As the train on which she rides approaches its destination, Violet Evergarden sees a palatial school atop a lush hill, surrounded by a picturesque village. But the next shot quickly establishes dissonance between that beauty and the life experienced within, as a young lady with messy auburn hair coughs asthmatically into a gloomy room only dimly lit through a window overlooking the glorious view. She states her name and remarks, “This is the prison that I am living in,” juxtaposed against black gates closing behind Violet as she enters the grounds. Thus begins Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll, with the injured hero taking on perhaps her most challenging job yet—teaching societal manners to Isabella York, a woman whose need of such education exposes an impoverished past, and whose lack of courtesy was born out of the hurt from the experience of love and loss.
Funimation’s release of the first full-length Violet Evergarden film is an appetizer for Violet Evergarden The Movie, which will premiere in Japan in April. Based on a chapter from Violet Evergarden Gaiden, a light novel volume of side stories from the franchise, Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll is more like an extended episode than a film proper—which is not entirely a bad thing. The strong formula previously established continues to press hard on the emotions, while favorites from the cast are given cameos (and sometimes more) and new characters take the stage.
Functionally, the movie has two parts. The first half focuses on the job Violet takes to teach manners to Isabella, a woman related to the royal family, leading up to a debutante ball and eventual marriage. Violet, for the initiated, started the series as a woman of extremely poor habits. Raised as weapon of war, she enters civilian life without the necessary tools to adjust. Her choice of career as an auto memory doll, a woman who writes letters on behalf of clients who need assistance in conveying their words, thoughts, and emotions, is an odd choice at first for one who expresses so little feeling herself. She perseveres, however, and along the way learns about the nature of love, which is her endmost goal.
But by the time of this story, which takes place after the events of the anime series, Violet has grown to a place where she can teach Isabella, but the response from her client (who had this force upon her by her family) is tepid at best. While she’s lacking in knowledge, more importantly, Isabella does not want to learn and is experiencing both physical sickness (asthma it seems) and depression. The appearance of Violet, who is the picture of beauty and perfection, turns Isabella off further, though exposure of Violet’s mechanical hands begins to open the relationship between two women who may understand each other more than either would expect.
The story flows in typical Violet Evergarden fashion. I was especially reminded of the astronomy episode, itself referenced in the film, where Violet’s partner warms toward her and makes an intimate connection. In this movie, Isabella and Violet begin to act both as friends and sisters, with a slight yuri vibe also present, particularly expressed through dance and the admiration of the other girls (a common anime trope), bringing to mind the famed dancing of Utena and Anthy (Revolutionary Girl Utena), which the episode seems to be emulating. Yet the film keeps a sense of authenticity, as does the franchise as a whole. Although the hallmark of Violet Evergarden is a tear-inducing finale, it never—neither in Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll nor the show—feels disingenuous. Improbable situations, epic circumstances, and violent outpourings of the heart happen because that’s where the story takes us, and Isabella’s tale is engaging and heartfelt as any in the franchise.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the second half of the film, which focuses on Isabella’s past and future while bringing another character into the center of the account, isn’t as strong as the first. The new character is lovable and captivating on her own, but there hangs a feeling that her portion is window dressing, the true “side story” to Isabella’s tale. While part of the wonder of Violet Evergarden is its restrained storytelling—in its post-Edwardian setting, the slow build-up of each narrative, and Violet’s measured progression—which opens into a flood of emotion based on what she learns about the nature of love, the second half of Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll takes a side road that halfway fulfills the whole and halfway extends it too long. The usual triumph of emotion at the end is in place, but it’s muted from the long mini-episode preceding it. More jarring, perhaps, is that the second segment occurs four years into the future, and my mind couldn’t stop thinking this thought, even if it lacked real significance: Only one character seems to have made a major life change by this time, and she’s not even part of the main cast.
Though Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll may have been better served with a shorter run time, it’s still a wonderful work to absorb and feel. Violet Evergarden is one of anime’s most beautifully animated series, and the movie follows suit. Every scene is a work of art (the dance scenes are particularly gorgeous), carefully crafted and consciously directed. And the winding road the writers and director take is defensible, but more than that, it feels quite in line with the path of the franchise itself. Both lauded and criticized when the series originally aired, Violet Evergarden has since triumphed as a unique and creative work in anime. And this film, and the one to follow it, became involved in a more treacherous path, with both in various stages of production when a perpetrator set fire to Kyoto Animation’s studio, leading to the death of 36 employees and injuries to many others. Despite the tragedy, Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll premiered on its scheduled date, and now American audiences are blessed to be able to watch as well. And perhaps it’s that connection to tragedy, art, and determination that speaks most highly to the significance of this film, for if Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll is “as usual” from the animators and staff of Kyoto Animation, even as a side story, KyoAni’s “usual” is authentic, remarkable, and lovely. May we never take such work for granted. And may we never forget the creativity, love, and passion by those that craft such wonderful tales.
Violet Evergarden will play in select U.S. theaters from February 17th through 20th. Tickets are available for purchase now.