It’s been over a year since Kyoto Animation released its mind-blowingly beautiful preview of Violet Evergarden. Adding to the excitement was the news that it was an adaptation of the light novel series by Kana Akatsuki, published by Kyoto Animation after becoming the first and–to date–only Grand Prize Winner of the Kyoto Animation Awards in its five-year history.
Still half a year ahead of its 2018 broadcast date, Kyoto Animation headlined the world premiere of the first episode at Anime Expo with series director Taichi Ishidate, Violet’s voice actress Yui Ishikawa (2B, NeiR: Automata; Mikasa, Attack on Titan), and singer True who performed the opening theme, all present for the screening. It was a long wait, and KyoAni absolutely did not disappoint.
Violet is an Auto Memory Doll, a yet-to-be-defined term for what appear to be biologically human females created for a number of purposes. Although it’s implied they were originally created for dictation, Violet has been used as a weapon since childhood. She has only known life as a soldier, her whole world revolving around executing the orders of her commanding officer Major Gilbert. Although she’s treated as if she lacks the emotions that define humans, the opening scene hints that something rests beneath Violet’s mechanical exterior. An emerald brooch, the same color as Gilbert’s eyes, causes something to stir within her as she grips her chest.
The beginning of the story finds Violet in a medical ward far from the war front. During a battle she suffered a horrific injury resulting in the loss of both of her arms, which have been replaced with clockwork prosthetics. As part of her rehabilitation, she practices using her new hands to write letters to Major Gilbert reporting on her improving condition and her desire to rejoin him in battle. A Lieutenant Hodgins visits Violet at the hospital, delivering news that she has been discharged, and that he has been trusted by Gilbert with her care. Rather than returning to the front lines, he takes Violet to the Evergarden estate, Gilbert’s childhood home, to live with his family.
Violet soon learns that the war ended during her convalescence, and receives only vague responses when she inquires after Gilbert’s well-being. Hodgins reveals that having seen the life Violet was subjected to as a weapon, he desires to allow her to live the peaceful life she was denied in wartime. Violet is devastated to no longer have a purpose, so he puts her to work at his post office as a sorter and delivery woman. Over the course of her duties, Violet overhears an Auto Memory Doll composing a letter for a customer ending in “I love you.” Reminded of Gilbert’s final words to her before they were separated, Violet requests to be allowed to transcribe letters so that she can discover the meaning of this phrase.
The first episode sets up the narrative for the anime going forward. Emotionally stunted by her upbringing as a dispensable tool, Violet can understand the meaning of the words others use, but not the feelings beneath them. Ishidate described Violet as an emotional infant who will grow up to be an adult over the course of the anime. Through her work transcribing the heartfelt messages of others, as well as her connections to those around her, she will come to understand not only the feelings of others, but the unrecognized emotions within herself.
The animation can only be described as movie quality, every bit as impressive as the preview so tantalizingly promised last year. Not only was the consistency of the quality amazing for what is slated to be a one cour series, but Kyoto Animation seemed to go out of their way to show off. A wide shot of the gorgeously hand-painted city by the bay is set to a time lapse so the audience can watch the palette shift from daylight greens and blues to the deep reds of sunset.
All the hallmarks of Kyoto Animation’s sterling style are present. Subtle character animation speaks volumes: Hodgins’ claim about the fate of Major Gilbert is brought into question as we see his hands tightening in his pockets and Violet’s typically stiff posture breaks as she later pleads with him, her instinct to follow orders at war with her desire to return to Gilbert’s side. While their creative framing shows up a number of times, once driving home an in-dialogue metaphor about Violet burning from within by switching perspective of her through a kerosene street lamp.
As with everything else in the production, the 3D integration is a sight to behold. Violet’s complex mechanical hands feel perfectly at home against their illustrated surroundings. Early in the episode, we’re also treated to a panning landscape shot to show off the gorgeous setting KyoAni has constructed for the series. The sequence begins following the flight of a sheet of paper caught in the wind, which blows down an alleyway featuring an illustrated crowd walking between CG buildings before transitioning to a panning shot over a hand-painted landscape.
With the fantastical setting and bubbling interest regarding the content of the light novel which had managed to win Kyoto Animation’s Grand Prize, Violet Evergarden delivers a surprisingly familiar premise. A living weapon learning to become a person isn’t the most original plot and the vaguely WWI-era Euro-fantasy setting is also an anime hallmark. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that so long as the story is well-told, and where Violet Evergarden stands out is in its execution. As the episode unfolds, it becomes apparent both how Akatsuki’s work stood out and why KyoAni were willing to commit to adapting it.
The narrative device of writing letters as a vehicle for Violet’s personal growth as well as a source of episodic subplots is inspired, and I eagerly look forward to seeing it utilized next year. The events of the first episode also delivered a tantalizing look at the strength of the writing by concisely transitioning from Hodgins’ own well-meaning but paternalistic desire to help Violet as she spontaneously breaks away from her stoic servilism to pursue her own development as a means of deepening the one meaningful connection she has, all while establishing the setting by maintaining a tranquil pace, without a single line of exposition.
Violet Evergarden is a tremendous departure from Kyoto Animation’s typical style, with even their most radical series like Amagi Brilliant Park and Myriad Colors Phantom World still firmly rooted in Japan. That said, none of the aspects of the anime itself diverge dramatically from the anime wheelhouse. While a notable title for Kyoto Animation, Violet Evergarden stands out primarily because of its sense of polish. Nothing about the first episode says quick or easy, so it’s comforting to know that it’s been completed so far ahead of the anime’s 2018 release date. If every episode is as brilliantly composed as the first, then we have a lot to look forward to in the coming year.