Violet Evergarden: The Movie
Japan (2020) Dir. Taichi Ishidate
One of the more interesting anime series of recent years comes to an end in this epic – by which I mean bum-numbing – film, in the first theatrical outing for Kyoto Animation following the tragic fire at their studios in 2019.
Unlike most linear franchise films Violet Evergarden: The Movie doesn’t carry on directly from its cinematic predecessor Eternity And The Auto Memory Doll but is connected to the central origins of our eponymous protagonist, the former child soldier turned Auto Memory Doll or proxy letter write for the less articulate. This puts new viewers at a disadvantage if they have not seen the TV series before whilst testing the memories of the returning faithful.
The film is bookended by vignettes set in the present day or thereabouts in the pseudo-European world inhabited by the cast, featuring a girl named Daisy, granddaughter of Anne Magnolia, the recipient of fifty years worth of letters written by Violet on behalf of Anne’s mother (this occurred in the TV series). With Anne having now passed on, Daisy becomes curious about the letters and Violet, and decides to research about her.
We are then taken, in what I assume is flashback form, back over fifty years to Violet in her timeline but sometime after the events of the Eternity film. Technology is changing and the invention of the telephone has made letter writing almost obsolete though some people still yearn for the services of the CH Postal Company. One person in particular is Yuris, a sickly young boy requesting Violet write letters for his family for when he passes away.
During these sessions, both Yuris and Violet come to personal realisations about their relationships and ideas of love and affection; for Yuris, it is the exclusion of his friend Lucas, who lives on another island, to spare him seeing Yuri so ill, whilst for Violet, it stirs up her unresolved feelings for the long thought dead Major Gilbert Bougainvillea, Violet’s senior officer during the war, whose declaration of love for her has become a personal mission for Violet to understand.
By a stroke of luck, a letter written by Gilbert sent from the remote island of Ekarte is found in the vague address vaults of the CH building by Claudia Hodgins (a man btw), giving Violet a shred of hope that Gilbert is still alive. Together, they head to Ekarte, an island as far removed from the bustling metropolis they know, to be reunited with Gilbert – except maybe he doesn’t want to be found given he has changed his name to escape his past.
Violet Evergarden has always been a deceptive product. It’s lush visuals, lilting musical score, and gentle slice of life pacing emanates an ideal of warmth, comfort, and serenity, yet the tragedy the lies behind the taciturn heroine’s servant hood is rooted in pain and darkness, stemming from the sole purpose of her creation as a weapon of war. Originally from the pen of Kana Akatsuki, the anime strikes a successful balance between these two extremes, yet this film is the first time it’s explored from both sides.
And by that I refer to the perspectives of Violet and Gilbert. The latter is still something of a closed book but we learn much more about him here than we ever have before, all en route to an ending that has to satisfy the characters, the integrity of the story, and the audience. Getting this right has never been anime’s strong point, either going for the big climax they think the audience wants, or being too oblique in trying to enigmatic with an open end.
Luckily, common sense has prevailed in this case although this isn’t a spoiler as it is not as straight forward as you might think. Indeed, not everybody feels the denouement is appropriate for Violet’s character and her extraordinary arc, and cheapens the enigma of Gilbert as the oasis in her desert of emotional closure. My take is that everybody has hope in their lives, and sometimes it is nice when it is realised for people who have lived a selfless life by way of a reward, rather than if the objective is a spurious one.
I doubt anybody really begrudges Violet a happy ending, and the story does a great job of teasing this possibility, leaving it in the lap of the heavily injured Gilbert, who has now established himself as a pillar of the island community, rather than having Violet struggle to change his mind. I may have said too much but not enough that you still won’t be able to watch this without sobbing into your hanky.
Emotions of a different kind are stirred via the nostalgia for a simpler past found in the subplot of the demise of letter writing. Clearly an allegory for the text message replacing most written communication in today’s world, this is neatly explored in the wake of the omnipotence of the new fangled telephone, and plays an important part in tying up the min-arc featuring Yuris. In both cases, the message appears to be that the past is the past and fighting it only means you’ll never move on.
Kyoto Animation has made a remarkable recovery from the aforementioned tragedy in this film, as if it was a statement of defiance against the idiot arsonist. If you though their work was lovely before, be prepared for a true visual feast that’ll have you feeling bloated long before the end credits roll. This is one of the richest looking anime films to be seen a long while, complimented by its evocative musical soundtrack and passionate voice acting from Yui Ishikawa and co.
My only real complaint against Violet Evergarden: The Movie is it didn’t need to be 140-minutes long, a run time the gentle, undulating pace is not particularly conducive to. A charming, heartbreaking, yet ultimately joyous way to say goodbye, this is how you bring a story to its end.