What’s it about? Violet has spent the past four years focused only on her duties as a child soldier. Waking up after the war is over, she has extensive injuries, no concept of her place in a world of peace, and no idea where her commanding officer has gone. Taken in by former Lt. Colonel Hodgins, who now runs a private post office, Violet becomes intrigued by the Auto Memory Doll Service, a department of people who transcribe customers’ thoughts into letters.
CONTENT WARNING: Scenes of wartime violence and graphic injury.
There’s an art to premiere episodes.
To my mind, a drama series premiere should ideally hint at at least one satisfying character arc, a fully constructed world, interesting relationship dynamics and an engaging structure—all without being either too vague or overly exposition-heavy. However, they must also tell a complete story within that single episode, as well as setting appropriate expectations for the series to come without giving the impression that episodes will be predictable. It’s a lot to balance!
There is a way to edit this episode into a self-contained short film. Not just exquisitely animated, it also uses cinematic techniques with skill.
A close-up of a character putting hands in pockets when hiding something.
A piece of paper, flying through the air to give a bird’s eye view of the city we’ll soon get to know.
One character’s voiceover illuminating the story of a completely different character.
This never feels artsy or try-hard; it’s just sophisticated storytelling, of a type we don’t often get in anime. You can tell this is the studio that brought us A Silent Voice.
The (emotionally hard-hitting) final five minutes introduce the story engine, making the approximate structure, character arc, and likely conflict of the coming episodes clear. For Violet, the journey ahead is to find a new role for herself in society, and learn to both recognise and assert her own will. This is promising… but also cause for concern.
Violet is underage, which in Japan only means she’s not yet twenty. When Hodgins collects her from the hospital, he offers her a choice of stuffed animals. She’s surrounded by men making decisions for her, withholding information, and giving her orders. We’re not clear on exactly how old she is, but she’s being treated like a child.
At this point, the paternalistic behaviour can be explained away. Violet won’t even eat or take breaks unless specifically told to do so. Her self-worth is tied to her sense of usefulness, which is itself tied to her ability to fight in combat—now an obsolete skill. Hodgins is well-intentioned and doing his best, but by no means qualified to care for someone like Violet. His fumbling here could be the foundation of his own character arc—or it could be a sign of uncomfortable dynamics to come.
However, I want to believe in Violet Evergarden, and it gives me very few reasons to doubt it. There’s one moment of “Isn’t it hilarious, she’s so oblivious to social norms she showed her underboob right in front of a guy!” It’s a tired joke, to say the least, although it’s redeemed slightly by giving us a glimpse of her battle scars, which could be important for the aforementioned guy to know. If it isn’t important… then it’s just an underboob joke, though at least one that evokes a yawn rather than irritation in me (as with anything, your mileage may vary).
Other than that, there’s one Auto Memory Doll who is particularly voluptuous with a particularly deep neckline… but that’s it. She’s got big breasts in low-cut clothes. Those breasts are never framed in isolation, don’t move independently of the rest of her body, and are not the subject of any discussion. The other people in her department all seem to be women, each with a distinct style involving less revealing clothing. If she’s designed that way for fanservice, it’s so far of a kind so subtle it didn’t bother me at all (though again, YMMV).
The biggest concern with Violet Evergarden is the potential for it all to go wrong. If the promise this episode shows is squandered or undermined, it’s set itself a very high bar from which to fall.
But the ingredients are all there. Kyoto Animation are experts at expressive, character-driven storytelling. The cast are all accomplished actors, each with iconic roles under their belts. A young woman’s journey from deference to agency, with her caretaker having to adjust his treatment of her accordingly, and workplace interactions between adult women in a fully fleshed-out, almost steampunk world… If Violet Evergarden maintains the standard set this episode, it’ll be a refreshing change from the usual landscape at least, and, at best, a strong contender for anime of the year.