“I want to know what ‘I love you’ means,” are the words spoken by Violet Evergarden in the first episode of Kyoto Animation’s newest project of the same name. The 13-episode series, which was released on Netflix for US audiences last Thursday, follows the story of Violet, a former child soldier living in the aftermath of a civil war, whose sole purpose is to carry out the final orders of her beloved Major Gilbert: To live and be free.
Since the announcement and advanced screening of its first three episodes at Anime Expo 2017, “Violet Evergarden” had its bar set extremely high. Not only were those first three episodes highly praised, but the series was being developed by the same studio that has created some of the most critically acclaimed and beloved anime over the years, such as “K-On!,” “Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu” and, most recently, “Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid.” In order for “Violet Evergarden” to succeed it needed to do more than simply meet the caliber of Kyoto Animation’s previous works; it would have to surpass them.
Thankfully, “Violet Evergarden” has done more than deliver on its promises and is one of Kyoto’s greatest projects to date.
Being a Kyoto Animation production, the first outlying trait of this series is its animation style. “Violet Evergarden” takes more than a few pages out of Kyoto’s earlier series, “Beyond the Boundary,” in its aesthetic, however it actually improves upon the main problem of that show’s animation. As beautifully animated as some of “Beyond the Boundary’”s sequences were, it only had one memorable and visually distinguishable character, Mirai. However, in “Violet Evergarden,” the character designs are much more unique and recognizable. A perfect example of this is Dietfried, who, despite being a copy-paste of the Major’s face and character model, still manages to come across as a foil to the Major’s kind and sympathetic demeanor through the minor changes made to his features.
What’s even more impressively animated than these characters is the world that they inhabit. The environments in “Violet Evergarden” are simply breathtaking. One of the show’s first opening sequences, where we follow a letter’s journey through the wind as it tours across the landscape, ranks among the most beautifully animated scenes I have ever seen in an episodic anime. The sea is sparkling, the mountains are surprisingly detailed and the fields are vibrant and lush; all of this combined with the vibrant color palette blows these visuals out of the water. Episode 8 has a lake scene which, without delving into spoilers, is by far the highpoint of the series’ animation.
But there’s more to “Violet Evergarden”’s animation than its pretty landscapes — it’s clear from the first episode that, much like our own world, there is a much uglier side that the series isn’t afraid to explore. Through the memories of Violet we catch glimpses of the countryside before the present, when what might have been a beautiful flower field is ravaged by war. Blood, sweat, grime, it’s all here; they all have a place in this world alongside the parasols and typewriters, and the series is all the better for it. Because what this does for the show and the characters in it is create a world where the viewer can get emotionally invested. This isn’t another show about cute anime characters doing cute anime things. These characters bleed, they feel pain, they live, and that’s what establishes this world so well — it’s alive and breathing.
During my time with “Violet Evergarden,” I was left teary-eyed on more than one occasion, and even broke into full-on sobbing once or twice (which the soundtrack definitely played a huge part in). By watching Violet find herself and discover her own interpretation of love, you can’t help but feel moved. Violet’s journey reminds us of what defines our own humanity and helps us realize the intricacies of the love we feel towards others. “Violet Evergarden”’s story resonates so strongly because it doesn’t romanticize this idea of love. Throughout the series we discover alongside our protagonist that love is sacrifice, that to love is to lose, that to feel love is to feel pain and, most importantly, that love is always worth it because, to quote the final words of episode 10, “Your loved ones will always watch over you.”
As mentioned earlier, the soundtrack is no slouch either, with over an hour and a half of original orchestration that complements the show’s early industrial era theme and never falls behind the sublime landscape shots or drowns out the quieter, sadder moments. Add to this some of the best anime opening and ending themes of this season, and “Violet Evergarden” has the making of a truly magnificent series.
It’s important to note that, being an anime, “Violet Evergarden” is entirely in Japanese. Yes, the English dub is available on Netflix. However, by opting out of the original Japanese version, you’re missing out on the work of some iconic Japanese voice actors, namely Takehito Koyasu, best known for voicing Dio Brando in “Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure” and Yui Ishikawa, the actress who voiced Mikasa Ackerman in “Attack on Titan.” Not to mention that a lot of the emotion and sincerity is lost when the story isn’t being told with the original cast. While I can’t speak for the dub as a whole, it’s passable but can’t compare to the original Japanese cast.
Verdict: “Violet Evergarden” is one of the best shows, animated or otherwise, of the past year. Whether you’re interested in gorgeous animation, a compelling storyline or simply a 13-episode series with a ton of charm, “Violet Evergarden” is definitely worth your time.