[Script] In Defense of Violet Evergarden

Violet Evergarden would seem to be a very well-liked series. If you merely look at its score on MAL, which is well above most airing shows, it would easily seem to be quite beloved. Given that this is a decent picture of the community at large, I can’t really contest it. What I can say is that in all the places I actually spend my time, Violet Evergarden is hardly the critical darling that it seems to be in the wider anime fandom. Many aspects of it have been criticized, some fairly and some unfairly. While it’s not my favorite show of the season, I do like it quite a bit, so I feel like I should do the job of defending the series.

First, I believe it’s informative to look at where this criticism is coming from. Every popular show is going to have people who don’t like it. However, usually, the criticism only becomes prominent later on, as those who generally wouldn’t like the series begin to watch it only due to peer pressure. Here, the criticism has been prominent from episode 1. I believe the reason for this is the frankly absurd amount of hype which was surrounding the show before it even started.

I’ve heard people hyping up Violet Evergarden since all the way back in May of 2016 when the first CM for the book released. That build-up of over a year and a half of excitement absolutely did not help the show. When you combine the brilliant visuals of that first CM with the knowledge that this was the first novel to ever win KyoAni’s Grand Prize, it’s only natural that people had a feeling the show would turn out well. Unfortunately, that feeling got amplified to the point that people had expectations which frankly couldn’t be met. When those expectations predictably failed to be fulfilled, people found themselves disappointed.

When people are disappointed, it’s obvious that they would be harsher critics than normal. Therefore, I assume a great number of people who would have been satisfied coming in blind found massive problems with the show because it simply couldn’t meet up with the hype which had been built up. Suffice it to say that this perspective is understandable but not particularly relevant to my thoughts on the show absent its absurd hype. It’s totally fair to feel disappointed and the problems being pointed out aren’t invalidated just because the show was over-hyped. Because of that, I still feel the need to defend it, because many of its critics are quite reasonable and worth engaging with.

The most obvious point in favor of Violet Evergarden is the visuals. Almost everyone agrees that it looks good but I feel like they’ve still been somewhat undersold. I’ve seen many call the show pretty but meaningless which I think ignores the importance of visual storytelling. Anime is an audiovisual medium and the art conveys much of the narrative and characterization. A serious breakdown of the visuals is necessary in order to truly understand the show and what it’s going for.

Evergarden is almost certainly the best-looking TV anime production of all time, an accolade I thought no show would ever take from 2012’s Hyouka. Fortunately, KyoAni was able to prove me wrong and top themselves once again. Everything in Evergarden stands out, from the intricate animation, to the beautifully painted backgrounds lush with color, to the amazing design work, both in terms of the clothing and the architecture. An important part of the show is its setting and sense of time. With a weaker production, it would’ve been much harder to sell its early 20th-century time period but the fantastic amount of detail really makes it come to life.

Subtle body language and careful direction have always been a staple of KyoAni shows and their mastery of those elements is one of many reasons that I consider them to be the best studio working in the industry right now. As always, Violet Evergarden is elevated a great deal by this skill. Much of a characters’ personality comes across in subtle movements. For instance, Violet herself moves in a somewhat stilted — but still very human — way, while others can be jovial, clumsy, or more. Unlike the character acting in shows like Slow Start — which I love, don’t get me wrong — the movement here always conveys something deeper about the character.

A great example of this is in episode 5. At the end of the episode, the maid whose been attending to the princess her entire life is able to move from her somewhat stiff, courtly body language to a show of genuine emotion as the princess bids her goodbye and is no longer under her care. Certainly, this could have been done by any studio. But no one other than KyoAni could have truly sold the moment like this. And this is just one of many examples. As always, KyoAni uses their massive pool of talented in-house directors and animators to ensure that every episode uses the medium to its fullest.

But even beyond the meaning, the show just looks really damn good. The colors are amazing and certain elements constantly shock me. It’s hard to believe that something can be so well animated with such an absurdly high line count. How they manage to animate all of Violet’s intricately designed hair while keeping it on-model, I will never know.

Of course, the most common point of criticism in regards to the visuals is the filters. Nobody seems to like these things, and it’s not like I don’t understand why. At times, especially in episode 1, they go a bit overboard. But I do believe that generally, they’re to the benefit of the show. They almost always feel purposeful and usually fit the situation. For instance, they’re a lot heavier in flashback scenes, which makes sense. Its been visual convention forever to portray the past in a somewhat noisier image, fitting the imperfect recollection of memories. Evergarden is simply applying film techniques to anime. This is hardly something new for KyoAni and while it may be a bit much at times, I believe it generally contributes to the cinematic feel and time period.

While there has been some debate over the visuals, it’s the writing which is getting the most flack. One common line of criticism is that the show has plenty of anime-original material when it didn’t need to. I do understand this complaint. If you’ve read the source and really like it, seeing the anime barely adapt it could be disappointing. But frankly, as someone who never read it, I don’t care at all. KyoAni is already well-known for taking massive liberties with the works they adapt. If they feel that doing so is the best decision, then I’m going to trust them.

The other reason the writing is often attacked is that Violet herself is boring. I can’t say much to argue this. I do believe that Violet is a fairly well-done version of her archetype, growing fairly quickly and having quirks which are pretty believable in real people. But that doesn’t erase the fact that her archetype is already well-worn in the eyes of many. If you’re one of those people, I don’t know what I can say. Violet’s narrative works for me, mostly because of the show’s brilliant visual and directorial execution, but I can easily see how she wouldn’t work for others. That said, those who think she hasn’t changed are clearly watching a different show, because she’s a hell of a lot more empathetic than she was at the start.

But while the show is about her, it’s not really about her. Almost every episode spends more time on the character of the week than it does on Violet herself. This leads to a great cast of characters who are all interesting in their own right as well as fantastic vignettes which function well as short films. Not only that, but it helps Violet’s narrative, by having her grow from observing others, making her development the throughline but not the centerpiece.

And the characters those individual episodes focus on are great. The show’s character design work infuses every person we see with far more flavor than the average side-character gets. Everyone at Violet’s office comes to life immediately and this is true for the single episode characters as well. To look at the brilliance of the designs, just take a peek at the school Violet attends in episode 3, where all the female characters have different facial shapes, something which is unheard of in anime.

And that’s to say nothing of how the writing and direction sell all of these people. At the time of drafting this piece, I have to give particular focus to episodes 3 and 5. The leads of both of these had great, understandable struggles that were easy to connect to. Certainly, they were fairly corny, much like the show as a whole but once again I have to say that the great execution manages to make it work anyways.

Violet Evergarden obviously hasn’t lived up to the hype. Nothing ever could have. But it’s a very solid show which I greatly appreciate. It truly showcases the mastery that KyoAni has over the medium and while its writing might not be quite on the level of its visuals, it more than makes for an enjoyable show. It might not be the anime of the season, but it’s certainly quite good.

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6 thoughts on “[Script] In Defense of Violet Evergarden

  1. Rocco B

    Really well written post!!!. I’ve stopped at epi 2 I think, mostly because I’ve fallen behind. I really need to binge watch it. But yeah, a lot of the points you’ve mentioned are on point. KyoAni do some things exceptionally well. And even out do their past endeavours. Their art, good lord, the only studio that can match them in terms of visuals is PA works.
    I agree, people will always look for that divide of loving or hating. Can’t avoid it. Keep up the posts!! :D.

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  2. I agree with you entirely on the visuals, and would add that the music scores are utterly gorgeous. It’s the characters that really fail to interest me, and how slowly Violet makes progress. I felt like certain things got repetitive and predictable when it comes to Violet’s characterization.
    This is totally subjective though, and I would also admit that I’m not that patient of a viewer and that episodic arcs aren’t really my thing. Great work on the video!

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  3. I still can’t actually see this one so I’m mostly a passive observer to the argument playing out online about whether this is good or not. I don’t think changing the source material is a reason to be annoyed, though not being interesting is probably a bigger issue. I guess I’ll see when it is finally available to me.

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  6. I am up to episode 11 now and I must admit I love it. I try to imagine what a child never trained to be anything but an obedient soldier, a tool of war, would be like. If not for the benign influence of the major, I could imagine her turning to the dark side very easily.

    In one sense, her story is one of PTSD. Robbed of a normal childhood and forced into the hell of war, then literally blown to pieces and her only friend taken, how could she not be damaged goods lacking most emotion? Her transition from kuudere to someone more expressive is worth watching.

    I also find it interesting that someone so expressionless and detached could become a top dollar “auto-memory doll”. Does that say that deep emotions can be expressed thru algorithms? Or that she can somehow pull those emotions out of herself and onto paper without ever seeming to have experienced them herself?

    Then the genius of using her slow recovery as a device to show so many secondary stories. What is not to like? If you think she herself is boring, watch the people she interacts with instead.

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