January 02, 2020

Violet Evergarden

Kyoto Animation's gorgeously animated Violet Evergarden, based on the light novels by Kana Akatsuki, begins with a premise I didn't expect, then takes off in a different direction from that, and finally ends up in a pleasantly familiar place, albeit with an unusual main character.

The story takes place in an alternate universe Leiden (Holland) shortly after the end of a Great War. As revealed in brief flashbacks, Violet Evergarden was a kind of Wonder Woman during the conflict, a teenage super-soldier paired with her own handler, Major Gilbert Bougainvillea.

Although a strategic victory, their last mission leaves Violet without her arms and Major Bougainvillea missing in action and presumed dead. Discharged and fitted with artificial limbs, Violet is handed over to Gilbert's friend and commanding officer, Claudia Hodgins.

The first episode resembles the early chapters of Anne of Green Gables, as Claudia tries to get one of Gilbert's relatives to take in this odd and socially maladroit girl. Like Marilla, Claudia concludes that he is in a better position to look after Violet's interests than anybody else.

Also retired from the military, Claudia runs the CH Postal Company, a secretarial service that makes the most of the word processor of the day, the typewriter. This brought to mind the classic British sit-com As Times Goes By, in which Jean Pargetter (Judi Dench) runs a typing agency.

CH Postal Company also has a "Sandy," a competent and attractive senior employee, Cattleya Baudelaire.

But the CH Postal Company's real forte is not simply transcribing but composing correspondence for its clients. This line of business struck another note of familiarity.

In the NHK drama Tsubaki Stationery Store, when her grandmother dies, Hatoko (Mikako Tabe) inherits her stationery store. The store never sold much actual stationery. Rather, her grandmother wrote letters for people who had something important to say but didn't know how to say it.

For Hatoko, estranged from her grandmother in the years before her death, picking up where she left off results in an emotional struggle that constitutes the core of the drama.

The demands of such a job present a seemingly insurmountably high hurdle for Violet, not because of her prosthetic hands, with which she can type faster than any of the other "Auto Memory Dolls" (as the typists are known). But because of her complete lack of emotional intelligence.

She is basically a female version of Data from Star Trek. She is wont to interpret language literally. Common circumlocutions confuse her. She reflexively salutes her superiors and answers "Ryoukai" to casual requests (the military equivalent of "Aye aye, sir").

It's no surprise that her first attempt to communicate a client's intentions—and not her literal words—ends badly. So why does she insist on pursuing an occupation she is manifestly unqualified for? Because of Gilbert's last words to her, the words of the most important person in her world.

"I love you." And she has no idea what that means. (Yeah, I know, cue Foreigner.)

At this point, director Taichi Ishidate extracts the story from the stalemate with some narrative slight of hand. He basically hits the fast forward button and levels her up to experienced Auto Memory Doll mode in one episode.

Utterly implausible from a mental health point of view. But Ishidate is correct that letting Violet "find herself" through work, by getting her out of the house and going on adventures, is infinitely more interesting than her spending the next half dozen episodes in psychoanalysis.

Sort of the same way Danny on Blue Bloods never stops working cases even when he's ordered to see a shrink.

Violet gets a Wonder Woman moment when she takes an assignment in the country of her old enemy and runs into a gang of insurrectionists out to scuttle the peace talks. (It's hard to miss echoes of the climatic scene in the original Ghost in the Shell.) But she's not going back to that life.

Her character arc thus takes her from a soulless war machine to a soulful Kwai Chang Caine with killer secretarial skills. Sort of as if Sandy in As Time Goes By had previously worked for Judi Dench when Judi Dench was M in the James Bond films.

I reminded of Kate's observation that Dean Cain's Clark Kent in Lois & Clark is his default self (in Japanese, his honne). Superman is the costume (his tatemae). Similarly, Violet Evergarden is about a superhero shedding the costume and finding her real "normal" self.

As noted, the setting is an alternate universe early 20th century Europe. The orthography is not recognizably Roman. The typewriters resemble the vintage manual I grew up with (before the Model D and the QX-10). Violet's artificial arms are more sophisticated than any modern prosthetic.

That along with the anachronistic fashions that pop up here and there lend Violet Evergarden a subtle steam punk ambiance that brings to mind the worlds of Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy and Hayao Miyazaki's Porco Rosso. It's a world with a lot of room for growth.

So far, the series has spun off an OVA and two films, the second of which (delayed by the fire) will be released in April 2020.

Violet Evergarden can be streamed on Netflix.

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