Violet Evergarden: A Non-Character-Driven Epic

Violet Evergarden is a 2018 anime series produced by Kyoto Animation based on a Light Novel series of the same name. The production has been highly acclaimed for its visual style and quality, which is of a typical standard for works from Kyoto Animation, and also for its writing, particularly in its use of pathos and its approach to themes of war, violence, loss, mourning, and love. The series has also received some criticism from various web and popular sources for its narrative structure and characterisation. Specifically, such critiques lay down the claim that Violet Evergarden‘s eponymous protagonist is poorly written and lacks any meaningful character development or an original design, both visually and narratively. It is in part to these critiques that I respond here.

It is my view that these are not errors in execution marring an otherwise well-realised work of visual storytelling, but rather that these are generic (in the sense of genre-related) elements of the work without which the work would lose some of its most important features. It is therefore my position that these complaints about the character Violet Evergarden are true, but that the impact these elements have on the series Violet Evergarden are not detrimental to the overall effect, but rather, integral to it.

Let’s start with narrative and character development. The series is set in a fantasy mock-up of early 20th century Europe. The series opens just after the cessation of a bitter and violent war (roughly analogous with WWI). Violet is a young woman placed somewhere between 14 and 18 years old who spends most of the series working in the profession of “Auto Memory Doll” (自動手記人形 – Automated note or memorandum taking doll); essentially a professional letter-writer. Her backstory revolves around her service in the war as a child soldier (by some estimates no more than 10 years old), a dangerous enough child solider to gain infamy on both sides of the conflict. Violet serves the last days of the war under the charge of a particular officer named Gilbert Bougainvillea, to whom she is loyal to the death. Prior to her time with Gilbert, she is deployed on the other side of the conflict until her capture by Gilbert’s elder brother, a naval officer, through whom she comes to be deployed in Gilbert’s unit. Unlike the military to whom she was originally answerable, and unlike his brother, Gilbert raises Violet as a ward (indeed, he is the one who names her) and is against her deployment in battle. This relationship, somewhere between benefactor and commanding officer is the starting point for Violet’s character, which is, in its most simplistic rendering, split between two poles: machine/animal and child/innocent. Her socialised modes of relation are to respond to orders and to violence and she shows herself perfectly capable of combat skills which it would be no exaggeration to call superhuman in scale. In this sense she is both machine and animal; savage, instinctive and ferocious in a bestial sense but with the discipline, detachment, and precision associated with fine-tuned engineering. Outside of combat she is entirely dependent on Gilbert, however. In this sense she is represented as childlike and an innocent. She has no frame of reference for non-combat social interaction and barely possesses a grasp of language-use outside of command and assent. This gives her the kind of moral non-culpability associated with a child insofar as her actions lack any kind of malice or unkindness – they in fact lack any kind of motivation at all apart from that they are given as orders. This, in combination with her total deference to Gilbert, and indeed to any figure who stands in as a commanding officer, situates her character as innocent insofar as she is never represented as someone who we could reasonably despise or think of as a villain, as evil, or as reprehensible in any way, even though we are repeatedly shown her blithely slaying soldiers by the dozen, with no question of the orders to do so on her part.

This is the Violet we start with: A killing machine capable of inhuman violence, emotionally and socially presented as a child totally bereft of the intent which would allow any traditional system of ethics to condemn her actions. If we are charting character development then, what Violet do we have at the end of the series?

We, in fact, see no change at one pole of Violet’s character and decisive change at the other: Violet remains a precise and merciless combat machine on the one hand, but on the other hand gains the sense of awareness, motivation, intent, and selfhood which transforms her from being presented as an innocent child into a fully ethically responsible actor. While the young Violet possesses no volition of her own and exists in a more or less transparent tool-like function which receives orders as inputs and executes on them as outputs, the older Violet is fully volitional, exerting her own free will, sometimes against and regardless of the will of her superiors. While the young Violet hardly understands death as a concept and is never presented as even recognising her actions within the frame generally accepted as killing, the older Violet understands death, loss, mourning and bereavement, expresses remorse and regret, and, despite retaining her inhuman combat proficiency, avoids killing even when pressed to the point of harm to herself.

Violet undergoes other changes throughout the course of the narrative – the most significant narrative arc being her conceptual understanding of language, mainly achieved through her profession, and in particular her grasp of the verb ‘to love’ – significant not only because romantic correspondence takes up a large portion of her commissions but also because an expression of love also constituted the last words she heard from Gilbert, who spends the series missing-presumed-dead after being separated from Violet at the final battle of the war. The series ostensibly is far more closely tied to this arc than any other, opening with Violet attempting to and failing to write a letter to the missing Gilbert, and closing with her successfully penning a letter equal to her own feelings for the first time.

So with these changes in Violet’s character registered, it may seem unreasonable to claim that Violet undergoes no meaningful development through the course of the narrative. We should not be so swift to dismiss this claim, however. The root of the claim lies not, in my view, in the content of the narrative but its form. Character development, while apparent on the level of content as given above, is in fact almost entirely absent on the level of the formal structure of the work, at least in the sense the modern reader expects.

For the contemporary audience, character development remains essentially within the tradition of the bildungsroman or the coming-of-age novel. Emblematic examples in the English literary canon might be Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The confusion arises because Violet Evergarden fits this model in content, but defies it in form. In content, all three examples take their title character as subject, orphaned or otherwise misfortunate children having small-scale adventures through which they grow up, learn life lessons, and understand the world in a more-or-less realistic representation of life in that world. Formally, however, the difference is striking. Jane Eyre and David Copperfield are both told in the first person, the author and title character speaking their own mind and own experience. The reader receives the novel directly from the horse’s mouth, as it were. This gives the effect of intense familiarity with the character and their motivations as well as a strong psychologisation of the narrative insofar as the world is always viewed through the psyche of the character and never presented objectively without that lens. More recent iterations in this tradition are even more interested in the psyche, its unreliability, and the identity of the speaker from within their own mind than Bronte or Dickens ever were, so when Violet Evergarden makes no formal attempt whatsoever to represent the interior of Violet’s mind, an audience raised on this formal expectation paired with this narrative content immediately detects something amiss, even if they confuse form with content in their critique.

The reason for this formal departure from the bildungsroman tradition is not, in my view, a blunder on the part of the writers or producers (not that their intent is necessarily relevant in any case). Kyoto Animation are very much capable of visually representing narratives which are tied extremely closely to characters’ psyches, their motivations, growth, and internal struggles (see Hyouka and Koe no Katachi, for example), so this is not a question of inability. Instead, this stems from a feature of Violet herself – her initial characterisation. She is in-herself a character whose motivations and psyche are in fact very difficult to represent either visually or verbally, by the simple fact that almost no reader will be able to easily relate to her situation. It is not especially difficult to relate to Jane in Jane Eyre or David in David Copperfield since, though not everyone has lost a parent or been sent to a Victorian English boarding school, their lives and minds are otherwise barely different from that of any child. They make friends, they make enemies, they get angry at injustice, they find relief in good companionship. It is almost impossible to relate to the mind of Violet Evergarden, completely emotionless superhuman child solder who dodges bullets and blocks bayonets with her bare arms while leaping across trenches and razor-wired no-man’s-land with the agility of a gazelle under a hail of artillery and machine gun fire, stabbing, shooting, and breaking the bones of her foes without batting an eyelid. She, from a subjective standpoint, has no friends and no enemies, no sense of right or wrong, no sense of justice, no immediately relatable affective responses at all for a normal human subjectivity in today’s readership. Had Violet Evergarden succeeding in actually representing such a psyche from a first person view in a convincing way, it would have been a monumental achievement because of the feat’s apparent impossibility alone.

Understandably, the series chose not to attempt such an endeavour. So, the series is forced to take the content of a coming-of-age story but represent it in a form not tied to the first-person psychological aesthetic common to that genre. How this is accomplished can be very well established through comparison with another work already mentioned: Kyoto Animation’s Koe no Katachi.

While not exactly a bildungsroman, Koe no Katachi is an especially good example from Kyoto Animation’s oeuvre for presenting subjective experience in filmic form. The narrative focuses on the male lead, Shouya, whose character and development the film follows for almost its entire runtime. Throughout the film, Shouya is presented in shots which leave most of the frame filled with dead space. This is especially prevalent in dialogue scenes both when cutting between Shouya and other speaking characters or when presenting them both within the same frame. Shouya will, most often, have his back to a big expanse of empty space – often miscellaneous scenery or out-of-focus background. Other characters will have at least one other human figure in their background, sometimes an actual named speaking character, sometimes a crowd, sometimes a solitary background figure. This leads to a strong sense of imbalance whenever Shouya is framed with or against almost anyone else. Even if two speaking characters are placed in what should be perfect balance in the centre of the frame, the emptiness of Shouya’s half of the screen gives the viewer a strong sense of his isolation, solitude, and loneliness.

This formal presentation is reflective of the content of Shouya’s character – he does not speak well or confidently. Many of these frames contain long pauses, hesitations, difficult and weighty silences saturated with unexpressed meaning. These verbal silences are filled with the ambient soundtrack. A very minimal backing track, it is notable for using dampened, muted, and indistinct sounds which fill these auditory spaces with an extraordinarily tender and delicate atmosphere. In a film which is dedicated to the spoken word and the burden of speech, the union between form and content here is thematically wonderful. The empty space presses in on Shouya, sometimes almost burying him out of the frame; his silence, accompanied by detailed and loving animation of his uncomfortable shuffling, fidgets, and half-mouthed sentences, fills up with these immeasurably delicate ambient sounds, his barely-formed words. The camera lingers on him and the space behind him perfectly represents all those unsaid and unformed inklings which weigh on him as he struggles and struggles and struggles to give spoken shapes to the meanings he can barely look upon without fear of them shattering.

By contrast, Violet Evergarden‘s framing is positively boring. Most dialogue scenes place Violet in the middle of a nicely balanced frame or on one side of a frame neatly balanced by having the other character squarely on the other side. If Violet is foreground, the other character is background. If Violet faces the camera, the other character faces away. If Violet faces left, the other character faces right. If Violet is alone in the frame and we cut to another character, the next frame will contain the other character alone, mirroring her, etc. etc. The shot composition is all extremely balanced and may perhaps even be called traditional insofar as it conforms fully to the standard measures of good shot composition established through the history of the film medium. If there is an analogue here in literary terms, this would be a third-person omniscient narrator. This shot composition is a technical feat performed by someone outside the text, who we may admire for their skilful work, but who has no relation to the subjective inner life of the characters inside the text. This is precisely the same function as a third-person narrator, who sits outside the events of the tale, has no active, lived, or immediate stake in the events, and tells the story as a series of events, with more or less skill, craft, and accuracy.

Even at Violet’s highest points of narrative and emotional turmoil and resolution, the camerawork does not shift from this finely balanced viewpoint. Where it is perhaps old hat in an age of mass film production and high-quality criticism in every form from silver screen to youtube home-production to say that a shaky-cam is an indicator of discord and an upside-down frame is an indicator of moral disorder, Violet Evergarden‘s framing hardly ever makes any formal representation of its title character’s inner world using such techniques. Now, there are some ways in which emotional states are reflected formally, but even these do not appear in the subject-oriented mode we have described above.

In the example of Koe no Katachi, we see a quite literal interpretation of perspective. The character’s inner world is captured by the act of framing alone, which is to say, the perspective from which the camera views the character and the world he inhabits. In other words, the camera views the world subjectively, which is to say, with the perspective of the characters in mind. In Violet Evergarden, the formal techniques used to present subjective experience typically involve cutting from dialogue to either a landscape or a natural still-life image. Sometimes the dialogue will continue over the new image, and usually the music will continue uninterrupted. The camera here is not viewing the world from a perspective belonging to any character or presenting the perspective of any character, but rather, views the world entirely objectively like a traditional painting; a landscape view in timelapse of the town which is the main story’s setting or a close-up of a flower, not unusually a violet, of course symbolic of the title character.

The difference between these two visual rhetorics is almost identical to that found in literature between the Realism of Europe’s 19th century novelists and the Modernism of Europe’s 20th century novelists, but in reverse order. An emblematic Modernist in this style might be Virginia Woolf, whose writing presents the world entirely subjectively. It does not call the nature of the world itself or of the viewing lens or writing pen into doubt (which would be post-modernism), but simply holds that there is no view which may be presented which is not subjective – from inside some viewing subject. The camera in Koe no Katachi behaves this way – always framing relative to a certain subjectivity, a certain in-world view belonging to one or more characters, figures, moments, instants.

19th century Realism may reasonably be described here in Honoré de Balzac or Gustave Flaubert. Flaubert’s style presents the world in a way referred to as ‘self-interpreting’ or rather, such that the representation aims to describe the objective events with such adroitness that there can be no possibility of the subjectivity misinterpreting them. For Flaubert, the subjectivity is extraneous to the reality under representation. Balzac is slightly different in that his key motif is the unity between inner and outer world. In other words, for Balzac’s realist fiction, the world is ordered such that subjective experience is represented as an objective figure in the world. This may be parsed through what is now thought of as the not-unusual technique of pathetic fallacy in which natural elements take on characteristics of the human subject. In its most bastard form: it rains when we are sad. Balzac wrote fiction in which if a person were a violent, cruel, and petty man, they would live in a broken, mean, and small dwelling and if a person were a virtuous, well-mannered, and honest man, they would live in a nicely kept, respectable, and clean home.

Violet Evergarden‘s visual rhetoric resembles the realism of Flaubert and Balzac, or rather tacks a course between the two. In its depiction of everyday life and its events, it resembles Flaubert – direct, objective, without embellishment, consistent. In its depiction of subjective experience it resembles Balzac – the external world is used as a reflection of the inner world. This is not to say that the subjective deforms the objective, as in surrealism, or that there is no objective viewpoint as in Woolf, but that the subjective inner world and the objective external world are in accord, share a harmony. The overall visual aesthetic here, therefore, is one of order. An ordered world, told in an ordered manner, with which the subjective inner lives of the characters share an order. This is borne out in the composition of the soundtrack too, which, unlike Koe no Katachi‘s modern ambient music which is a performance the characters’ inner worlds, is a set of full orchestra compositions reminiscent of the Romantic period of European culture. By turns redolent of Verdi and Rachmaninoff, making full use of piano, strings, brass, wind, a notable oboe, voice, and the sound of typewriter keys, Violet Evergarden‘s soundtrack is, as one might expect, in full harmony with its world, setting and general aesthetic.

This is why I earlier referred to Violet Evergarden‘s setting as a fantasy representation of early 20th century Europe rather than a realist representation of it. For, even though the work’s visual aesthetic relayed by its camerawork is realist in character, its overall aesthetic is not. Violet Evergarden‘s overall aesthetic sense is much more nostalgic than realist, a hearkening back, particularly evident in the tone of its soundtrack. The atmosphere is one of a world full of hope and longing, heavy with the weight of pre-war arcadian nostalgia. This is apparent, again in the tone lent by the soundtrack which, in its order, structure, and periodisation is an explicit callback not only to a particular period of musical history, but to an entire cultural epoch – essentially 19th century romanticism and neoclassicism and their own respective debts to the 18th century age of enlightenment. This, in addition to the lavish colour palette of almost every frame of the work infuses Violet Evergarden with the sense of rich nostalgic fantasy, or rather the sense of a mythologised past presented through a realist gaze – an historical epoch imagined as a mythic antecedent to a very real history presented in the frame of actually occurring events.

There is one aesthetic which best suits this configuration of representational modes, and that is epic. Whether epic tales from as long ago as world cultures have records such as The Epic of Gilgamesh or The Iliad, epic tales which define particular cultures and societies and their tropes such as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Tale of the Heike, or epics which actively produce a moral and spiritual picture of the world such as Moby-Dick or War and Peace, all of these correspond more or less to the mode of representation detailed above. All of these present actual real historical periods contained within mythic or nostalgic fictions – wars featuring as the premier choice on the list – told as sets of really occurring events (whether the reader is actually expected to believe in the tale of the white whale or the interventions of the gods is irrelevant to the point that the text itself takes these events as really seriously as it can).

It bears noticing that, in epic, the internal perspective, growth, and development of a given character, is almost entirely irrelevant. Typically, the reader is simply told that a character feels a certain way as an objective fact in the world. How that character subjectively experiences that feeling internally is not important. Thus, finally, we arrive at how and why there really is no character development in any formal sense in Violet Evergarden: as an epic, it is not a character-driven story in the bildungsroman style which the modern reader expects, complete with first-person interior perspectives and a subjective viewpoint. Instead, this work presents an entire historical epoch in a mythic light to the aim of presenting its moral picture of the world. Though on the level of content, it is objectively true that Violet changes as a character, ie, she develops – in a formal sense, she strictly does not have any character development, which would entail a subjective illustration of this change and its internal struggles. An epic does not engage in these, thus it is a native feature of the genre to which the work rightly belongs that Violet as a character should appear as an entirely objective figure within the fiction (as do all the other characters). It may be argued that many other characters have more moving stories than Violet’s overall arc, which is perhaps true, but this is not identical to other characters being presented in a subjective way, which they are not. Violet Evergarden‘s representational mode remains consistent in this way.

And now we can come finally to Violet’s visual design as well. The general criticism here is that Violet Evergarden as a character has an unoriginal and generic design, at the very least uninspired if not overtly borrowed from other designs. The most common point of comparison is to argue that Violet very closely resembles the Fate/ series’ recurring heroine Saber. This is undeniable. At the very least, the two share colour palettes and the feature of being nigh-unconquerable combatants, combined with arch and formal personalities and a devotion to the values of duty, service, and problems with interpersonal and social relations. But in the context of reading Violet Evergarden as part of the genre of epic, this should not be any surprise or a detriment to the work.

An epic hero must, by definition, be archetypal. Their purpose is to be an image of bold strokes which define a certain attitude to the universe which transcends and encapsulates human existence. An epic hero should be the very essence of an archetypal hero. Achilles of the Iliad, for example, is perhaps one of the most powerful and lasting archetypal heroes of all Western culture. Blessed by divine providence to be almost invincible, he is proud, unafraid of death, noble, and full of the contradictions that come with heroism – respect for the gods matched by arrogance against them, egoism, spite, vanity, and self-centred petulance matched by mercy, compassion, and an intense love of his fellows. His passions are an image of the highest passions of man, or at least the Iliad‘s version of the highest passions of man. That Achilles resembles hundreds of thousands of heroes created and written over the years should be no surprise then, since his design should be no less than reaching to be the blueprint for them.

Violet’s design, therefore, should be an archetype equal to the world in which she is presented – and the world in which she is presented is one in which the great conflict is between bloody, indiscriminate war, and the sacred power of the written word. Like Achilles, she is the beneficiary of supernatural abilities – both her never-explained (and therefore effectively divine in character) combat prowess, and one other feature of her design; her arms. Violet spends most of the work with mechanical arms attached to her body at the shoulder, having lost her actual limbs during the final conflict of the war (a conflict at which she, like any good epic hero, served as the spearhead of the assault and effectively single-handedly conquered the enemy fortress, only wounded by the immense odds stacked against her and the treachery and cowardice of the enemy [much like Achilles it might be added]). Where her fighting skills are an obvious supernatural power (at least, I know no 10-14 year olds who are such ruthless and proficient killers), it bears noting that her arms, which serve as the conduit for her near-magical powers behind a typewriter, are as much a supernatural wonder in the mode of epic. No such complex prosthesis exists in the real world as her arms, which are essentially fully operational limbs in a metal-and-mechanism steampunk form. Like all divine objects, it is never explained how they operate (are they welded to her bones, attached to her muscles and her own actual nerves?). This human-machine hybridity is used as a recurring symbol of Violet’s more-than-human capabilities, again in the vein of any good epic hero (Achilles had his shield and armour as corresponding symbols). The repeated motif of Violet removing her gloves with her teeth to reveal her mechanical fingers before setting to the typewriter underscores the almost epithetic nature of this design feature: just as epic heroes are almost always introduced through a certain identifying trait by which their heroism is elevated (Achilles ‘the swift-footed’ or Odysseus ‘of the many wiles’, for example), so too does this motif in Violet’s case act as a prelude to and indicator of her heroic traits – ‘Silver-fingered’ Violet would not be an unreasonable epithet to use in an actual epic text in reference to her mastery of the written word.

On other design features: her ornate and embellishment-heavy outfit and her hairstyle situate her firmly within her mythic world. Her extremely blue eyes and the brooch she is almost never seen without serve similar functions to the weather and landscape shots in that any close-up of the brooch or her eyes is an objective indicator of her inner subjective and emotional state in a character whose emotional expression is otherwise very limited within the work. Her voice actress is essentially type-cast into “characters of few words, who are also good at fighting” (see Mikasa Ackerman from Attack on Titan or 2B from Nier: Automata, for example), which is especially important in Violet Evergarden since Violet’s being of few words but having a magical power when offered the medium of a typewriter, and being extremely good at fighting but choosing to overcome conflict through the magic of the written word is indispensable to Violet Evergarden‘s narrative as a whole. Her colour scheme – well, as generically as possible blue and white is sky and clouds, sea and surf, ice and snow, all images of nature which evoke a sense of distant grandeur or poignant or wistful majesty. Whether we care to analyse this through the Japanese concept of mono no aware or the European one of the sublime is not particularly important since each will roughly conclude that this colour palette lends Violet these senses of distant grandeur and wistful majesty as well, marking her as a figure of the heroic (on par with natural forces) but also someone whose sensibility is distant, neither earthy nor passionate. These might seem almost facile points to make, but since we must bear in mind that an epic hero must be as archetypal as possible, even such simplistic ideas are not beneath consideration here.

Alongside all this discussion, it seems strange to even consider Violet’s similarity to the visual design of the Fate/ series’ Saber – but since Saber’s design itself is meant to be evocative of her characterisation as the avatar of Arthur Pendragon (rendered in Fate/ as Arturia Pendragon), himself a tragic epic hero of the round table and knight and king of legend in his own middle-English epic tale, it hardly needs to be mentioned that there are perfectly good reasons for their design not to be dissimilar.

In sum: Violet Evergarden is a work which centres upon a nostalgic longing for and faith in the power of the written word, in particular the letter. Set in a mythic past based on a real historical period in which mass literacy was a highly held ideal but a far-from realised actuality, and in which the devastation of war threatens the structure of society and the sacred cultural ground embodied in the art of letters, the work uses an aesthetic mode similar to the epic poem to depict the tale of its eponymous heroine, Violet Evergarden, and defend the sanctity of the art of letters. The character, Violet Evergarden, as epic hero of the work, must therefore act as the representative hero of the written word. This, she does in every conceivable way. A character whose essential characteristics include being almost incapable of normal verbal socialisation and being known explicitly as a tool of war turns, through the medium of writing, into a character who transforms memories into meaning, wishes into words, and longings into letters; a character who turns from a machine of violence to an embodiment of the unity of man and machine in her own flesh – part living typewriter. She is an epic hero, and epic heroes do not develop – they are ordained to shine as an example of their heroic ideal. Thus, the fact that Violet Evergarden contains no formal devices which produce the sense of character development familiar to modern readers from the bildungsroman genre is perfectly adequate to the work’s structure insofar as the work itself is not a character-driven story. As epic, Violet Evergarden is the tale of an epoch and the tale of its hero who, like all epic heroes, sets out relentlessly on quests across the land (reminiscent, frankly, of any number ancient Greek epic heroes from Odysseus to Heracles to Jason) performing great feats on par with the divine. In place of Achilles and his armour, Odysseus and his wits, Ahab and his peg-leg or Arthur and Excalibur, we are offered as our hero Silver-fingered Violet Evergarden and her typewriter – or in her own words, a fully epithetical catchphrase in its own right: I will hasten anywhere should my client so wish; Automemory Doll, Violet Evergarden, at your service.

***

For those who have made it this far, thanks for reading! What can I say, I like Violet Evergarden and even if I didn’t, I’d defend my interpretation of it without hesitation. It should be noted that the translation of Violet’s catchphrase at the end is my own, with some relatively fanciful alterations which I feel would fit an English poetic form better were the entire work rendered in such a way, to the neglect of some of the finer points of Japanese grammar.

If you like literary realism and would like to read more on it, I can highly recommend Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. It’s a big book, but mightily worth reading if you like such things. As for epic, I simply heartily recommend reading the epics themselves, as many as you can from as many cultures as you can. For comparative literatures, a wonderful study comparing texts of all sorts across cultures and genres is David Damrosch’s What is World Literature?.

Anyway, until next time, thankyou again.

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