*reposted from thedailyfandom.com (not spoiler-free)
What's the meaning of love?
Let's face it—it's not the most original question. Maybe that's why so many people were underwhelmed by Violet Evergarden’s pilot, where Violet reveals that she can’t comprehend the words: “I love you.”
But Violet Evergarden is not a story about love. It’s a story about trauma.
Violet’s struggle is not simply to understand love, but to become emotionally functional after years of abuse and neglect. It’s this distinction, overlooked by Violet—and a good chunk of the anime community—that makes Violet Evergarden a masterpiece. In a delicious irony, we find that through her own quest to grasp the meaning of “I love you,” Violet is doomed to suffer the cruelest heartbreak of all.
A stand-out story
Since 2009, Kyoto Animation—the studio behind A Silent Voice and Free!—has held an annual contest called the Kyoto Animation Awards. Contestants enter original novels and manga for the chance to be published in KA Esuma Bunko, the studio's light novel label.
Competition is fierce, and for good reason. Many of the light novels in KA Esuma Bunko have gone on to be adapted into anime. That said, in 2014, during the fifth annual Kyoto Animation Awards, one submission made history. It took home the “Grand Prize,” winning in every category by an almost unanimous vote. Its name? Violet Evergarden.
"I found it to be a real page-turner," said judge Taichi Ishidate, in an interview. "I hadn’t yet analyzed the novel in detail, but I felt something quite captivating about the protagonist: the girl named Violet Evergarden."
Over the next few years, Ishidate assembled a team of animators and storyboard artists, bringing Violet Evergarden, the anime, to life.
Violet, the tool of war
The world of Violet Evergarden is not too different from our own—no magic, mecha, or mythical creatures. The main continent, Telsis, is made up of old-fashioned towns and castles separated by green stretches of wilderness. It's a land at war.
A young orphan enlists into the Leidenschaftlich army, where her bizarre talent for combat is put to use. She's treated as nothing more than a weapon to be aimed at the enemy, sleeping in rags and taking abuse from superiors and fellow troops alike.
However, this changes the day she meets Major Gilbert Bougainvillea. Despite being encouraged, he refuses to treat Violet like a tool, teaching her to read and write, and even going as far as to name her.
One fateful night, Gilbert and Violet are caught in enemy fire. Both of Violet’s arms are mangled in the blast; Gilbert barely clings to life. It's then that he says the words that change Violet's life forever.
“I love you.”
Months later—where the anime begins—Violet comes to in a hospital bed. Her arms have been replaced with metal prosthetics, and Gilbert’s military friend, Hodgins, is there to pick her up. "You come along with me, now," he says. "Those are [Gilbert’s] direct orders. [He] was thinking all along about what your future would hold after the war."
Violet, the living doll
Under Hodgins' instruction, Violet trains to become an Auto Memory Doll, the ghostwriters of Violet Evergarden's world. In the second episode, fellow employee Erica makes this observation about Violet:
“[Violet] didn’t have any facial expressions. Just like a doll. Just like a mechanical puppet for which this profession is named.”
Yeesh. Normally, people who love their jobs don’t compare themselves (or their peers) to machines.
But, well, like machines, Auto Memory Dolls are tools. Their trade—literacy—makes them the middleman between human beings. A Doll’s job is to write letters that perfectly mirror the intent of their clients. In simple terms, they really are "puppets.”
Given this description, Violet seems perfect for the job. She’s a blank slate—as objective and doll-like as they come. That said, her first attempts at writing letters all end in disaster, reading, as Hodgins says, like a “report.”
At one point, Violet calls her typewriter an "amazing weapon.” It’s the same phrase her superiors once used to refer to her. As viewers, we come to understand that both Violet and the typewriter are tools incapable of processing emotion on their own.
Violet, the anti-audience surrogate
Violet’s lack of empathy is her defining characteristic. As such—and in contrast to most protagonists—we as viewers are unable to project ourselves onto her. This is part of what makes Violet so unique. For a long time, she feels as cold and detached to us as she does to everyone in the anime.
Violet's personality prevents her from being an audience surrogate, so the anime compensates by providing side characters that are familiar to us. A grieving father, a frightened soldier, a girl wounded by love. These are characters all of us know, and they're our gateway into this world, with Violet's personality acting as a foil, bringing out all of the pretty details.
Violet, the ghostwriter
In total, Violet meets with five clients—six, if we include the “special episode” released
post-season. A princess, an orphan, a playwright, a mother, and a soldier. Fairly common
characters, right? The charm of these characters is removed from what they are on the surface. Instead, it lies in what makes them the most vulnerable.
A young princess frustrated by her lack of autonomy.
A jaded orphan unconvinced by the concept of love.
A playwright trying to cope with the death of his only daughter.
A dying mother hoping to give her daughter one last gift.
A wounded soldier terrified of saying goodbye.
All of these characters are gone after a single episode. What do we gain from understanding them?
"We came to the conclusion that [Violet is] like a prism,” said series director
Haruka Fujita, in an interview with director Ishidate. Ishidate added: “A prism splits a single ray of light into seven different colors, right? When the other characters passed their thoughts and feelings through Violet, they underwent changes—perhaps their beliefs changed, maybe they found salvation, or they began to look at the world a little differently."
While this is perfectly true, the opposite also applies. It’s only through exploring these characters' emotions and beliefs that Violet can even begin to grow as a Doll and a human being. Through them, she learns to recognize everyday emotions—and later, to feel them first-hand.
This progress is a double-edged sword. With the return of emotion comes grief, as Violet retroactively recognizes the impact of the things she's seen and done. In what becomes the series climax, Violet is slowly crushed beneath the weight of crimes she hadn’t even thought to regret.
Violet on fire
In a quiet scene near the end of the pilot episode, Hodgins and Violet walk home from a diner. Hodgins says this:
“You’re going to learn many things in the future. Although, it might be easier to keep living if you never learned them. You don’t realize it yet, but your body is on fire, burning up because of the things you did.”
In the following episodes of self-contained stories, it’s very easy to forget this moment. The anime doesn’t bring it up again until episode nine.
It's an utterly devastating epiphany, both for Violet and the viewer. For the first time in her life, Violet understands that all of the soldiers she massacred are stories with sad endings and letters that will never reach home, turning her new life and purpose as a Doll into nothing more than a hypocrisy.
“Do I have any right to be a Doll?” Violet later asks Hodgins. “Do I have any right to live?”
Where before it was a picture of total indifference, Violet’s face is now contorted with pain. “You can’t erase the past,” Hodgins tells her. Were he not in tears, it might've seemed cold.
“Although, just know [that] everything you’ve done as an Auto Memories Doll won’t disappear either, Violet Evergarden.”
The way forward
In mid-July of 2020, Kyoto Animation suffered a horrifying attack. A man—claiming to have had his work plagiarized—set fire to the main building, killing thirty-five employees and injuring thirty others.
The news devastated people around the world, most of all the families of the victims. Grief is irreversibly imprinted on their lives. Violet Evergarden—the last project many of the arson victims worked on—shows us a way forward. The way forward is to walk forward, to make the world a better place step by step. We don’t have to be doctors, engineers, or soldiers in some war. If Violet has taught us anything, it’s that being a storyteller is more than enough.