What is the meaning of love? It’s a question we’ve seen addressed many times before. Perhaps this is why so many fans were underwhelmed by Violet Evergarden’s pilot, where Violet reveals that she can’t comprehend the words: “I love you.” Such a character arc teeters dangerously between being melodramatic and needlessly edgy. Violet’s “doll-like” manner seems only to amplify this — that is until you recognize one simple fact.

Violet Evergarden is not a story about love; it’s a study in trauma.

Every inch of the plot is directed toward Violet’s struggle not 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 was doomed to suffer the cruelest heartbreak of all.

Violet Evergarden: A Stand-Out Story

Since 2009, Kyoto Animation – the studio behind Free! and Full Metal Panic – has held an annual contest called the “Kyoto Animation Awards.” Creators can enter original novels and manga for the chance to be published in their label, “KA Esuma Bunko,” and even have the work adapted into an anime. Understandably, the contest is quite selective; some years, there isn’t a winner at all.

However, something unprecedented occurred in 2014: the fifth annual KyoAni Awards. For the first time in history, a piece took home the “Grand Prize,” winning in every category by an almost unanimous vote. It’s 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.”

Violet Evergarden is directed by Taichi Ishidate.
Violet Evergarden is directed by Taichi Ishidate.

Over the next few years, Ishidate assembled a team of animators and storyboard artists, putting Violet Evergarden, the anime, into motion.

A Tool Of War

The world of Violet Evergarden is not too different from our own — no magic, mecha, or mythical creatures, here! Telsis, the main continent, is comprised of old-fashioned towns and castles, separated intermittently by stretches of wilderness. While beautiful, Telsis is ultimately a land at war; it is here that our protagonist’s story truly begins.

Violet: A Young Orphan

A young orphan, Violet was enlisted into the Leidenschaftlich army, where her bizarre talent for combat was well put to use. She was nothing more than a weapon aimed at the enemy, sleeping in rags and weathering abuse from troops and superiors alike. However, all this changed, the day she met a certain man. A major by the name of Gilbert Bougainvillea. Violet was given to Gilbert as a gift to commemorate his recent promotion; despite being encouraged, he refused to treat Violet like a “tool.” He taught her to read and write and even went as far as to name her: “Violet,” after a flower they were admiring one day.

Violet Evergarden is directed by Taichi Ishidate.
Violet Evergarden is directed by Taichi Ishidate.

His kindness rekindled the sentiment Violet had stomped out long ago. His orders became her purpose; she put his safety above all else. It was behavior that horrified Gilbert, who wanted nothing more than for Violet to live a normal life. Any chance of that vanished when a mission went awry. Gilbert and Violet were caught in enemy fire, then trapped inside a base with explosives. Both of Violet’s arms were mangled by the blasts; Gilbert barely clung to life. After a heart-wrenching attempt to drag him to safety with her teeth, Violet could only listen as Gilbert struggled to speak. “You have to live and be free,” he said. “I mean it.” Then, tearfully: “I love you.”

Months later – where the anime begins – Violet came to in a hospital bed. Her arms had been replaced by metal prosthetics, and Gilbert’s military friend, Hodgins, was there to pick her up. “You come along with me, now,” he said. “Those are [Gilbert’s] direct orders. [He] was thinking all along about what your future would hold after the war.”

The Living Doll

“[Violet] didn’t have any facial expressions,” said fellow employee Erica at the start of the second episode. “Just like a doll. Just like a mechanical puppet for which this profession is named after.” The profession in question is the Auto Memory Doll, the ghost-writer of Violet’s world. Erica’s line here introduces more than that, however; we’re acquainted with two of the anime’s storytelling devices.

1. Violet As A Tool

It’s easy to hear Erica’s line and sense a level of cynicism. Normally, people who love their jobs don’t compare themselves to machines. However, like machines, Auto Memories Dolls are tools. They are cogs in the company apparatus; their skill (literacy) makes them serviceable. A Doll’s job is to write letters that perfectly mirror the intent of their clients — in simple terms, they really are “mechanical puppets.”

Given this description, Violet seems perfect for the job: she’s as cold and doll-like as they come. However, her first attempts at writing letters all end in disaster, reading, as Hodgins says, like a “report.” In episode two, Violet calls her typewriter an amazing “weapon.” It’s the same phrase her superiors had once used to refer to her. At that moment, Violet is symbolized in the typewriter: both tools incapable of processing emotion on their own.

Violet Evergarden is directed by Taichi Ishidate.
Violet Evergarden is directed by Taichi Ishidate.

As time passes, and Violet is able to channel the emotions of her clients, the letters the typewriter produces become emotive. Violet begins to transcend her own idea of what her role in the world can be — and yet, she never does lose her quirks. She was out of place on the battlefield: a doll-faced girl with a body count. She’s out of place at CH Postal Company: a machine with soldierly mannerisms. Truly, it’s a brilliant parallel. It’s also no accident.

2. Violet’s Calculated Strangeness

Violet’s strangeness is, at first, her defining characteristic. She manages to surprise every person she meets. After a few episodes, we get used to this — used to her. We’re no longer jarred by the appearance of her metal arms, nor the way she salutes left and right. Her aloof manner becomes our expectation; as Violet herself says to one of her clients: “That’s just how I look.”

Despite this, the anime seems keen to use these scenes again and again. Why? What new information is being communicated? If we’ve already reacted to Violet’s strangeness, why does the anime keep bringing it to our attention? The answer is simpler than you’d think. Remember those “spot the difference” games on the back of kids’ menus?

The anime, in a way, is employing this tactic. For example, each time Violet takes off her gloves or commits a faux pas, we are being shown something distinct. It’s not Violet’s behavior — her character development is too subtle. It is the people she interacts with in these introductory scenes. Since Violet’s strangeness is so specific, it’s difficult for us to relate to her; the Anime compensates by providing characters that are familiar. A grieving father, a frightened soldier, a girl wounded by love.

Violet Evergarden is directed by Taichi Ishidate.
Violet Evergarden is directed by Taichi Ishidate.

These are archetypes all of us know. This way, Violet’s odd personality can act as a foil, bringing out all the pretty details.

Violet Evergarden The Ghost-Writer

Violet Evergarden is a character-driven show. It’s designed this way as to not distract from the admittedly complex narrative. The world — already with Victorian futuristic elements — could easily have gone full-on steampunk; most likely, it would’ve garnered more attention that way. However, we’d have lost the nuance that makes this anime so life-like, as well as the characters that inhabit its world.

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 recognizable people, 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 child 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 girl feeling left behind by her dying mother.
  • 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.”

Violet Evergarden is directed by Taichi Ishidate.
Violet Evergarden is directed by Taichi Ishidate.

Episodes To Understand Violet

While this is perfectly true, the same can also be said of the opposite; it’s only through exploring these characters’ varying mental states that we can even begin to understand the Violet Puzzle.

  • In the princess’s episode, Violet observes a complex relationship and helps the couple reach a happy ending. We saw her smile genuinely for the first time.
  • In the orphan’s episode, Violet has loneliness explained to her. She asserts that her life is meaningless without Major Gilbert, which she later realizes isn’t true.
  • In the playwright’s episode, Violet sees first-hand what grief does to a person. She cries for the first time and begins to regret her actions in the war.
  • In the mother’s episode, Violet empathizes with the pain of watching a loved one die. She cried again, admitting she’d struggled to hold her tears back.
  • In the soldier’s episode, Violet ignores Hodgins’ orders and travels into enemy territory to visit the client: a fatally wounded soldier. She comforts him as he dies and delivers the letters he wrote to his family and the girl he loved. Remembering Gilbert, she is filled with guilt at not being able to save him.

Each character in this anime is crafted with one goal in mind: to change Violet in a tiny, almost invisible way. Through them, we watched her learn how to recognize everyday emotions — the development Gilbert had always wanted. This change, however, is a double-edged sword; with the return of emotion, came realization. In what became the series climax, Violet was crushed beneath the weight of crimes she hadn’t even thought to regret.

Violet Evergarden: Writing Trauma

In a quiet scene near the end of the pilot, Hodgins and Violet walk back from a diner. Hodgins asks about the last order she received from Gilbert. “‘You have to live and be free,’” Violet says. She seems more than a little uncertain. In response, Hodgins said 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 until episode nine, when Violet realized, for the first time, that Gilbert was presumed dead. The epiphany is utterly devastating, both for Violet and us. All that time spent with her clients allows her to identify her own blistering grief. Furthermore, we see her recognizing the hypocrisy of her life as a Doll; this, portrayed by a creepy dream sequence.

Dramatic Words Are Important

A blood-soaked Gilbert says: “With the same hands that took all those lives? You’re writing letters meant to connect people…?” Violet wakes up in her room, having fallen asleep on the floor — a return to her old military habits. In a fit of despair, she grips her neck in her hands, attempting to crush her own throat. It may seem dramatic, but you have to see it Violet’s way. She understands now that all the soldiers she massacred are stories with sad endings and letters that will never reach home. To make matters worse, she did it all for Major Gilbert, whom she still failed to protect.

Violet Evergarden is directed by Taichi Ishidate.
Violet Evergarden is directed by Taichi Ishidate.

“Do I have any right to be a Doll?” Violet later asked Hodgins. “Do I have any right to live?” Where before it was a picture of total indifference, Violet’s face was contorted with pain. It’s obvious how far she’s come, even if she doesn’t yet understand all the intricacies of human emotion. “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 Violet Evergarden

In mid-July of this year, Kyoto Animation suffered a horrifying attack. A man – claiming to have had his work plagiarized – set fire to the building, killing 35 employees and injuring 30 others. How is it that art led us to this loss? Why were 35 dreams so brutally snuffed out? These questions don’t have answers; there’s just no rational way to explain such evil — except that art, too, is a double-edged sword.

The victims may not be able to forget this tragedy. They may feel frightened, guilty, or sad forever. Our humanity is rigged this way, unfortunately; trauma rarely ever leaves us. Yet, through KyoAni’s Violet Evergarden, we are taught there is always a way forward. We sense it as we heal by Violet’s side, crying at the sight of her elusive tears. As we taste the blood and sweat that paints this picture of a girl disabled by her own trauma.

Resilience is a triumph. To pop up like spring — too vast to trample — too beautiful for anyone to ignore. To keep making despite it all, leaving the world a better and better place. We don’t have to be doctors, or engineers; soldiers in some pointless war. If Violet has taught us anything, it’s that being a storyteller is more than enough.