How To Cook a Series: Violet Evergarden

Everyone says good things about Violet Evergarden. I’m part of everyone. I thought it hit like a truck, beautiful and brutal, absolutely marvelous. Wonderful series.

So: How do you cook a Violet Evergarden?

Well, if your series is named after a girl named Violet Evergarden, maybe she needs to be a really good character. And she is. There are a couple reasons why.

One is that Violet is really Rei Ayanami.

No, really. Let’s stop to look at them: They are about the same age (Violet is 14 and Rei 15) and cute as bugs’ ears, plus they are both small and slight. They look childish. They both come from backgrounds where they essentially had no parents (Rei being a clone and Violet an orphan), and what they had that passed as parent figures were detached if not outright abusive. They both lack body modesty.

They are both emotionally stunted to the point that they see themselves as objects instead of people.

That’s the key, of course. That’s what makes Rei so fascinating, that she has to find out how to be a human being. By making Violet the same sort of character, she has to go through the same sort of journey.

The difference is that while Rei is a major character in EVA, Violet is the central character in Violet Evergarden. Rei’s growth is fascinating but a side-plot that contributes to Shinji’s growth; Violet’s development from tool to human being is the point of her show.

And that works. It works really well. The Ghost in the Shell is a question we keep coming back to in these discussions because they get at a fundamental philosophical question: What does it mean to be human? Is it having a human body (shell), or is it having a human soul (ghost).

So far most of the votes are in favor of ghost.

Now that Rei, er, I mean Violet is the central character, though, the series has to depend on her and her emotional growth. No Angels, no Shinji, no shenanigans at NERV. Being the central character, the audience should sympathize for her or empathize with her.

They manage that in several ways. One is they way they use her prosthetic arms. Every time she takes her gloves off, the people around her (and the audience) are reminded of the terrible price she paid to be a soldier and defend all of them. I think that resonates strongly with modern audiences given the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the people coming back terribly injured from them. Violet is situated in this time in a way Rei Ayanami can’t be.

violet-evergarden-netflix-poster-1187061-1280x0

Violet Evergarden and (one of) her prosthetic hands.

It also emphasizes the meat/machine distinction. It counterpoints her emotional lack, makes her seem somewhat like a robot.

The basic plot forces Violet to confront her weakness as a character. By making her an Auto Memory Doll, by having her try to understand what people are trying to say (as opposed to what they do say), her inability to comprehend human emotion is a constant source of tension in the series. The more powerful the emotions she is being asked to record, the greater her frustration in dealing with them and the greater our sense of sympathy for her. And as she faces powerful emotions, we can see her changing in ways that cause her anguish but which also propel her story forward.

I mean, in a rational world they wouldn’t do that. She’d be a perfect message carrier, and is a rotten Doll at the start. But if she was a carrier, she wouldn’t have to face the emotions she sees.

To keep things tricky the writers played a game with the meta-plot. Violet thinks that the meta-plot is The Quest: She is searching for Major Bougainvillea. But for most of the series we believe she is not going to find him; we believe him to be dead. So we watch her running forward, desperately, toward a goal she will not reach, and our hearts break for her.

To us, of course, the true meta-plot is Rebirth: Violet will develop from tool to person. We know it, but Violet doesn’t, not until the very end where she realizes she understands the words “I love you.”

That’s not an easy thing to do. To make all this work the audience has to love Violet, and while writers can maximize their chances of doing it, there are no guarantees. Still, they made her young, small, cute, earnest and hard-working; apart from her emotional flaws Violet is very Mary Sue. They gave her the prosthetic hands, which make her sympathetic. They allowed her to feel emotions she does not understand and cannot articulate, creating conflict within her. And they did a good job writing her development arc, allowing her to show inconsistent progress so she takes two steps forward and one back, creating tension.

The rest of it is window dressing. Violet’s world is enough like ours to make sense and enough different to make Violet make sense. It could have been set at about any industrial time, but the steampunk feel they chose allows the use of the beautiful typewriters and earth-toned design elements, plus Violet’s beautiful gowns; but it could have been in modern day or even some not-too-distant future. The themes they explore are universal.

Violet Evergarden, the series, is not as deep as Neon Genesis. Yes, in Violet they have their Rei, but EVA also has Shinji and Asuka. But Violet Evergarden the character is a marvel, and the heart of a well-constructed series.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

2 thoughts on “How To Cook a Series: Violet Evergarden

  1. I absolutely loved this series. One thing I’m gradually learning to appreciate more and more is the supporting cast beyond the main character. In this aspect, Violet Evergarden stands out unique for me personally.

    Typically when you’re talking about the supporting cast, you have a very specific set of characters in mind. And indeed, Violet Evergarden has a plethora of interesting support characters. But the unique thing for me is that my favorite side character is the world (or country) itself. Not only do we get to see Violet grow as she learns about emotions and how to express them properly, but we also get to see her tell the story of a nation in the midst of recovery. We bounce from person to person, each with their own unique story to tell. When you look at them as a whole, it tells the beautiful story of two nations trying to mend the rift not just between themselves, but also heal internally. It’s handled in such a way that it feels like a living support character on it’s own. I have yet to see another anime that does this as well as Violet Evergarden does.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And Violet herself sort of personifies the healing process as she grows into being fully human. Someone put a lot of effort into writing the series and they made it come out right.

      I wonder if that comes from Netflix’s involvement. If you’ve seen Shirobako you have a sense for how quickly the typical anime is pushed out. With a bigger purse behind the production, there’s more time to get it right. But, of course, they still have to get it right.

      Like

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