhyped studio” trash pile that I have long since thrown Production I.G. into, but they changed my mind – as well as the minds of many of their old fans and former haters – in a big way within the last three years. Three new intellectual properties that became big hits, all of which I liked despite not enjoying the predecessors they tend to be compared to. Sure I don’t worship them like their large fanbases do, but I don’t exactly worship a lot in anime.
And while there are a lot of people heralding this resurgence as the new era of KyoAni, let’s be honest: a lot of anime production studios that have long records of underperforming have gotten better in recent times. Bones has been doing a lot better ever since they switched from making mecha series to superhero shows. Kinema Citrus and Deen are slowly getting a more positive reception after producing some of the biggest critical darlings in recent times. PA Works…ironically did not get better after Shirobako despite still holding onto the goodwill they earned from that for as long as they can. Even Feel has been getting better lately. Studio Feel. The company that made god knows how many Da Capo iterations and many other anime that weren’t much better for seventeen years is now making critically acclaimed romance series, and their latest comedy has gotten some decent attention as well.
Of course, one important thing to remember is that all of these improved production companies have had their whiffs within this time period as well. In-between the second season of SNAFU and Tsuki ga Kirei, Feel produced around seven series that nobody even remembers much less enjoyed, Deen made that godawful adaptation of Junji Ito’s works, and Bones couldn’t help trying to do one of their high-minded mecha series again for their Netflix debut, which worked about as well as you’d expect. KyoAni themselves produced Phantom World in-between their big hits and somehow brought a backlash bigger than Beyond the Boundary’s even though I honestly thought it was just a forgettable comedy that didn’t deserve it.
But the thing that stands out the most about Kyoto Animation compared to their studios is that even when their anime are bad, it’s always really well-produced…
…well okay, almost always really well-produced, which is a reputation only Bones can lay claim to these days, but their miss ratio compared to KyoAni’s on the visual department is noticeably higher. And given how they haven’t relied on moe to carry their series in years despite still obviously having it combined with how much of today’s fanbase enjoy sakuga, I guess I can understand why they tend to get more recognition than other studios when it comes to hitting high or failing hard. As such, whenever they release an anime, you will hear about it in some form, whether positive or negative.
And I’m really against the attention KyoAni’s fanbase gives to their works because to this day, I’m still not comfortable when people pay attention to big names unless you’re a scholar who’s researching said big name or something to that effect. Most fans are reasonable enough to be aware that they’re not guarantees, but I don’t think they’re self-aware enough to realize that obsessing over that sort of information can really warp your opinions. It’s really unreasonable for even the most talented of artists to make something good all the time considering how most people in life are lucky to just make one good thing. Also, there’s tunnel vision that can get involved with big names. You know there are people who really trust David Production as a studio solely based on Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, conveniently forgetting that Sagrada Reset exists or that the Jojo adaptations themselves have never really been the pinnacle of animation to begin with?
That’s why even to this day, I get hesitant whenever a new KyoAni project gets announced, because I’m always wary it’s going to suck and cause a stupid backdraft akin to what happened with Darling in the Franxx after its fourteenth episode aired. Yes, I heard about the Chinese death threats aimed at the writers, voice actors, and even fan artists. Hell, if you google “Darling in the Franxx Ichigo” as of this time of writing, the very top result is an article on Gobiano called “Fans Really Want Ichigo to Die After the Latest Darling in the Franxx Episode”. And people wonder why I don’t watch most anime weekly anymore (granted I’m also watching Franxx weekly because I make bad life decisions). Violet Evergarden in particular was really scaring me with its presence because the hype behind it was so huge that most of my own favorites would not be able to live up to it.
Most of this hype is due to the huge amount of attention Kyoto Animation was pumping into the series in terms of animation and marketing. The early trailers for the series have been recognized for having production values on par with a big-budget movie, and while we didn’t know for sure at the time, that’s actually the animation quality of the entire series with nary a misstep in sight. And while we later learn that the main protagonist is actually younger than the K-On girls despite looking ten years older, Violet Evergarden is one of the few series by the company to not take place in high school and feature mostly adult character designs, so that got fans excited even more regarding whether the company can do something different.
There were some issues regarding how it was an in-house light novel adaptation combined with the director of Beyond the Boundary being attached to it, but these days most people acknowledge that he only shared a small fraction of the blame for that, especially since the sequel film was a lot better received. Also, the fact that the source novel won some grand awards (most of the previous in-house adaptations were based on runner-ups) combined with the anime’s stellar premiere at Anime Expo to the point that the MAL score went in the 9s for a time combined with Netflix taking the series hostage drowned those concerns under a sea of “we want it now!” comments.
Ironically, Netflix acquiring Violet Evergarden rose the show’s reputation even more, especially when it was announced to be simulcast in a lot of non-US countries with an English dub, a German dub, a Polish dub, and of course the original language. This is mostly due to Kyoto Animation finishing the whole series well before the broadcast date and thus making it available to the other countries earlier than usual, which I assume is part of the reason why the entire series became available worldwide on the day the final episode aired rather than the usual 3-6 month wait that tends to happen with Netflix shows. And it’s also the reason why Kyoto Animation gets to keep its reputation as an animation company, because literally only Bones and their early Funimation dubs of My Hero Academia can compete with that sort of timeliness whilst still maintaining consistently good production. I notice their new anime by the Kiznaiver team is not getting a similar treatment as of right now.
And while it was obviously not going to obtain Hunter x Hunter levels of acclaim, Violet Evergarden became the second huge hit of the year after Devilman Crybaby, Netflix or otherwise, proving to the fanbase that yes, Kyoto Animation can still do it right. It’s probably the most critically acclaimed anime of the year as of this time of writing. It’s become a big enough hit to get a new upcoming project that’s so obviously a sequel movie. My friends who watch the show illegally and think Crybaby is gross kept telling me how great it was. And that’s nice to see because the only upcoming projects KyoAni have in the near future are fujoshi-bait and sequel films I won’t be able to see for months, so I’m most likely going to have to take a break from the studio from here on out until next year. That and deal with my female friends squealing about the new season of Free this summer.
So with all of the positive word directed at the series, did I personally like it? I mean I have a very bad history with light novel adaptations, in-house or not. The first Kino’s Journey is okay, but otherwise I find stuff like Baccano and all the Monogatari adaptations to be incredibly lackluster. Does Violet Evergarden break the trend?
…yeah, I guess I did like it. It’s definitely my favorite anime of Winter 2018 and probably my favorite “original anime” on Netflix, let alone dethroning the 2003 Kino adaptation as my favorite light novel anime. Having said all of that, why do I feel a strange sort of emptiness when I think back on this anime, not too dissimilar to how I felt when I watched The Dark Knight Rises in theaters?
Well let’s look at what Violet Evergarden is when you remove its history and recognize it purely as entertainment: an episodic drama series about a former soldier learning how to write letters. Yep, Violet Evergarden is one of those anime in the same vein as Natsume Yuujinchou or Kino’s Journey in that most of the episodes are self-contained stories with the only real connection being the main character and how she grows over the course of her experiences. As such, you have to judge the anime based on the quality of the individual episode’s self-contained story and how it ties into the overarching plot or theme. Our protagonist is, of course, Violet Evergarden, a young teenage soldier who lost her arms and favorite superior officer in a brutal war. After receiving metallic prosthetics and earning the fan nickname “Fullmetal Saber”, Violet is eager to see the Major again in order to continue her duties with him, but no one wants to tell her that he’s most likely dead for fear of triggering an extreme emotional reaction.
Instead they send her to live with some old people who we only see twice in the entire series, and she ends up taking a job at the letter company of the Major’s soldier companion in order to understand what the Major meant when he told her “I love you” – which sounds cheesy in abstract, but given Violet’s history and how one of the major themes of the show is communicating a person’s feelings into something other people can understand, it’s actually pretty tragic.
The particular job that Violet ends up taking is called a Doll, which is a strictly female-only position that ghost writes a person’s feelings into a letter. And because Violet Evergarden takes place in some kind of European setting where face-to-face communication is not easy to do and thus letters are as important as cell phones, I’d advise you not to ask questions like “why can’t they just talk?” like I know some people have done when the series started. You’d better not put down letter writing either. The very reason this post came out so late after the Pop Team Epic one is because I wanted to make sure it was at a satisfactory quality for you guys combined with time issues, so I can only imagine how rough getting across someone else’s feelings can be. And I’m not joking on the amount of time I spent on this. Including editing, finishing this review took me around eight hours that I could have spent rewatching the first season of True Detective.
While the series departs from all of the slice-of-life stuff that KyoAni is usually famous for, let’s not forget that the studio also has a reputation for creating tearjerkers dating way back to when they made their adaptation of Air and still going strong with their adaptation of A Silent Voice. And it just so happens that the people interacting with Violet for her Doll-writing services all happen to be grief-stricken individuals who have a hard time translating their problems into anything but tears.
Since this is an episodic series, that means you’re guaranteed that someone is going to be crying every single episode while Violet stares at them with a stoic face, unable to cry herself because her past has made her emotionally stunted. If you’re thinking that sounds like a floodgate for cry porn, that’s because it is, but it’s honestly not that forced. The crying scenes only last a few seconds for the most part, the justification for each one is decent with one or two exceptions, there are never any ill-timed coincidences, and the series never kills the mood with any ill-timed jokes. We’re not getting anything like Plastic Memories where the only reason the drama exists is because someone conceived the worst robot design in the history of mankind.
Let me just state up front that the show has the nickname Violet Everfeels for a reason. There is some pretty decent humor thrown in to ease things up at times, but for the most part, the drama has to move you if you want to like the show. The main narrative is basically about Violet’s transformation from an emotionally stunted former soldier to a more emotional working citizen as she grows in her abilities as a Doll through the sob stories of her clients that eventually build up to her own sob story. And despite KyoAni giving it their all in terms of the visual execution, I found the majority of said sob stories to be only mildly interesting. Wasn’t exactly sure why at first apart from how the need for one character to pour their eyes out every episode came off as a bit silly, but then I started catching up on The Ancient Magus’ Bride after watching this and despite its limited animation and terrible sense of humor, I found it much easier to invest into the woes of the various creatures that Chise interacted with in addition to her own drama.
I find that I’ve been valuing the importance of setting in anime more than ever these days given how a lot of the big anime from last year have had it as a major focus in order to bolster their storytelling. And there’s no denying that The Ancient Magus’ Bride’s drama wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if the fantasy setting hadn’t been as well-established as it was regarding how magic actually works in that world to why sob stories can happen there and how the inhabitants deal with them. While Violet Evergarden’s setting is definitely not a soulless design-by-committee amalgamation of cliches, ask yourself this: how much does this fictional European-ish setting add to the actual story? Sure this sort of letter-focused storytelling can only work in the series because it’s laid out very early on that social media doesn’t exist and it’s hard for people in this world to spout out their feelings in person, hence why the Auto Memories company exists in the first place. As such I can believe the drama. But there’s a difference between being realistic and being of high-quality.
And the main problem I have with Violet Evergarden is that as relatable as the drama can be, aside from the letter aspects (which is mainly used as a solution more than anything), this is drama that could happen in any fictional war-torn medieval setting, let alone other settings. The story regarding the brother suffering from his failure to protect his family from war and his sister’s attempts to cheer him up could easily take place in any of the Gundam series. The story regarding the princess and her insecurities could take place in any visual novel melodrama ever. Even Violet’s backstory follows all of the usual emotionless killing machine story beats you’d expect with very few surprises in store. And her reaction when she discovers the Major is most likely dead is predictable as well, although there are a few story beats added to it that elevate the material enough.
But I honestly can’t say the lack of setting in the story is the only thing holding Violet Evergarden back. Not when we live in a world where the opening to Up exists. I mean that’s a story that can happen to anybody, and yet it packed so much emotional punch in just a few minutes. Then it made the mistake of continuing from there with a more traditional narrative, and I’m bringing this up because it highlights another way Violet Evergarden could have overcome the issue I just outlined, but didn’t: namely how it doesn’t devote the right amount of time to the important parts.
See Violet Evergarden’s individual episodes have that Kino’s Journey/Death Parade issue of relying too much on the ending to get the point across. Rather than give us the breaking point grief from the very start and building up from there, the majority of the individual runtime is spent on building up to or the characters trying to fight the grief before finally breaking down, at which point Violet solves the issue in two minutes. This is the formula that’s repeated for the majority of the middle section of the series, and the buildup is not always equal either. There is a big difference in dramatic quality between a princess who’s crying because she thinks her fiancee won’t like her due to barely knowing her and an author who’s struggling to write because he’s haunted by his daughter’s death to illness. And just in case it wasn’t clear, the latter is obviously the better story in that situation.
Personally, I found the first two episodes and the last two episodes to be the strongest in the series because they leaned more on Violet trying to adjust to a world that no longer needed her physical capabilities for the drama rather than just using it so that the story could function a certain way. They also had a lot less buildup and a lot more confrontation throughout their runtime. Violet couldn’t simply solve things with a letter or a certain water-jumping scene that I really loved on a technical and emotional aspect, but it doesn’t change the fact that it was a pretty quick solution to an issue that most medical professionals would have trouble diagnosing. Granted none of what Violet does is a solution so much as a catalyst that the victims themselves use in order to gain the motivation to handle their own shit, but there really should have been more screentime dedicated to those parts of the story.
And it’s a shame that these two issues hold the show back so much, because everything else about this anime is drop-dead spectacular from the visuals to the music. I never skip the opening and ending songs for this series, and the visuals for them aren’t even as creative as KyoAni’s themes usually are. You can’t even really declare this show a waste of effort because Violet’s character arc throughout the entire series is told very well. The writing really does a good job at justifying everything, the way all of the individual episodes tie into Violet’s growth is done really naturally, there’s no point in the show where I thought it was lacking in imagination or momentum (although you could have probably cut out one or two episodes without affecting anything), and it rarely takes the storytelling away from the actual animation.
I really liked a certain scene where Violet ended up trying to take on a group of soldiers without killing them, only to get the shit kicked out of her and having to be saved by her former superior, who ended up killing the soldiers anyways. You’ll never see Vash from Trigun suffer through shit like that because he’s so powerful that to his enemies, he might as well be Superman. There’s a lot of things done in the series that could have let it transcend the boundary from good to great, but they’re outnumbered by the elements dedicated to a storytelling approach that only mildly succeeds because it’s more worried about making the artistic cry scenes feel right rather than making them feel like they’re an important piece of the narrative.
But, y’know, a lot of people think that’s enough, and that’s still more than what most anime do. I mean at least Violet Evergarden starts with a hook. At least it has energy. At least it makes it clear what the story is going to be within the opening episodes and sticks to that story for the entire runtime without ever getting stupid about it. At least the jokes are actually funny and appropriately timed, particularly that part in the second episode where Violet’s first client ended up getting a letter so horribly robotic that I almost laughed away that she literally ruined a woman’s personal love life. It takes a little while to understand the series’ episodic nature, but I think that’s more on the viewer than the creators. You know how many other big anime projects I watched recently that ended up failing because they fell into all of those pitfalls? Hell I just watched Big Fish and Begonia last week. Compared to that major disappointment, Violet Evergarden might as well be the Holy Grail.
I just wish said Grail was actually made of gold rather than rusted silver. The characters were fine for the most part, but I wish they had been amazing. The stories were fine for what they were, but I wish they had been timeless. There’s an episode late in the show’s run where I felt for a soldier who slowly died by Violet’s side without ever seeing his family and girlfriend again, but he could have been replaced by one of his other dead friends and they’d probably have a sob story on the same level as his. Violet’s development is well-done with a few twists thrown in to not make it so straight-forward, but I wish she had either played a more consistently active part in it or the people she helped were more active themselves. Yeah, I don’t think I’m ever going to respect light novel adaptations as an entertaining niche within the anime market. If this and the first Kino’s Journey is the best that light novel writing has to offer, then that market might as well be dead to me.
However, I know I’m probably in the minority on this. Like I said, a lot of people don’t have the Kaiba-ish standards for tearjerkers like I do and the show is a big hit everywhere you look. Lots of people still love the original Kino’s Journey to this very day. I know Darling in the Franxx’s thirteenth episode got a large amount of acclaim despite it being a very unoriginal origin story that only teased the overarching plot finally showing up soon (which it obviously didn’t) primarily for the well-animated feels, and quite frankly most of the episodics in Violet Evergarden are better than that waste of animation with the ones that are worse at least beating it out in terms of inspiration. The series definitely ends well, which I know is something that anime fans put a lot of stock in, particularly when it comes to emotional dramas. Basically, if you don’t mind that the story’s aspirations could have been better, you’ll definitely love this show. And it’s hard to really criticize that because that’d be like me criticizing Breaking Bad for not making Walter White less of a piece of shit when it’s because he’s a giant misguided piece of shit that lends so much weight to the show’s writing.
On the whole, I’d say Violet Evergarden is worth a recommendation, but I’d recommend some of the other recent dramatic big anime hits or recent KyoAni hits over it. The consistent movie-like production values alone are worth watching at least once, and it does have nice things to say about grief and communication all throughout its runtime without ever succumbing to mass-marketed cliches, so even at its weakest it’s never that boring. However, it doesn’t go far enough with me to get on the level of a true classic, and while I’ve seen some people who pirated this show state that they were going to rewatch it once the Netflix release hit because it was just that good and they wanted to support the series legally, I can’t say I’m eager to give more support than I’m already doing by writing so many words on it.
I actually did watch this show twice in both English and Japanese just to make sure that I wasn’t missing anything for this review, and I don’t exactly feel motivated to initiate another rewatch on my own time. Not sure if I’ll buy the blu-rays either, although I guess time will tell. I will watch the upcoming movie, although I can’t say I have the highest aspirations for it because by the time the series ended, I thought Violet had gone through all the character development she could get. And nothing that’s continued from after a lead’s personal growth and story has finished has ever been good from the incredibly dull Steins;Gate: Loading Area of Deja Vu to the already forgotten Garo: Divine Flame. At least one of the new Sound Euphonium movies is centered on two characters who have not had much development in the series that spotlighted them.
For what it’s worth, I’m just glad Kyoto Animation avoided getting set on fire again because right now, their are too many explosions occurring in the geek world to keep track of at the moment. Channel Awesome is going through some rough times thanks to the incompetence of its management (although the Channel Larry memes coming from it been fucking hilarious and if you disagree, you are wrong). Star Wars: The Last Jedi controversy just won’t die. Hawkeye continuing to get screwed in those Avengers movies has stopped being funny. Netflix is still fucking a bunch of non-Japanese anime fans over since most studios can’t produce shows in advance the way KyoAni can. There’s probably a thousand more issues going on in the anime community at the moment that I’m not aware of because I’m a bit too busy to interact with them right now. Really don’t need to listen to another Bay-like explosion over another goddamn studio betrayal at the moment.
Yeah, exactly. The backlash against Studio Trigger, let alone Bitchigo, as of right now is one anime studio controversy too many. Although it would be nice if they actually made good shows again. And PA Works too while we’re at it. Hey, have I mentioned that at this moment, Studio Feel is making better anime?
- Violet Evergarden can be streamed on Netflix at this link.
- Did the KyoAni haters really accuse the premiere of being too slow for them? Are these the same people who like Darling in the Franxx? Because that would be hilarious.
- Incidentally, I can’t really recommend the English dub for this show. Despite the talented cast, the voice direction they were given was very average and kept underselling the dramatic speeches.
- For the record, yes I’m fully aware that Feel have still not given up on producing cheap visual novel adaptations.