*reposted from thedailyfandom.com (not spoiler-free)
"What's the meaning of love?" Let's face it—it's not the first time you've heard such a question. Maybe that's why so many people were underwhelmed by Violet Evergarden’s pilot, where Violet reveals she can’t comprehend the words: “I love you.”
But Violet Evergarden is not a story about love. It’s a study in trauma.
Violet’s struggle is not simply “to understand love,” but to become emotionally functional after years of abuse. 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
Starting in 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," KyoAni's light novel label. Many works have gone on to be adapted into anime.
The competition is fierce; some years, there isn’t a winner at all. However, in 2014, during the fifth annual KyoAni Awards, one entry 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, Violet 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.”
What's that supposed to mean? Normally, people who love their jobs don’t compare themselves to machines.
However, like machines, Auto Memory Dolls are tools. Their skill—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. However, 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 had 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.
Eventually, we get used to her. We don't raise an eyebrow at the way she salutes left and right, nor the appearance of her metal arms. As Violet herself says to one of her clients: “That’s just how I look.”
However, each time Violet takes her gloves off or says something offbeat, we're shown something new: the response of the person she's interacting with. 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 people all of us know, either in fiction or in real life. These characters are our gateway into the 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? However, 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 that she can’t get to know her betrothed.
A fellow 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 7 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 both a Doll and a human being.
Each character in this anime is crafted with one goal in mind: to change Violet in a tiny, almost invisible way. 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, when Violet realizes, for the first time, that Major Gilbert is presumed dead.
The epiphany is utterly devastating, both for Violet and us. Violet understands now 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. To make matters worse, she did it all for Major Gilbert, whom she still failed to protect.
“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 contorted with pain. “You can’t erase the past,” Hodgins tells her. Were he not in tears, it might seem 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. This tragedy is irreversibly imprinted on their lives. Trauma can change the way we function, making the familiar feel completely alien. In the worst cases, it can make living on feel like an insult to the deceased.
However, through Violet Evergarden—the last project many of the arson victims worked on—we learn that there is always 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.