[Review] Violet Evergarden – Episode 1

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!

Violet Evergarden is a masterclass in premieres. I haven’t been so blown away by a first episode since Yuri!!! On ICE.

A close-up of a young woman, a bandage on her cheek, as she stares at her heavily bandaged hand.

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.

A wooden table with envelopes scattered haphazardly across it. The envelopes have stamps and addresses written on them. To the right corner, we can see a metal hand holding one letter.

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.

A young woman with her long hair pulled back in a ponytail holds a stuffed dog between her bandaged hands, studying it.

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).

A long shot of the front of a building at night, with soft lights glowing above the door and through the windows. The front of the house is decorated with leafy plants. Half-covered in shadow and standing in front of the house are a young woman in an oversized shirt and a man in a vest. The design of everything is turn-of-the-century European.

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.

 

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  • Roman Komarov

    I didn’t like it at all. I found the direction and the flow to be really slow and was a bit bored. And I didn’t like that the only thing our protagonist thinks about is The Man. And there are a lot of other men now, so I wonder if there would be anything of a substance for her to think about other then them.

    For now — for me — it looks like just another alternative old times anime, with male fantasies about mixing women and weapons, about those women thinking about those men and the setting that could explain and somehow excuse any plain-open sexism that could appear (hey, its good old times!).

    I came to this premiere without knowing anything about it and was not impressed at all (good animation is not something that keeps me watching stuff), for now I’ll give it a bit more time and after a few more episodes would decide if I’ll drop it. This season has enough good stuff for me to watch already, so right now I don’t see anything that would keep me attached to this one.

  • ImaniToo

    I loved it! It’s the only show this season to get me excited both for the animation (which practically demanded praise it was so unreal) and the story line, primarily for the last few minutes in which the Auto Memory Dolls were introduced. Using the letters as an avenue to explore other’s humanity and rediscover could be richly rewarding, if done right. I have a special affection for epistolary novels so I’m curious to see where the anime takes it.

  • alexandertsteward

    Ghost writers for illiterate adults? Well it’s an original premise as far as anime goes. I’ll grant you that.

  • Belaam

    Okay, I give up.
    Where are you watching this?

    The internet tells me it’s on Netflix, but Nexflix just gives me a blank stare when I ask about it.

    Not on Crunchyroll, Hidive, Amazon Prime. Heck, I even checked Hulu.

    And googling keeps telling me Netflix. Is this what madness feels like? 🙂

    • Caitlin

      It’s available week-to-week in the UK, Canada, and Australia. Amelia lives in the UK, so she can watch it.

      • Belaam

        Ah. Thank you. Yet another reason to move to one of those countries. 😉